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.

Student Involved Assessment

The concept of student involved assessment is hard to deny as a powerful learning practice. Students taking care of their own learning and being able to use meta-cognition to dissect understanding and progress and seek ideas and support to learn more. The work of Rick Stiggins and others provides extensive research into this practice as the most important component leading to student achievement.

Whether or not you’ve done any study of this concept, this video does more than about anything I’ve seen recently to support this notion. 

Here’s why I think this is one of the best examples of students owning their learning and assessment.

First, the young boy demonstrates what he already knows. Using a simple video camera he models and speaks to his current level of understanding. Second, he identifies what he doesn’t know, not simply by saying he doesn’t know but by offering some suggestions about what might be wrong but questioning his methodology. And here’s where it gets interesting. Instead of him floundering around with the people in his local vicinity who may not be able to help him he reaches out. Reading the comments below the video you’ll see at this writing 10 comments that are very likely going to allow him to learn more. Lest you think this is some obscure example, the first time I viewed this there were only just over 100 views. That’s a pittance in youtube terms. Anyone can get 100 views but that’s all it took for learning to happen. (Note: Since this video was posted, the comments have been disabled, but at the time this was a valuable technique, today I would likely not recommend Youtube as a space to gather this type of feedback)

I do know that a teacher helped him learn this. In fact, that teacher was his mother. It’s not simply a matter of posting a video and awaiting responses, this video was tagged and categorized very well. Without this understanding, it’s unlikely that he would get 10 quality answers. It’s not at all surprising to me that people are willing to share their knowledge and help him out. I experience that every day as part of living in a connected way via social networks.

This represents some of the best ways to help classroom teachers and students understand the power and value of technology. I realize this boy never thought much about what he was doing with technology beyond helping him figure out how to start a fire. As a teacher, it would be very easy to assess his understanding but more importantly, HE COULD assess his understanding and create his own path to learn more. Now, what if all kids did this?

One year later, nothing has changed

Did you ever start telling a story and part way through you are trying to remember if you've told the story before?  I feel that way a lot when I blog and wonder if maybe it's a sign to shut up but I'll likely just repeat the story. But I digress…

Yesterday's blog post was eerily similar to the one I wrote about the same conference a year earlier. Even the title was the same. I'm starting to steal from myself.  After a conversation with a disgruntled principal I realized I had had the same thought a year earlier. I still basically feel the same way.

If they’re just achieving better grades, better study habits and better test taking skills, it doesn’t seem all that important to me.  Now I realize that none of these speakers would say that’s what this does and they even reference rigorous standards and I think I heard the term 21st century learning (whatever that really is), I’m still fearful that the zeal to improve scores and test results leads to the perpetuation of school as we knew it and still know it.  The strategies of PLC’s and assessment, if not combined with a real understanding of what kids ought to be doing in school leave use just doing a better job of the schools of the 1950’s.

There are around 800 leaders from around the province and again, I just think the big picture of student engagement in authentic, relevant learning isn't being emphasized.  Every example of effective assessment seems to focus on Math. Why? Is it because Math is linear and easily reduced to a numerical value of learning?  Ken Robinson videos keep playing in my mind.  Our province's best work was released in 1989 called Common Essential Learnings or CELs. These things matter.  I'm sure I'm just in one of those moods but I just think we have to talk about what matters most. As I say above (is it bad when you start to quote yourself?), are we just getting better at what we've been doing for the past 50 years?  

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