Thursday, December 19, 2013

Value in the Numbers?

     Numbers are funny things. On one level they are fairly easy to define as discrete units, usually used to measure something or to indicate an amount. However, like words, they are simply a human invention, albeit an amazing one, that is part of our ongoing quest to capture and somehow make concrete and tangible oft-elusive concepts. A number is simply a symbol. They're inherently limited and limiting. Intellectually, I grasp this notion rather easily, and it's why I thoroughly enjoyed courses I've taught on linguistics and semiotics.As any regular readers know, I've used this understanding and epistemological stance in making my arguments against relying too heavily on standardized testing, school rankings, and most other educational metrics.
     But lately I've been experiencing first-hand the power of numbers. In particular, I've been reminded of how a number can stir feelings of affirmation or rejection. On some level this is rather obvious. We take comfort in acceptance to a college with high rankings; we decide where to eat or what movie to see based on number of stars. Lately--despite my knowing better--I've become a bit of a victim of numbers on social media.
     As my number of Twitter followers grows or my blog reaches a certain milestone of views, I find myself growing excited, particularly as both have gained some momentum.* And it builds: reach 40,000 views on the blog, and begin wondering when you might hit 50,000. After gaining the first 100 followers, I dared to dream of 200. Similarly, I experience a slight twinge when I lose a follower or a post doesn't gain many views. All this happens even though, when I did some Twitter workshops for employees, I tell them not to get caught up on numbers, that quality matters much more than quantity.
     Besides pointing out to me that I'm just as vulnerable to such experiences as anyone else and I need to jump off the high horse I sometimes mount, this experience has reminded me of one point and added depth to another, both related to learning.
     Three paragraphs back I wrote that "despite my knowing better" I fall into this trap. The key word is knowing. Emotions so easily can override the logical process of anything. It's why the best schools have to truly safe spaces. I don't mean that in the context of the tragic shootings of the past fifteen years. I mean psycho-social safety. Kids have to feel safe to be respected as they are, to take risks of all sorts, to feel confident in the growth process and all the messiness that implies.
     The numbers can harm that. I'm talking about grades. In what I described above, the number of followers and views becomes somewhat analogous to a grade. Someone stopped following me? What did I do wrong? I must have failed Tweeting! Teachers tell kids not to focus on the grade but on the feedback. There may be a degree of futility in such exhortations. The number, in its finality and in its symbolism, may simply have too much power. (A letter grade is essentially the same thing in different form.) To compare it to language, connotation can have more impact than denotation. When it comes to grading, a number really does capture a level of affirmation or rejection. And while it's directed at the work being evaluated, naturally it becomes highly personal. Meanwhile, some teachers use the grades as the carrot-and-stick. Then someone understandably can become reluctant to take risks, at least the sort which spur the greatest growth.
     I imagine that eliminating grades solves some, maybe even much, of the problem. Yet I think we're dealing with something intrinsically human--the deep need each of us has to feel valued...and perhaps to feel we are adding value. I hope we never try to reduce either of those to mere numbers.
*Humorous reality check: when I shared my excitement and some number with my teen daughter, she said, "That's it? Dad, I thought you were talking about a million."

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