Tag Archives: data

The problem is NOT the computer

We were checking in to board the plane, and the woman at the check-in desk told me our seat assignments. “That’s not right!” I said. “We’re a family of three, traveling with a child. You cannot give us three separate seats.” The woman apologized, but said that the plane was full and she could not give us three seats – or even two seats – together. I argued and became insistent that we be given seats together, and she brought in her manager. The manager was able to do some rearranging and gave us two seats together for one parent and the child, and another seat nearby. I thanked her for accommodating us and said that the airline policy should be that families – especially with children – should always be seated together. That’s when she said it:

“The computer assigns the seats. That’s the problem.”

Before steam started coming out of my ears, I swallowed hard, counted to 10 (in binary) and then calmly and patiently explained to the woman that the problem was not the computer.

Perhaps nothing reveals the great need for Computer Science to be taught to every student in school than this very common misunderstanding. People in every job and every walk of life use computers every day. And many of them fail to understand fundamentally how computers work.

Computers do not do things magically, and they don’t operate on their own (yet). Computers do exactly what they are told by human beings, and how they accomplish those tasks is also controlled by human beings. That is called programming.

In this case, the airline (or their programmers) instructed the computer (their servers) to assign seats to passengers once they book a ticket (or when they check in or whenever). Seemingly, those instructions (program) prioritized business travelers, frequent flyers, people who checked-in early, etc. There seemed to be no provisions within the program for families or children.

The solution to the problem is very simple: adjust the program to ensure that children traveling with families are always given seats next to their parents (or at least one parent). Sure, this might interfere with frequent flyers choosing their ideal seats, but the program can be written to maximize the choices for prioritized customers without sacrificing at least two adjacent seats for every child traveling with family.

The problem does not come from the computer. The computer is only doing what it has been told to do by the airline’s programmers. The problem comes from the programmers not being told to prioritize children by the airline.

Too often people blame “the computer” when things do not go well. It’s more than just “blaming the messenger” – it shows that people really do not properly understand how computers work. It’s a mystery to them, so they can blame computers for mistakes .(And also presumably to praise computers for serendipitous good fortune – “Congratulations! The computer has selected you to be upgraded!”) If people truly understood that computers were programmed by human beings to produce the results they come up with, then they would not only be better able to explain problems but also feel empowered to fix those problems. Imagine the manager’s response if she had really understood the way computers work: “I’m sorry for the trouble. The computer system has obviously been programmed poorly to not take into account children traveling with their families. I will make a recommendation to my superiors that the program be revised so this problem doesn’t happen again.”

Aside: I know I’m whining a bit about my own situation. However, I’ve been on airplanes where air hostesses were scrambling to rearrange passengers after boarding to try to unite families who had been separated by “the computer.” It’s a problem that affects many airline customers as well as many airline employees. I could write about the dismissive treatment of passengers by airlines, but I’ll have to wait until I can do so calmly!

 

photo credit: andreas160578 from Pixabay (CC0/public domain)

Data driven? Who’s driving?

balance-sheet-241711_640An article on BBC News about the Ebola outbreak got me thinking about data. In all the media reports, the virus is described as having a shockingly high 90% fatality rate. This article says that the key words in reports is “up to” and that the fatality rate is often lower. I looked up the actual figures from the WHO, and sure enough the statistics show a less than 90% rate.

In actuality, the fatality rates for the current outbreak vary quite widely, from 15% to 100%(!!), depending on what figures you choose to include. Do you look at confirmed cases? Probable? Suspected? Or do you include them all? And do you look at individual countries or average them all together?

If you look at the data broken down beyond the headline statistics, what emerges is a much more complicated picture of the Ebola outbreak. It is worse in certain areas and better in others. Depending on the response to the disease, its deadliness may be reduced and – presumably – its virulence diminished. Community practices, health care facilities, etc. all change how the disease affects people.

Unfortunately, most people don’t look that deeply at the statistics. They hear about a horrible disease, see the “90% fatal” figure and start getting hysterical. While the Ebola outbreak is a horrible and tragic event – and does look like it’s going to get much worse – such overreaction may cause individuals and nations to make costly missteps. There are deadlier diseases, and certain nations’ efforts may be more productively directed at other health issues.

For me as a teacher, this makes me think of our students’ test scores and similar data that we use to assess, group and rate them. Too often, teachers and administrators latch on to one figure and use it to determine a course of action regarding an individual student, a class or a school. A student scores at the 20th percentile on her MAP test? She needs remedial reading lessons. A class earns 90% success rate on their IB diploma scores? We should celebrate!

The truth may be far more nuanced. A closer look at the disaggregated data (if such data is available) may reveal different areas of strength and weaknesses, and might help direct intervention into more productive areas. It may also reveal that any need for intervention might be exaggerated.

Unfortunately, we often fail to get beyond the overall statistic. The student (or school or class) gets labelled as “29%” or “a 4” or whatever, and that label becomes the perceived reality.

As schools dive into “data-driven decisions,” it is well worth reflecting on what exactly the data shows us …if it shows us anything meaningful at all. It’s worth looking for more detailed, nuanced ways at looking at student performance. (Funnily enough, getting to that level of nuance might mean going back to the oldest “data-driven” performance evaluator: the classroom teacher, whose judgements are based on daily collection of various data points.)

The Student, Number 6

I am not a number, I am a free man.

I went in to school to ask about my daughter’s education. Out came a laptop and up popped a spreadsheet. There was my daughter: neatly bound in row 12. A tidy little string of numbers explaining just how she is performing as a student.

I’ve written before about the horror of grading by the numbers. Our school has moved away from that. No longer does a child get a 2 or a 1 scrawled across a paper or a report card. Teachers now use the standards-based scale of “approaching,” “proficient,” or “exemplary.” (Or, sadly, “Does not meet.”) It’s much more child-friendly and less off-putting …I guess.

However, the school has joined the worldwide craze for being data-driven. It’s no longer enough for teachers to teach, they also have to justify their teaching by producing data showing their students are progressing. And the principal and head of school must justify themselves to the school board and parents by showing students and classes across the school are improving.

So how do we show that students are improving? Testing. My child will take the MAP test three times this year. (She needed a mid-year checkup to see if she’s making enough progress to reach the end-of-year targets.) She’s also being assessed on her reading ability by testing her on her comprehension of levelled readers. (Not real books, you understand: these are only slightly better than “See spot run.”) And there are math tests. And spelling tests. And…

I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own.

Where is the passion? Where is the exploring? Where is the joy?

Dare I say it – where is the 21st century learning? Where is the creativity? Where is the critical thinking? Where is the collaboration? Where is the communication?

Is it there in the numbers?

Can anyone show me in that spreadsheet where my child is? Can you show me her gleeful love of life? Can you show me her obsession with sports? Can you show me her inconsistent memory? Can you show me her sensitivity? Her caring nature?

When teachers find ourselves in this new data-driven world of school, we must each decide for ourselves how we react. Do we embrace the dictate and collect as much data as we can to track our students’ progress? Do we rebel and fight against it, resisting any effort to test or quantify our students? Or can we find some middle ground?

As educators, we need to serve our students. Their success and well-being is in our hands. It is imperative that we make intelligent decisions so that not only do they succeed and improve in their abilities, but they also see learning as a positive experience. If we are not building life-long learners, then we are not doing our job well. It is simply not enough that students grow while they are in our classes, but that they will continue to grow throughout their lives.

So in this brave new world of data-driven education, who do we serve? Who is Number One? And are you prepared to serve Number Two? Or will you try to escape?

We want information.
Information.
Information!

Note: for more on The Prisoner, see: Six of One, or the BBC