The Misuse of “Data” (the Word)

The misuse of the word “data” in education has been bothering me for a long time. People call all sorts of things “data” that aren’t data, with the intent, I suppose, of sounding scientific. At schools around the country, teachers working on “inquiry teams” examine “student data”–that is, their essays and other work. Why not just call them essays? My complaint goes beyond the trivial. When you call things “data” that aren’t data, you distort both the things themselves and the methodology used to examine them. So let’s keep “data” where it belongs.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the mass noun “data” as “Related items of (chiefly numerical) information considered collectively, typically obtained by scientific work and used for reference, analysis, or calculation.”

So, for instance, student test scores, ages, family income, ethnic background, and home languages could be considered data. The first three are numerical to begin with; the latter two can be sorted and counted.

Survey results are “data” but must be treated with caution, as seemingly like elements might not be similar at all. Seventy-two percent of students might indicate that they are “happy” with their school, but “happy” could mean many different things.

Certain things are not data but are routinely called data. These include lessons, conferences, student work, lesson plans, lesson observations, reflection pieces, and more. These must be rescued from the “data” denomination and called by their real names.

Why? Because when you are reading student essays, you may well be looking for general tendencies, but you are also treating each one on its own. You could calculate how many essays had clear thesis statements, but that wouldn’t give you a clue about what the thesis statements actually were. Even among clear ones, some have more substance and promise than others. You could count how many paragraphs began with topic sentences, but a paragraph need not always begin with a topic sentence. Much depends on what the student is trying to do. An essay has an interplay of ideas, details, and organizing principles; it cannot be broken into bits that then add up to the whole.

Why do some educators and many policymakers want to call everything data? I presume it’s because it makes the work sound more scientific. There are two problems with this. First, slapping scientific terms on things doesn’t make them scientific; it’s an insult to science and mathematics. Second, education is not and should not be entirely scientific. It draws amply on the humanities and builds and sustains culture.

Humanities are not fuzzy, flimsy, or fluffy. They have their own logic and standards; they are just as exacting as the sciences but in different ways. Discerning the remarkable in Robert Frost’s sonnet “Design” (thanks to Michele Kerr for reminding me of the poem) takes a good ear, an understanding of sonnets, and even some knowledge of plants and philosophy. But it takes more than that. You have to be well attuned to poetry’s shifts and structures. You may grasp something of the poem at a naive level, but as you read on and on, and come back to it over time, you grasp more. Yes, there is some systematic methodology in poetic analysis, but systematic methodology alone won’t get you far. You need to build yourself a realm and dwell in it.

That’s part of what education does: it builds realms. It is exacting, exhilarating work, and only some of it is data.

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2 Comments

  1. Lingguo Bu

     /  March 6, 2013

    Well said! I found this when I had similar thoughts. Along with data, there is a long list of such terms: evidence, research, experiment, hypothesis, sampling, confidence level, correlation, causality, understanding, meaningfulness …. They are most difficult for graduate students (esp. those from STEM) in education to “digest.” __ LGBU

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  1. Is It Possible to Care Only About Data? « Diana Senechal

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

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