May 13, 2010

Overcoming our Metric Obsessed World with Stories

This post was last updated on September 5th, 2011 at 11:03 am

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.