Heather Wolpert-Gawron

The Obsession with Self-Quantification and the Consequence in Education

By on October 22, 2013

numbers I recently read a commentary in Time Magazine by Kathleen Parker called, Count Me Out.  It was a fascinating little diatribe about our obsession with self-tracking and quantifying success.  She was looking through the lens of folks who find ways to create data opportunities throughout their everyday lives.

She brings up the way we attach numbers to our reflection, leading to either celebration or self-loathing.  Perhaps it is in tracking points through Weight Watchers, our steps through such products as MyFitnessPal, or our hours of deep sleep using The Jawbone.

This makes me think about data use in education and our country’s obsession with quantifying our kids.  Are we creating a system and a student body of addicts by projecting our own quantitative obsession on our children?  Are we creating addicts for numbers while extinguishing any possible addiction for creativity, risk taking, or critical thought?

Clearly, our adult obsession with data tracking makes some believe that this same tracking of data in students is vital in their own growth.  But the key word here is “adult.”  Adults who track seek out this level of quantification in their lives in order for their selves to feel justified in their efforts.  And as adults they can decide for themselves if this addition is working for the good of themselves or not.  They can seek out this level of numeracy as a form of external motivation, as a sort of badge.  But they’ve learned about the pathway to the badge already.  However, if data is gathered too early, too constantly, then this badge becomes the achievement, and the importance of the process, the journey, is put on the back burner.  In fact, other things are put on the back burner as well.

Character, for instance.  Interpersonal relationships for another.  Internal satisfaction as well.  Some of these adults develop an addiction to the glory of numbers that they believe must be experienced by all.  But is this not, in a way, the logical learners of the multiple intelligences pie dictating the motivational drive for an entire system?

bathroom scale Sure, it feels great to get on that scale after eating healthy for a couple of weeks.  But does that number define you?  There are those who don’t need the scale to feel the difference in how their healthy eating makes them operate.

The data for students, however, has come to define them.  In fact, this resulting obsession with quantifying educational achievement, I would argue, is doing the exact opposite of preparing our students for the world.  Additionally, the attitude in our current policy, since we can’t seem to figure out how to evaluate those other, all-important skills and achievements, is to not evaluate them at all.  This downplays their importance in how we function as a society.

So we do what is easy.  But, it’s results are proving to be disastrous.  In fact, it could be that in identifying student success merely in a quantitative way, and at such a frequent occurrence as we are now seeing in our schools, I would almost call us, adults, pushers.  We aren’t just enabling the addition to numerical values in evaluating ourselves, we are creating its addiction.

Parker admits that these tools and this data changed her life.  But she questions whether it was changed for the better.  She ends her commentary with the following:

“I can feel my passion for self-quantification ebbing.  Partly, this is recognition that those things that bring us satisfaction – loving, giving, allowing our mental fields to lie fallow – are unquantifiable, which is what gives them special status in the well-lived life.  Not knowing, not keeping track, not making endless lists, not charting our sleep and graphing our activities ultimately may prove to be the saner way to live, in countless ways.”

As for me?  I admit that I grew up a bit of an obsessive counter myself.  In elementary school it was tied to the number of chews on each side of my mouth as well as the number of times I erased a mistake on my schoolwork. As an adult, I fought against those tendencies because they had a negative impact on how I perceived myself.  It was an addiction to break.

I believe that there is a place in knowing a student’s level, even in comparison to others, a place for some kind of data and testing in education.  However, I grew out of the perception that I somehow needed to create some kind of number to constantly identify myself.  I grew out of the immaturity that somehow these self-imposed data-driven assessments that happened over and over again, somehow gave me an indication of how I was doing in life as a whole.

I grew up.  And as an educator, I work to help by students be more than me.  I seek to find ways for my students to find quality in life, not necessarily quantity.




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