For advocates, the collecting, analyzing, storing, and communicating of massive amounts of data about schools, teachers, and students is important to monitor progress and see where improvements can be made. This information is known as “big data”, Big data represents data characterized by such a high volume, velocity, and variety to require specific technology and analytical methods for its transformation into value. Big data has been in the news recently with Cambridge Analytica, a U.K.-based political data analytics firm, illicitly procured the data of 50 million Facebook users, without their knowledge or consent and then enlisted that to inform voter-targeting strategies for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. That was possible because of Facebook’s then relatively lax privacy protocols.
Just as with the Facebook example, despite the access to large amounts of data, how we use the data is the critical point. There are clear limits on how Big data has been used in reforming education. In fact, policymakers often forget that Big data, at best, only reveals correlations between variables in education, not causality. As any high school student of statistics will tell you, correlation does not imply causation.
“Seemingly insignificant behavioral observations containing very specific attributes pointing towards an unmet customer need. Small data is the foundation for breakthrough ideas or completely new ways to turnaround brands.” and “What is data without humanity?”
In education, this is what’s going on behind classroom doors and across the school. This is where Small data such as observations of students’ behavior and social interactions, and the assessment of their emotional well-being can help. These Small data points are often hidden in schools. Understanding this these Small human interactions must become a priority for improving education.
There are other clues hidden behind classroom doors that can have a Big impact. One of the most important factors that contribute to successful classrooms is high-quality teacher-student relationships. In a 2003 meta-analysis of more than 100 studies, Robert J. Marzano and Jana S. Marzano found that:
“on average, teachers who had high-quality relationships with their students had 31 percent fewer discipline problems, rule violations, and related problems over a year’s time than did teachers who did not have high-quality relationships with their students.”
Clearly, we need to be paying attention to more than big data in the classroom. This means that tracking and managing small data is no longer simply a “nice-to-have” capability; it is a “must-have” to create a classroom culture and a school culture that is truly conducive to learning.
There is no one right way to gather small data in education. However, it is important to realize the limitations of the current Big data-driven policies and practices. Too strong reliance on externally collected data may be misleading in policy-making.
Easing the process of data collection and a using a consistent system of recognizing both positive and negative student behavior with clear guidelines can help establish better balance and uniformity across Small data. Schools need to acknowledge and understand the important role that Small data can play in student learning and communicate this to everyone involved in education. So what does Small data look like in practice?
The classroom would become more student-focused and less assessment driven as students become involved in critiquing and reflecting on their own learning. As the quote often misattributed to Albert Einstein says,
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
There are many ways students can show learning in schools, so there is no one way of measuring student achievement that will reveal success. Students’ voices about their own growth may be those tiny clues that can uncover important trends in improving learning.