When the Numbers Lie, You Must Ask Why

I hate grades. I’d abolish them. They don’t represent student abilities or work. I’d assign students a paragraph, a feedback session, or a mentoring relationship with benchmarks and goals–something that would model success and give them the next steps rather than make them ask, “What did I get?”

But I’m not that important, I don’t make the rules. I understand that life’s all about data and without data many people would be without jobs.

Just think of the guy who says, “Every Monday following a full moon, Tampa Bay scores three touchdowns in the third quarter.” What would I do without that information? If I didn’t have the ability to watch the Dow Jones go up and down instantaneously and know I was even more broke than ten minutes ago, I’d be at a complete loss.

America thrives on its charts and graphs. I teach students the written word carries agenda, perspective, hidden propaganda, and it’s up to them to decode that information and decide what to do with it. Things are not “truth” just because they’re in writing. Things are “truth” once we’ve applied our experience to the matter and decided what actions to take or what thoughts to have.

But for some reason, the minute we throw a number into the mix, all bets are off. It’s like people turn off their brains or something, “Nine of of ten people surveyed believe the commentator the minute he states a number.” I’m not sure if that’s true. I just made that up. Bet you believed it, though.

It’s why I don’t trust the numbers and scores.

When I teach research I ask a question, “If you want to learn about a subject, what do you do?” Students say I should google it, read a book, or do something that involves watching, reading, or listening to a source.

“If I want to learn about Abraham Lincoln, I don’t read one book. I read six or seven. Just to start.” Eyes pop open. “Then, I google each author and find his or her bio. What’s the background? When was the book written? What other books did they write and what historical school did they study under? Only then can I truly make an informed decision myself by analyzing all the information I’ve stuffed into my brain not only about what these people wrote but why they wrote what they did.”

“The skills of a researcher,” I tell them, “Involve all five senses. Input the information, synthesize it, then make the call.” This is the part they’re not comfortable with, making the call. When I press them to make a decision based on the facts, and tell them their decision is the one we’ll go with, they’re uncomfortable.

When I do this, they get even more uncomfortable. “Everyone gets 100%. Being right isn’t important. The exercise in thinking is what’s right.”

One student called me Oprah. “You get 100! You get 100! Look under your seat–you get 100!” I like that. I’m going to let that stick.

I was teaching about statistical outliers using a world religion survey. At the time of the survey a few years back 22% of the world was Muslim and 33% Christian. We surveyed the room. The entire room was Christian or secular with a Christian background.

“Gee, is that a problem? How many people, if the numbers are right, should be Muslim?”

Someone ran the math. One person calculated, one person estimated.

“4.5.” “5.”

“What do we do?” Blank stares.

“Change the numbers.”

“Okay, so you want me to erase the world-wide statistics and lie?…It’s okay, politicians lie all the time. We should?” Grumbles. More blank stares.

“Change the class.”

“So I should get a guest imam to convert 4.5 of you. Four people and a short kid, or four people and one near-conversion?” Blank stares.

“What should we do?”

One genius responded. “Look at a bigger area?”

“Yes! Widen the sample. Ask why. Genius! Rhode Island has a heavily Catholic population. It’s not a fair sample. ” I explained we must be on the lookout for numbers and patterns everywhere, and question them the same way we’d question words.  “When the numbers lie, you must ask why.”

That’s what I teach my kids. Numbers spin things just like words. Sometimes people are outright lying to us. Sometimes there’s just a sample that doesn’t represent the whole. Maybe we simply need more information.

Numbers have as much ability to mislead as the written word. I’d never let anyone do quality research by examining one printed source. Numbers are no different. Today, that’s even more critical, because much of where we get our info first is live-feed, like in-person reporting via Twitter streams where people are in the middle of the action but not trained as objective reporters or researchers.

When I give kids permission to think, to analyze, and tell them there is no wrong answer, only improvements in theories based on more facts, interpretation, and research, something magic happens. We go to a whole new level. Kids are used to being graded on rote material. Teaching them to analyze effectively and have the confidence to stand up for their results gives them the power to conquer the universe.

Now, what’s all this mean for teachers? For district leaders?

The same principles apply. The numbers aren’t the gospel. Every minute we spend with a child starts to paint the whole picture. That’s the real child. Not the scores.

Data in isolation means nothing–context is everything. When I get a bunch of numbers and scores, it gives me a one-source opinion. Is this a statistical anomaly for this kid? Was this test on a good day, a bad day, is he a school-hater with a passion for other things? Will those other things make him a rising star?

I don’t like to look at the data, stats, and tests right away. A student’s mind is so much bigger than that. You’re not “the low group” or “the special ed kid” to me. Nobody’s boss cares about any of that.

No researcher worth his or her salt would never paint a picture using only one source. It mystifies me how students get classified, labeled, tracked, or held back by scores alone. And how very, very intelligent people fail to ask “Why.”

My students learn this skill. “When the numbers lie, you must ask why.”  I’m looking forward to the time district and national policy does as well. Use the numbers, but not for fear–to learn and improve, not to intimidate.

Congratulations to ConversationEd for starting this conversation.

Dawn Casey-Rowe is an educator in Rhode Island who is heavily involved with tech startups focused on educational resources.  She is a regular contributor to ConversationED, Edudemic and TeachThought.  Her blog is cafecasey.com.

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