Don’t chase the score

In general, the growing emphasis on ‘measurement’ of different educational outcomes is a good thing. This is especially the case with wellbeing in schools. As the data-collection tools for wellbeing have become more sophisticated and prioritised, first by schools and now governments, it has attracted more attention, energy, and resources. As a result, we have higher quality data, better materials, and refined practices.

Because wellbeing researchers and schools are trying to harness the scientific method, they rely heavily on the process of quantification. Quantification allows us to take inherently ‘uncountable’ and intangible human experience and turn it into numerical data. For example, the feeling of trust that a student has for their teacher can be quantified into a number using a rating scale. This is helpful because it allows for statistical analysis and more meaningful discussions that are less hindered by subjective language.

But quantification is not the same as measurement.

Measurement is counting the quantity of a unit of material via an agreed standard.

Quantification is turning something that cannot be counted or measured directly into a number via subjective opinion.

So when I use a scale to measure my weight and I’ve gone up from 76kg last month to 78kg this month, that’s because I am heavier. We can measure weight directly.

But when a student’s self-reported ‘trust score’ goes up from ‘3’ last month to ‘4’ this month that does not mean that they trust me more. It might mean that. But it might instead be because it’s the student’s birthday today or because their football team won on the weekend or because they now trust their other teachers less and so, relatively, they feel more trusting of me. Or maybe it’s because scoring something as complex and nuanced as trust on a numerical scale of 1 to 5 is a very crude method. We don’t actually know. And that’s because we cannot measure trust directly.

And all of this is fine. As long as we don’t try to chase the score or place too much value on the score or data.

Ultimately, we must be focussed on optimising the wellbeing of our students, not the wellbeing data. Those two things are not the same.

Published by

David Bott

Hi, I'm David Bott, Associate Director of the Institute of Positive Education in Australia.

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