Back to School – Time to relearn the age old data lessons

By Daragh O Brien
August 28, 2020
12min read
four brown desks inside room

In Ireland, and around the world, this is the time of year when children return to the classroom. Whether it is the nervous newbie entering primary education for the first time or the know-it-all young adult starting university, it’s historically been a time of change, uncertainty, and adventure.

And into that mix this year we have to add the challenge of a global pandemic and the readjustment of the old logic of how the world works to accommodate controls and precautions to protect students and staff alike. Within that, we are dealing with uncertainty. Uncertainty driven by both a lack of information on one hand and an over-abundance of information on the other. The challenge is knowing what information can be relied on and trusted, particularly as scientists around the world learn more about Covid-19 and how it operates.

Strap In, we’re experiencing turbulence

We are indeed living in a time of turbulence that is impacting not just schools but businesses and economies. In that context there is a desire to get “back to normal”, to the relative comfort zone of familiar patterns and habits. But, as Peter Drucker tells us, the greatest danger in times of turbulence is to act with yesterday’s logic. And yesterday’s logic is often one of blind faith in the all-knowing algorithm and a conflation of “information” with “technology”. We need to rework that logic and develop a better, deeper, understanding of data and information. In particular, we need to develop understanding of its potential for use, misuse, and abuse. We need to embrace the need to develop critical data thinking skills in information consumers of all kinds so that they can identify when data is being presented in a manipulated or selective way.

Whether it is the UK’s A-Level controversy, where an algorithm was used to regrade student against the curve and required certain grades to be awarded based on a rounding mechanism that skewed results towards the lower end of the scale, or the sound-bite friendly attempts to compare Covid statistics from different countries without recognising the health warning that they are often measured and calculated differently making direct comparisons unsound, the role of data in critical decision making processes with significant impacts on people’s lives has been laid bare.

Of course, Covid is just the latest round of challenges we face where data. Good data management skills, and sound data literacy competencies to understand and apply data, can help. My friend and colleague Len Silverston has written about this recently. And the wave of “truthiness” in online misinformation continues to perpetuate my throw-away gag as a high school debater…

Studies have shown that people will wholeheartedly believe any statistic quoted that has a percentage. Up to 94.3% of studies show that 83.72% of respondents feel this way.

Back to School we go

So, we all need to go back to data school. We all need to learn how to think about and understand data as a “thing”, not just get upskilled in how to produce shiny graphics and visualisations. Without an understanding of data, these can ultimately be bullshit or hide the truth. Data is front-and-centre in the toolkit we have to navigate turbulence and begin to apply a new logic to our world. I’ve written about this previously, and it applies to organisations of all sizes.

I was heartened to hear of one school in Ireland taking time over the first two weeks of term to focus on digital skills for their students. This is to let them more reliably switch to remote learning in the event of a lockdown or closure of schools again. I hope that this focus on preparing students for a data-driven life will extend to showing them how “dry” topics like statistics are actually really important to navigating a information-heavy world. Being able to call bullshit on numbers and data when they are manipulated is a key life skill in the Information Age (pie charts are evil).

But this needs to carry over into the world outside the classroom. We all need to go back to school and start asking critical questions of data and the ability of our organisations to manage it effectively. The old logic of poor quality data being “the cost of doing business” needs to end and be replaced with a clear recognition that data is a core foundation of value in our organisations and in society.

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