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Data: a short story

There was a book on my desk that I had been meaning to read for a while. It had avoided being relegated to the bottom of a pile by virtue of having a title that intrigued me. In fact, if I am honest, the only reason I purchased it in the first place was because the words on the cover somehow resonated with a long, deep-seated resistance to the sterile world of scientific fact.

When I did finally read the book, however, I realized that the point of Lori Silverman’s Wake Me Up When the Data is Over (2006) was not exactly what I had expected. It was less a book about data (and how to survive it), more about the role and function of storytelling to drive results and effect positive organizational change.  Data was not even listed in the index.

Talking of storytelling, I’ve thought long and hard, throughout my career, about the importance of narrative for schools, often saying that those of us who work in that cluster of related offices we call Marketing, Admissions and Advancement are integrally linked by a common job description: telling the story of our school and helping others find their place in that story.  That said, when I actually came to read Silverman’s book, I found myself strangely at odds with the general direction of this collection of essays. 

In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that data and storytelling should never be reduced to a simple Either/Or – a junction where we are forced to leave behind all those complex numerical formulae, graphs and spreadsheets and run headlong into a sunset where every sentence begins ‘Once upon a time’. Surely, it is possible to understand data as a particular form or expression of the storytelling art; a form that also happens to be of increasing relevance to those of us who are charged with the task of capturing and passing on the truth about what learning looks like in our schools.

With only this hunch to guide me, I started to poke around and notice how data was being collected, used and passed on around me – at least in the External Relations Department of the International School of Brussels. Brian, my co-editor for the current book, was a colleague at the time and it was his practical insight and ever-thoughtful analysis of the situation that finally convinced me that we had some work to do.  We collected line after line of data, but no-one could say why we went to all the trouble. We produced beautiful graphs, but immediately filed them away for safe-keeping.  We measured where we were, but never stopped to consider where we actually wanted to be.  We mined the information, but shared it with no-one – so, not surprisingly, nothing ever changed.  Looking back, it was all ‘busy work’ that made everyone sleepy.

The turning point was the moment the conversation began. As a team, we simply set time aside and started talking to one another.  We discussed a set of nagging questions that just wouldn’t go away: How do we get a snapshot of the school on one page? How big do we actually want this school to be? How do we really gauge the health of our organization? With a transient international community, how do we preserve our institutional memory? How do we efficiently report to the Board? How do we make best use of management meetings? How do we assess the progress of our strategic plans and projects? What are the key drivers that define great schools? How do we find simplicity in all this complexity?

Every road led us back to the increasing role and importance of data.

To be continued.


An extract from the upcoming title, Effective Data Management in Schools (John Catt Educational Ltd), Brian Bedrick and David Willows, Ed. (Published April 2012). 

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