Overcoming our Metric Obsessed World with Stories

I’ve been yacking about storytelling for a long time on my blog. Partly from a personal passion and love, partly because new technologies have allowed us to tell stories differently and partly because storytelling is at the core of who we are. But beyond all these reasons it’s becoming more and more apparent that we are living in a time where storytelling is now more than ever an essential skill to combat the obsessive world of metric based living.

“In this world in which we are so centered on metrics, those things that are not measured get left off the agenda,” he said. “You need a metric to fight a metric.”Technology brings ever more metrics. The strange thing is that nothing in them prevents us from using other lenses, too. But something in the culture now makes us bow before data and suspend disbelief. Sometimes metrics blind us to what we might with fewer metrics have seen.

I’ve been fortunate to work in an environment where metrics and hard data have only been a small portion of determining value in education. I’ve operated in work places where trust was the core value which gave me and others the ability to make decisions and target efforts that while guided by some structure, curriculum or shared goals recognized our own instincts and judgements. This is changing and while it’s not all bad, in the absence of trust, data becomes the most important part of the decision making. Lack of trust = just show me the numbers.

Chris Lehmann has often said, “Good assessment isn’t cheap”. Triangulation of evidence, combined with story represents better attempts at quality assessment. We’re still pretty bad at triangulation so we opt for single sources of evidence and try to distill judgement inside a narrow rating scale.

Telling Stories to Administrators

Stories can complicate the process. What may have been a clear cut decision to cut staffing purely on numbers, can be seen very differently because a well told story suggests that the numbers might not be enough. Stories focus on emotion and emotion matters. If you’re a parent you know exactly what I mean. Your kids can be described with metrics in any kind of a meaningful way.

What is becoming clear to me is that our jobs as educators and parents must include the ability to tell a story. We need to have a variety of ways of telling that story for different audience and in different context but we simply can’t sit back and allow metrics to take over our decision making.

… something in the culture now makes us bow before data and suspend disbelief. Sometimes metrics blind us to what we might with fewer metrics have seen.

I’m not denying the need for accountability, data and all that jazz. It has its place. But those who can tell stories in powerful, meaningful, succinct ways are going to fair far better than those who will simply allow metrics to tell their story for them. Garr Reynolds on Dan Pink:

“What begins to matter more [than mere data] is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact.” Cognitive scientist Mark Turner calls storytelling “Narrative imagining,” something that is a key instrument of thought. We are wired to tell and to receive stories. “Most of our experiences, our knowledge and our thinking is organized as stories,” Turner says.

I’m wondering if you’re telling these stories, how you’re telling them and where you’re telling them. I’m not suggesting it’s a singular answer to making great decisions but certainly something that needs more emphasis. As classroom teachers, administrators and leaders, find a place where you can share you stories regularly. Practice telling them in different ways, using different mediums.  I think it’s critical.

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  • To quote myself, “it’s all narrative.”

    All those assessments and measurements, no matter how triangulated, or whatever, are narratives based in human assumptions and human preferences which may or may not have any actual “truth” behind them.

    After all: define “progress,” or explain why something is represented as being “grade level,” or explain “proficient,” or even “correct” and “incorrect,” and what you will find, beneath all of these, are a mass of random cultural decisions which are based in nothing more than whim.

    As Danish novelist Peter Høeg says, “When you assess something, you are forced to assume that a linear scale of values can be applied to it. Otherwise no assessment is possible. Every person who says of something that it is good or bad or a bit better than yesterday is declaring that a points system exists; that you can, in a reasonably clear and obvious fashion, set some sort of a number against an achievement.”[see http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2009/08/social-reproduction.html]

    Our other option, our human option, is to tell the story. The story will both admit to the assumptions and whims and yet, in doing so, will come much closer to actually describing what is going on. And if we can’t describe, if we cannot tell the story of what is happening with our students without reducing the complexities of learning down to a number or a letter, we are probably not good enough at communication to be called “educators.”
    .-= Ira Socol´s last blog ..everything we do… =-.

  • Alan Stange

    I had this notion when I was at grad school about seventeen years ago that research was shifting from quantitative to qualitative research. I became fascinated with the possibilities of a phenomenological approach that focused on the lived experiences of young people learning. I was clearly wrong. Perhaps that explains why my thesis proposal collapsed. I could not wrap my head around metrics.

    • I had the same notion. My frustration comes as organizations get larger, the time and interest in the story diminishes. Relationships matter less. I think the challenge we face is working at telling our stories more clearly and more loudly. It’s one reason I think every teacher should have a blog and be sharing the story of learning in their classrooms, same with schools and same with school divisions. It’s hard to “measure” the impact this has but I believe, over time, it’s hard to deny the value of teachers that are constantly telling stories of learning. I’m optimistic in the power of story, I just don’t think enough people are telling them or they’re aren’t telling them very well.

    • Grant Taylor

      Isn’t “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” an attempt (among other things) to define Quality? Must re-read…

      Anyway, one of the issues I see with metrics in education is that the number of potential variables are so large that it is difficult to isolate causation. I guess that huge sample numbers can help identify trends, but trying to track individual cause-effect relationships in a classroom affected by a continuously changing society and itself in continual flux is, if nothing else, an increased challenge to teachers often feeling overwhelmed already.

      Not sure this is exactly a “reply” to the previous post, but my brain sees a connection. 🙂

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