Lawn M (ed) (2013) The Rise of Data in Education Systems: Collection, visualization and use Oxford: Symposium Books

160 page

ISBN:  978 1 873927 32 8

I must admit that the title of this edited text did not excite me, but I did feel it would be useful for me to examine how and why the use of data has become so prevalent over recent years.  Some three years ago, members of IPDA staged a debate about the value of PiSA and TIMMS in terms of educational improvement, and one conclusion was that it simply added stress, and did not take local cultural influences into account.

This book is truly international.  It looks at the collection and uses of data over a period of 150 years in a range of countries, including England, Sweden, Argentina, France, Bavaria/Germany and most importantly the USA. It also contains a chapter looking specifically at pan European developments.  The studies begin in the nineteenth century, examining exhibits, protocols and guidance for world exhibitions.  Even in these early days, the writers identify the tensions and conflicts between presenting the processes and appliances associated with Education, and educational outcomes.  The view that data in the form numbers is neutral and therefore objective is discussed at length in many of the chapters.

Other key issues are also illuminated – how data is used to enable comparisons, to homogenise local performance into a larger unit, providing an insight into nation states.  Interestingly one of the original purposes of collecting data is shown to be n=borne, in part from philanthropism, wanting to know and understand populations and how development and improvement can be managed.  As a consequence e the writers do show links between data collection and politics, economics, cultural characteristics, ideological stances, the studies of human biology and eugenics and policy planning.  The book therefore provides strong arguments in relation to a range if associated questions, why? How? When? Who collects?  Who interprets?  Who is included in surveys (which schools, which segments of the population, which school subjects).

Interestingly early exhibitions included pupil produced artefacts to demonstrate fulfilment of specifications for exhibitions, leading to accusations f targeted rote learning (teaching to the tests?), photographs to show the appliances and processes (architecture, equipment) are developed to support learning.  The analogy with sophisticated diagrams and visual representations of numerical data in the forms of graphs and charts is made.  Again, the concept of comparison is strong.

Other international factors are drawn out, illustrating to potential uses of data – the growth of eugenics following the devastation of wars (Boer War, First and Second World Wars), and the belief in the need to regenerate populations following the loss of the strong and the intelligent, the international will for peace (league of nations), and the growth of capitalist economics.  The writers show how these are reflected in the presentations of data and evidence.

The chapter on Bavaria is very interesting, demonstrating the tensions between who collects and interprets data and for what purposes.  The allegations of distortion and use of statistics to make political (small ‘p’) points, to promote the role of local Government  as opposed to the Catholic church, and the international ambitions of the Catholic church to defend its place in education all add grist to the mill of those who are suspicious (and  always have been)of data and evidence driven policy making and accountability measures.

So, I found this book enthralling, despite the title.  For students of Education Studies it is essential reading.  For researchers, it will assist in establishing valid conceptual frameworks against which research findings can be assessed.  It is not of great practical use to teachers, but for students of all types it will be an invaluable source of understanding.

Professor Kit Field

University of Wolverhampton,