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Posts Tagged ‘numbers

Late last year I made a screen shot of this odd headline.

Ambiguous headline.

The headline was ambiguous. It was meant to highlight how a youth turned his life around. Instead it could also mean that he needed to be chemically induced to help others.

Words matter. The choice of words and how you order them helps you mean what you say. If only headline writers could say what they mean.

Now consider this passive-aggressive app rating. It was a complaint about the app disguised as a five-star rating.

This is how NOT to write a review.

Such a review is counter-productive. The bean counters only care about what works in a spreadsheet. They will not process the qualitative feedback.

Numbers matter, too. Your choice of numbers is a cryptic summary of what you value. You let others in on the secret by your choice of words. The numbers and words should be congruent. If there are inconsistencies, you lose the trust of your readers.

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If you operate in training in the corporate, governmental, or NGO worlds, then 80:20 or 70:20:10 makes sense to you.

To the rest of the world, particularly those in schooling and higher education, those ratios and what they stand for make about as much sense as the tweet above.

The issue is not so much the proportion of, say, sales and active customers, it is how the numbers came to be. When you discover that this “principle” has been applied to management, marketing, sales, and even life, you have to ask: What research helped establish these ratios?


If you dive into that rabbit hole, you might realise how shallow it is. It is a pothole that does not go anywhere. I would rather pave over that hole.

I did something similar in the past by pointing out how wrong the numbers were in Dale’s cone of experience. This critical resource describes how Dale did not put any numbers to his model and the numbers were made up.

It is tempting to try to make complex phenomena like “how people learn” simple. The mistake is trying to boil this down to numbers and formulae.

If you are going to play the numbers game, do it right. Embrace details and nuance.


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An absolute person understands and operates by absolutes. A nuanced person looks for subtlety and context.

If both play the numbers game, the first person is going to look like an absolute fool. The second is going to look reasonable and logical.

Some people’s eyes glaze over when shown figures and statistics. Some hearts might harden as it is easy to focus on the numbers instead of considering the people that make up those numbers.

Case in point: The debate about the number of deaths resulting from Hurricane Maria last year.


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This segment from the video above was one method to estimate the number of deaths in the aftermath the hurricane that hit Puerto Rico last year. But they might not mean much to the neutral or uninformed without a human face and story.


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The journalist near the end of the news report took care to describe a couple he had followed from last year. The couple survived the initial onslaught, but the husband succumbed to “the stress (and) the fumes from the generator”.

Narratives do not just complement, they illustrate more richly. They connect readers, listeners, and watchers with what matters — the human condition.

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.
 

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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.


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