Thursday, May 10, 2012

Curse of the Single Data Point

                Last night I almost fell victim to the Curse of the Single Data Point. It can strike any of us at any time, and we must remain ever vigilant, fighting the natural human impulse to allow our emotions to override our reason.
                My sixth-grade son had a homework assignment about which he felt quite dismayed. I’m not going to name the class or teacher or even explain the assignment; I have too much respect for fellow educators to do that, particularly ones who are former colleagues. He felt the assignment was unreasonable, overly tedious, and pointless. As he explained the assignment to me, particularly the restrictions on how to complete it, I began to feel the same frustration. It didn’t help that when I tried to figure it out on my own, I couldn’t do it. I grew angry, and I was thinking about what to say in an e-mail or phone call to the teacher. Thankfully I’d kept these feelings under cover.
                Then I caught myself and calmed down. To accomplish that, I had to switch from parent mode to educator mode. Did my son have all his information correct about how to complete the task? How did the assignment fit into the context of the class? What did it tie to and build on? Was the teacher asking the students to make some connections and thus push their analytical thinking? I still have many questions and doubts about the assignment. But I know something else: essentially I needed more information than the single data point of my child.
                I’m disappointed in myself because I should know better, having spent so many years in the classroom. Plus I am in the middle of reading The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity, about the special and complicated relationship between sitting and ex-U.S. presidents. A constant theme is how, whatever their differences, they have great respect for each other based on the incredible complexity of the job and how only those who have done it can even begin to comprehend it. Yet we generally are tremendously quick to judge our presidents, sometimes based on a limited understanding of a single pet issue.
                I’m not equating a teacher’s work to that of a U.S. president except in one sense: the complexity. Think about what a teacher is striving to accomplish in a class. I mean, really think about it. Consider how many interactions and decisions make up the course of a teacher’s day; ponder the amount of work that goes into the entire process; imagine trying to meet the assorted needs of so many people at once.
                That’s why I’m also disappointed in myself, because I know all about those things. And here I am having those feelings when this is Teacher Appreciation Week. I forgive myself, because the reaction is human. Still, I feel I should do a bit of penance. I still need to contact that teacher, but not about one assignment. I want to say thanks for being a teacher and doing so much for my Single Data Point.

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