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‘In the era of big data, politicians need to put their trust in teachers, not tests’
December 8, 2016 News big data Educations


The era of ‘big data’ means that the complexities of life in the classroom are being overlooked, says this leading educator and author.

Politicians need to put greater trust in teachers to do what is best for students, instead of relying on standardized tests to judge school performance, according to a leading educator and author.

Too much emphasis is put on so-called ‘big data’, which fails to recognise the complexity of teaching, said Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland.

Testing regimes, including the influential Program for International Student Assessment (Pisa), allow politicians to draw simple conclusions that can lead to the wrong decisions being made about how to improve schools.

Instead of focusing on big data, the experience of teachers in analysing their students needs to be given greater credence, Mr Salhberg said.

“Trust is perhaps the most needed single ingredient missing in many education systems today. Politicians don’t trust educators. Ministers can’t rely on school principals. And, as a consequence, there is a lack of trust in teachers who, in turn, can’t trust students,” he said.

“Experience suggests that trust in people and in institutions can only be built by genuine deeds that give them more responsibility and agency.”

Drawing on his experience in Finland, Mr Sahlberg said that trust flourishes when schools are allowed to design their own curriculum and evaluate the effectiveness of their own work and control their own budgets.

“When schools have real ownership and responsibility for small data, I believe professionalism in schools will be enhanced. That is one of the conditions before trust in our teachers will start to grow,” he said.

Making better use of small data would include using teachers’ and students’ “observations, assessments and reflections” of the teaching and learning processes in classrooms, he added.

The issue of standardized testing and the ways that school performance is judged are major points of debate in American schools.

The country failed to improve its standing in the international Pisa rankings released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development this week, but Mr Sahlberg cast some doubt on the lessons that can be learned from the results.

“The OECD data, including those from Pisa, is used by policy-makers to decide the directions in their own education systems based on what seems to have worked in other countries. Again, big data analysis alone without small data will probably lead to unintended outcomes in practice,” he said.

Standardized tests have become one of the main ways for collecting ‘big data’, he added.

“Teachers spend more time analyzing these data and trying to make sense of what the results mean in their own work with students. I am not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing. But if teachers are steered by external data from standardized knowledge tests and inspection reports, it undermines the complexities of teaching and learning in schools,” said Mr Sahlberg.

The use of big data is set to grow with advances in technology, he added, allowing schools to analyze students’ movements in class, eye movements while on task and interaction with others.

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