Part 3: Culture eats strategy for breakfast - and determines how you consume information

by Loic Menzies, 10 June 2022
Culture eats strategy for breakfast

I concluded my last blog by suggesting that “it’s when we misjudge the degree of complexity involved in questions relating to educational equity that things go wrong.” So how can we ensure we improve the judgements we reach? Part of the answer is that education practitioners need to become informed consumers of information.

Becoming an informed consumer of information might be helped by following a good policy or data-strategy, but practitioners who attended our recent roundtable and webinar thought there was more to it than this. They argued that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and that, regardless of written policies, it’s rare to see environments where people feel safe enough to acknowledge ambiguities in data and to feel comfortable with nuance. Ben, for example, found that partners in his community-based early-years partnership were initially wary of talking honestly about how their work was going. He recalls that partners initially used data to “prove how good they were” rather than to open-up difficult questions and explore opportunities to make improvements. He explains that trust needed to be built-up before all those involved could afford to be vulnerable. Meanwhile George acknowledged that information can be valuable “but also terrifying and overwhelming”. 

So how can schools and other organisations working with young people nurture a culture in which information and data are used in a nuanced way? Five suggestions came out of our discussion.

  1. Establish firm and clear ethical boundaries regarding how information will be used. For example, if practitioners believe that information might be used in performance management, it changes the way they engage with it. Pressure to do so can be hard to resist when there’s a competing pressure to cut workload by using data for multiple purposes.
  2. Don’t just talk about what the information does show: explicitly discuss what it doesn’t - and cannot, show.
  3. Ensure conversations about data don’t just happen in hierarchical discussions (e.g. line manager to line managee): this reduces pressure to ‘prove how good you are’.
  4. Combine ‘dryer’ quantitative data with humanising, qualitative stories about individuals: It’s easy to dismiss information as anecdotal but informal observations can still play a role alongside more systematic data. Consider too whether data can be pooled to make it less personal and to help spot broader trends, for example across different schools or providers in a locality. 
  5. Ensure cultural differences and subjective interpretation have been taken into account: For example, rather than recording that ‘the pupil is frequently disengaged’ or that they have an ‘aggressive attitude’, be explicit and factual. By describing exactly what is going on you can open up a conversation in which practitioners explore a range of possible explanations.

Education is complicated and messy - and so is the information that we gather about it. Unfortunately, without a culture that embraces messiness and nuance, it can be easy to jump to conclusions that are out of step with that complexity. 

This is the final part of our 3-part blog series asking, 'How can information help teachers, youth practitioners and leaders map the way to educational equity?' which forms part of our Mapping The Way discussion series with Loic Menzies.

You can join the conversation by following along on Twitter using using the hashtag #MappingTheWay and tagging @LoicMnzs and @AssessNetwork! Plus, you can sign up for our next webinar and add your voice.

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