Sunday, November 21, 2010

Education Science and Culture of Data Use

I've been working on several initiatives that promise to improve the way education agencies use data to drive decisions and improve student outcomes. At a recent event on the topic with some of the brightest minds in the country the topic of organizational culture came up. The idea was that even with the best information systems, best training, and highest level of data quality, the impact of data to drive decisions and actions depends to a great extent on establishing a “culture of data use”.

Alex Horniman, professor at UVA’s Darden School of Business defines organizational culture as “shared habits of believing”, and I would add “of behaving”. In institutions like education there is a great mass of cultural inertia, a strong resistance to change. This is the same kind of inertia that prevents an individual from following through with a New Year’s resolution, but in this Culture is multiplied by the tens of millions of education stakeholders and years of “shared habits of believing”. The good news is that applying the right forces to a culture, like applying a force to an object the physical world, can get the culture, or object, to move. One of those forces for education can be data, or information to the right people at the right time. And here is a great need and opportunity, to better understand not only how to use information to be able to make better decisions in education, but to understand what it will take for people within the education culture to adopt new habits of believing and behaving based on the adopt changes in practice that improve the profession and student outcomes.

There are some untested assumptions about the link between good information and good decisions in education. In the book “Predictably Irrational” author Dan Ariely describes experiments by which he and his behavioral economics colleagues have proven that people will consistently respond to good information with the bad decisions and irrational behavior, based not necessarily on the quality of the information, but on any number of contextual factors. When the contextual factors were changed the test subjects would predictably make different decisions.

Moving to a culture of data use in education may require the same kind of scientific research about the context of information needed to drive decisions and behaviors that will optimize student learning. This context includes what information is presented when, how the information is presented, how it is presented relative to other information, what presentation characteristics result in positive behaviors and what information/presentation/context results in negative behaviors, etc. There are a complex set of factors apart from the data itself that impact a person's willingness to trust and take the best actions based on the data. It is easy for a person with the very best intentions and good data to make less than optimal decisions. I don't claim to be a behavioral scientist, but it seems to me that the kind of experiments needed to better understand the link between good information and good decisions in education can be done in relatively short cycles compared to other kinds of research.

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