Effective in work and life
The three of us, Elke, Mark, and Stephen, are colleagues in education, but we are also friends. Because of this, we support each other in our professional, but also personal lives.
Each morning, we have a brief meeting over coffee just to check-in with each other. These meetings are about getting the best out of ourselves in work, and in life.
After a while, we realized that we could not be sure if these meetings were effective. From a professional perspective, we could see that our work resulted in new knowledge, course enhancements, and publications. But, because our daily meetings over coffee are also about our personal growth, we wondered if we could do a better job of ensuring that our efforts were having an impact.
So, we decided to devise a mechanism by which we would be able to keep track of our growth and development.
For the past year, each morning, we have been updating a spreadsheet which measures the “goodness” in our lives, with one representing “pretty terrible” and four representing “kinda angelic.”
This measure relates to our mental health and wellbeing, but also many other aspects of our daily and weekly activities. Are we taking time to actively listen to people who are confiding in us? Are we showing gratitude for food and friends? Are we serving those in need? As academics teaching about international education, as “foreign hires,” are we being global citizens through developing our intercultural understanding, our commitment to environmental sustainability, and our activism on global issues?
So, on the spreadsheet that we developed, we have a range of data points that are connected to our individual “goodness.” After one year, we have been able to track our journey, providing useful feedback for areas in which we need to improve.
For example, in May 2021, Stephen’s overall “goodness” dropped 3.2 to 1.7. Digging into the data, we realized that he had been particularly impatient with his family, often snapping at his kids instead of giving them his full attention.
We have also seen that both Mark and Elke have seen a general increase in “overall goodness” across the year, hovering around 3.5 each month. Stephen’s graph, however, is more representative of a “boom and bust” cycle.
Stephen has, though, consistently scored highly across the year in relation to political activism on global issues, whereas Mark and Elke have had active months and quiet months. Interestingly, Stephen’s wellbeing rating has been higher overall, so we have been able to attribute this to his political activity. As such, Mark and Elke are now looking at ways they can increase their levels of political engagement.
If you’re reading this and thinking “what a great idea!”, we have concerns for you!
Of course, we didn’t do any of this
The purpose of the imaginary scenario above was to hopefully reveal the absurdity of such an approach to measurement.
On measurement and being
While measuring things like running times, baking ingredients, and math scores makes a fair amount of sense, measuring our “being” or “goodness” seems decidedly odd and, indeed, dehumanizing.
Yet there is an increasing obsession with measurement, including in education.
It might make sense to measure how much someone has learned about a particular subject over the course of a year (although there are reasons why it might not), but these measurements are now not limited to attendance taking or test scores, but also comprise data about student wellbeing, and how internationally minded and globally competent they are.
Transnational organizations such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) are encouraging these kinds of measurements through, for example, their Global Competency Framework (OECD, 2018). This framework aims to measure the extent to which students are effective in their intercultural understanding and engagement in sustainable development. A problem with this, we suggest, is that these are all measurements of “being” that involve values and attitudes - things which are culturally informed and thus, always matters of contention.
Moreover, while our attitudes and values connect to our actions, we think it is better to be cautious about turning matters of being into performances and achievements. As such, we question the validity of trying to measure and rank such things that are about who we are - at least not in the way we might measure a test score.
When we start perceiving values, attitudes, and ways of being as measurable units and evidence-based practices, we are missing something fundamental about what it means to be a human being amongst other human beings.
It was Hannah Arendt who, in her famous book, The Human Condition (first published in 1958), pointed out that the focus on measurement and data has created a distance between human beings and the world, resulting in what she termed “world alienation.” Yet, one of the central tasks of education is surely to help develop students’ sense of “being-in-and-with-the-world” (Biesta, 2021).
If Arendt is right about the effect of “effect sizes” (Simpson, 2018), and if we are right about the task of education to better connect us to the world, we are left to question the prevalence of measurement and testing regimes in contemporary education.
We think schools might well want to ask: Why do we measure what we measure? How can we better support students’ being in the world in an authentic way? What can we change so that what we do encourages “world familiarization” rather than “world alienation?”
And all of this may need to start by first asking: Has our approach to data and performance tracking become, however unintentionally, absurd?
Arendt, H. (1998). The human condition. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Biesta, G. (2021). The three gifts of teaching: Towards a non-egological future for moral education, Journal of Moral Education, 50:1, 39-54, DOI: 10.1080/03057240.2020.1763279
OECD (2018) Global competency for an inclusive world: Programme for the International Student Assessment. Paris: OECD. Available at: https://www.oecd.org/pisa/aboutpisa/Global-competency-for-an-inclusive-world.pdf
Simpson, A. (2018), Princesses are bigger than elephants: Effect size as a category error in evidence-based education. British Educational Research Journal, 44: 897-913. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3474 ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Stephen Chatelier, Elke Van dermijnsbrugge, and Mark Harrison have all been teachers and leaders in international schools, including in Asia. They now work in the Department of International Education at The Education University of Hong Kong, where they teach and conduct research on critical aspects of international schooling.