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Posts Tagged ‘numbers

Last Saturday, STonline reported the International Baccalaureate (IB) performances by Singapore schools. As usual, it featured pass rates and the number of perfect scores.

The local rag does this with our PSLEs, GCE O-Levels, and GCE A-Levels, so the article almost writes itself with a template. To be fair, the template has been updated to include human interest stories — the people behind the numbers — but these can seem like afterthought or filling newspaper space for a few days.

The IB result article fit the mould perfectly. It featured the usual suspects with the usual stellar results. Then it zoomed in on twins from the School of the Arts who got perfect scores.

What is wrong with doing this?

There is nothing wrong with human interest stories provided the children are not coerced into doing them and if the overcoming-the-odds stories inspire others.

What is wrong is the almost perverse fascination with quantitive results. It is one thing for schools and the Ministry of Education to keep track of these statistics, it is another to tout them and lead stories with them.

The health of our schooling system is not just measured by numbers. This would be like diagnosing sick patients by measuring only their temperatures and blood pressure. Even a layperson would say that stopping at such triage is irresponsible. The same could be said of the STonline reporting.

About five years ago, the MOE stopped revealing the names and schools of the top Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) students. It also discouraged the ranking and banding of schools into socially-engineered leagues in order to operate by its “every school a good school” principle. The move was meant to emphasise the holistic development of each child.

The IB results article and its ilk hold us back. Yes, the template includes human interest stories and background information about the IB. But the newspaper conveniently forgets or ignores that the IB practically an alternative form of assessment. From the article:

Founded in Geneva in 1968, the programme is now available in 4,783 schools in over 150 countries and territories.

IB diploma students take six subjects and Theory of Knowledge, a course that combines philosophy, religion and logical reasoning. They also learn a second language, write a 4,000-word essay and complete a community service project.

Why not focus on how the thinking and value systems are nurtured? What are the impacts of the community service projects on all stakeholders? How might the rest of the schooling system learn from the IB process? Finding these things out is not easy. Then again, nothing worth doing is easy. Using a writing template is easy.

STonline might think it has the perfect template for reporting academic results. It might. But this template has lost relevance given MOE policy changes. In emphasising the numbers game, it creates speed bumps and barriers in a schooling system that is trying to plod slowly forward.

According to this BBC report, Northumbria University ‘life-threatening’ caffeine test fine, two sports science students were supposed to be given 300mg of caffeine in a study. Instead, they received 30,000mg (over one-and-a-half times the lethal dose) due to a miscalculation.

The two human subjects recovered after dialysis and intensive care. The university was fined £400,000 (almost SGD717,000 at the current exchange rate).

The numbers obviously matter in this case. The insufficient attention to the calculation to the dose ultimately led to a hefty fine. The university was fortunate not to add two to the number deaths on campus.

Then there are cases where numbers should matter less, or even not at all.

This WaPo article, Trump pressured Park Service to find proof for his claims about inauguration crowd, reported how Trump sought numbers to confirm his perception that his inauguration crowd was not as small as reported by the press.

The article provides insights into how some people, not just Trump, play the numbers game. They take a perspective built on bias or limited information, and then seek data to back it up.

The article was a reminder what NOT to do because this is like coming to a conclusion first, then conducting a study, collecting data, and massaging the results and discussion to fit the conclusion.

If we jump on schooling tangent, this is similar to the conventional and deductive way of teaching: Present a basic concept and then build it up with examples and practice. While this approach might work from a content expert’s point of view, it ignores another method.

A less oft used method is that of induction. Here phenomena, data, and noise are collected and processed first before arriving at generalisations or conclusions.

The deductive method generally goes from general to specific while the inductive one goes from specific to general. Instruction can consist of both, of course, but we tend to practice and experience more deductive methods because that is how most textbooks are written and how experts try to simplify for novices.

There is nothing wrong with the deductive method in itself. It is the over-reliance on that strategy and the imbalance that is the problem.

Likewise, playing the numbers game like Trump and worrying about how they indicate reputation or bruised ego can make you focus on what is relatively unimportant. It can tip the balance the wrong way.

I hate people who only play the numbers game or hide behind numbers.

But I admire people who can use numbers to tell a compelling human story.

Video source

This video is about the latter and not to be missed. Watch all of it. It will be time well invested whether you learn something about the human waste that war is or telling a great story with numbers.

Tweets are fleeting and might represent a collective stream of consciousness. Anything that bobs its head several times in that stream tends to stand out.

If you are not a celebrity and something you tweeted was retweeted 66 times, you might be happy to note the agreement, endorsement, or share-ability of the idea. (By comparison, if you are a celebrity, you could tweet that you pooped and it could be retweeted thousands of times.)

However, your poopless joy should be tempered with context. Take the analytics of a recent tweet of mine.

To date, the tweet has been viewed 2,145 times, retweeted 66 times, and has an engagement rate of 3.1%. In the context of the number of views, that is a low return. In a good week, each of my tweets gets 3000-4000 views within three days. Given more views, the engagement figure is likely to drop.

That is what playing only the numbers game gets you.

Exploring the context of tweeting further, Twitter analytics do not capture modified tweets. For example, someone might tweet the URL of my tweet or tweet a variation of it.

Consider another example.

I took this screenshot in October 2014 of a popular blog entry I wrote in February of the same year. The blog entry now has 107 tweets (and an unknown number of retweets). If I focused just on the numbers, I could figure out the gain of tweets per month or the average in a year.

I would rather focus on the fact that something simple I wrote still has traction today. The WordPress dashboard tells me how the entry gets found, e.g., from Google searches or the other bloggers’ efforts.

My point: Numbers can be used to tell a story, the making of a story, or to bypass the story altogether. People who focus on playing the numbers game do not care for the story. The lowest hanging fruits are what matter to them. This is like focusing on grades instead of learning.

I prefer to get the fruit that are not within immediate reach. It takes more effort to climb, but the fruits of my labour are much sweeter. I also get a better view as a bonus. That is just my way of saying that I would rather use the numbers to tell a story even if that requires a bit more work.

Video source

This is a video take on an almost three-year-old article on the same topic.

It is a good thing this video exists because the original graphic in the article does not.

Try asking anyone who plays the numbers game to watch this video. Observe how they attempt to counter how the numbers should lead to the conclusion that prisons are better than schools. Then tell them why they cannot just rely on numbers.

Like it or not, what we use or believe in divides us into tribes. Often these same tribes pit themselves one against the other.

Consider the iOS vs Android camps, qualitative vs quantitative researchers, or any A vs B political parties.

Like it or not, stereotypes of each tribe are based on some truth. Like how folks who play only the numbers game see what they do as a popularity contest.

At last month’s department meeting, I used a recent annual report we wrote to illustrate the importance of a narrative over simple numbers.

I am going to use the another example at our next meeting to reinforce that point.

Consider the Twitter followers that entity X has (currently at 11,045) and what I have (currently curated at 743). By that measure alone, X is more successful than I am. If you consider how I have been on Twitter longer, then I must be failing badly to win followers.

But here are the missing narratives. X has used prizes and gimmicks to get the followers. I cull my list of followers and prevent up to 1,500 from following me every month (why I do this [1] [2] [video]).

Let us return to the numbers game.

If you use a tool like StatusPeople Faker Scores, the analysis of X’s followers looks like this.

Mine looks like this.

To continue with the narrative, I could ask if

  • quantity is preferred over quality
  • dissemination trumps conversation
  • old mindsets can pair with new tools

I know where I stand.

If you play only the numbers game, someone who can play that game better than you will beat you. Or someone will uncover unflattering numbers.

If you focus on a fuzzy prize like the hard-to-measure quality, the quantity will come.

If you focus on listening and networking, then your power is no longer based on position but on reputation instead.

If you put new wine on old wineskins, the latter will burst.

If that last reference is too old school to understand, then ask yourself if you can stuff an HD movie into a diskette. You cannot do this not just because of the file size but also the fact that it will be tough to find diskettes and disk drives.

The sad thing is that while diskettes are rare, dinosaurs are not. Not the bird dinosaurs but the human ones. The same ones who will bite with their number games.

Bite back!

If you read a headline like More People Have Cell Phones Than Toilets, you know that it was designed to pique interest and draw the reader as far down the article as possible.

According to a UN report, 6 of 7 billion people in the world have cell phones, while just 4.5 billion have access to a toilet or latrine.

I have no doubt that there is some truth in the statistics presented, but the numbers also hide other facts. The article conveniently avoids the fact that quite a few countries have mobile penetration rates that exceed 100%. This means that owners have multiple mobile devices. This also means that there are some people who do not have these devices.

Here is another headline of similar design: More New Androids Than Babies.

Every day more than 1.3 million Android devices are activated — which is way more than the 300,000 babies born daily

It is tempting to draw quick conclusions with the numbers, e.g., platform domination, four devices for every child. But what exactly does that statistic do?

If it is designed to impress, so be it. If you use it unprocessed to inform decision or policy, then far from it!

Any educational institute worth its salt will have “usage” data of its LMS. I say “usage” because such reports tend to be technical, e.g., how many courses are online, how many instructors use what tool. But this does not reveal HOW the tools are used pedagogically or if they are even used well.

I often draw an analogy to how our land and transport authorities might cite how extensive and well-connected our roads and rails are. They might provide very impressive statistics on accident rates, traffic flow, train frequency and so on.

IMG_6203 by gurms, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  gurms 

But the stories are missing.

Stories like how a father might get trapped in hour-long jams getting home from work in what should be a 15-minute journey. Every day.

Stories like how a mother-to-be has to skip a few crowded trains before finally getting on only to be denied a seat. Every day.

These stories are varied and there are many of them. More often that not these stories are not told.

The statistics are important and they can be impressive. But numbers can lie. So can photos, videos, and stories. But they should be used judiciously to paint a more complete and honest picture.

If not, we kid ourselves at best. In a worse case, we use an inaccurate picture or projection to perpetuate lies or to create bad long term policy.

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