What happened?

The question “What happened?” is so basic that it’s easy to forget its importance.  It’s one of the first phrases we learn– if you don’t believe that, read for a while with a three-year old.  And like many simple but important questions, it can be difficult to find a satisfactory answer.

But “What happened?” is really two parts– the “what” and then, separately, the “happening” that brought about the what.  If you walked to a parade and saw, for instance, this:

…you’d be able to say, probably right away, a few things:

1) There is a gorilla carrying a woman in a cage, parading down the street.

2) This town really knows how to celebrate July 4th.

You could then go on to make some observations about the cage, the woman’s clothes, the fact that this is probably a person in a gorilla suit, etc…. But you wouldn’t as yet, be able to tell why this spectacular scene is before you.  It is a political statement?  Modern Art?  A revolt at the zoo?  David Lynch’s retelling of Goodnight Gorilla?

In other words, you’d know the what, but not the what happened.

With schools and data, it’s easy to get lost in the what.  Take, for example, this graph:

Observations, Unit 1

If we take a look at this performance of, say, all the science teachers in a school over a 6-8 week period, there’s no shortage of “what” to dissect.  You can pull out some conclusions of your own, but here are some highlights:

– the teachers tend to plan lessons well

– teachers walk around a lot and have good rapport with kids

– everything looks safe and well-organized

At the same time, however…

– formative assessment doesn’t seem to be happening much at all

– assessment in general, but especially higher-order and self-directed assessments, seems to be a weak area

And this is all good.  We’ve successfully identified that whats.  We know there’s a gorilla and a lady in a cage, and we know what these teachers have and have not been observed doing.  But what we don’t know is the why— why are we seeing the things we’re seeing?

This is where story comes in.  To be a good storyteller, you have to know what happened.  You have to know, for instance, that this is a school where there were rampant discipline problems 10 years ago, and the most important thing was for teachers to get control of their classrooms– more important than performance on any assessment.  And the school hired supervisors who cracked down in specific ways– teachers who had their plans in on time were rewarded, and those who could demonstrate the easy stuff– like walking around the room and being nice to the kids– were left alone.  No one cared about “messy” formative assessment and checking for student understanding because the administrators believed that the more work the teacher gave to kids, the busier they’d be and the better they’d behave.  And now, 10 years later, the teachers still show these behaviors, even though the school has changed a great deal, but they’re still teaching the kids from 10 years ago.

A graph like the one above is like a movie still.  If I see this picture, for instance:

… I think that this is a movie about a prince and princess falling in love.  But if I don’t see this, too:

… I’m missing a lot of the story, and a lot of the root causes behind what I’m seeing in my snapshot in time.

To use data effectively, we need to know what happened.  And that involves digger much deeper than we’re accustomed to.  It’s not enough to look at presented data, make some observations about what we’re seeing, pat ourselves on the back, and say “Let’s stop doing that!”  Knowing why we’re seeing certain data– what happened to make the data even be there is the most important part of telling stories with data.  Only then can we begin to use data to change the way things are, and write the story of what will happen from that point onward.

We will periodically be coming back to the idea of story on our site.  So much of data leadership goes beyond technical work– it’s more about understanding why people behave how they do, what root causes underlie organizational culture, and what will motivate people to change.  Through all of this, we’re talking about people— and to understand people, we have to understand the role of story and narrative in how we see our world.

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