Look beyond the numbers

A few weeks ago, I was approached by two young, dynamic entrepreneurs who were keen on setting up a startup in the area of children’s learning and development. As they did not have much experience in the area of assessment, they approached me for my views. When I asked them what exactly they would like to assess in children, they gave me the typical corporate spiel about creating an online assessment that would give a 360° view of the child that was ‘scientific’ and based on “hard data.” The duo, who held MBAs from premium institutes, envisioned providing parents with a graph of a child’s passions and talents. This would then enable parents to channelise their child’s energies based on signature strengths.

While I applauded the entrepreneurs for their energy and enterprise, I did not share their enthusiasm for assessing the “whole child” as no battery of tests can capture all the mysteries and wonders of child development. Sure, we can assess aspects of a child’s development to determine if a child needs targeted treatments like speech or occupational therapy or special education. But do we really need to ‘measure’ a child’s interests or talents? Parents have always relied on a combination of feedback from a child, which can be expressed verbally, non-verbally and behaviourally, and their gut instincts, to make decisions regarding a child’s extracurricular activities. That children are constantly tested and ranked on their academic skills in school is bad enough. Should we also subject kids to testing in other domains like dance, music, theatre and football?

The purpose of this article is not to evaluate whether we need to test certain skills, aptitudes, proclivities and so on but to question our obsession with measurement. Just because we present some information using numbers and graphs does not automatically make it better or more authentic. While I am a firm believer in using numbers to gauge progress, I am also skeptical of the value we invest in them.

Let us take the ubiquitous bugbear of students — marks. Right from primary school, we ask children to focus their energies on getting higher marks. And, the cultural frenzy surrounding the board exam marks reaches exponential levels with some children even committing suicide based on a number that they receive in an exam. Isn’t it tragic when a child is thus reduced to a single number?

Yet, our belief in numbers defining major life decisions goes unquestioned. I am not saying that we should ignore all metrics altogether. While numerical data is essential to gauging progress or the efficacy of certain interventions, it cannot be the only measure in many instances. We have to acknowledge the fact that life is messy and complicated and while numbers may simplify and reduce the noise in data, they cannot be the only evidence we rely on. While exam marks give us a picture of how students perform on a particular set of exams, a single set of marks tells us nothing about how the child has progressed over the years. More importantly, it doesn’t provide information regarding the child’s level of effort, grit or passion for a subject.

In her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age , MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle critiques our obsession with numbers. While humans have always found numbers ‘seductive,’ Turkle argues that in the digital age, the ready availability of apps puts a new spin on them as it is far easier to quantify just about anything today. Turkle cites a blog posted by a woman who had recently gone through a divorce. In order to cope with the trauma of breakup, the woman kept a tab of a number of things including “the number of texts she wrote and calls she made (and to whom), songs she listened to (classified as happy to sad), places she visited, unnecessary purchases and their costs.” She also tabulated aspects of her daily routine like how long she slept, stayed awake, exercised and went out. Turkle wonders whether “quantified self-enthusiasts” like this lady are so preoccupied with numbers that they fail to look or find meaning in their experiences.

Likewise, people often gauge their success or popularity by the number of Likes they receive on Facebook. People who use digital fitness trackers also seem swayed by the numbers their devices spew out. While there is nothing wrong in knowing how many steps we walked in a day, we cannot use the number as the sole indicator of our energy or fitness levels. Instead, we need to be in tune to signals that our bodies constantly give us. As Turkle writes, “Our quantitative selves leave data trails that are the beginning of our stories, not the results, not the conclusions.”

By all means, we can rely on numbers to provide us with information, but ultimately we must look at constructing a meaningful narrative for ourselves. Further, just because something has a number tagged to it, does not automatically make it more valid than what our experience suggests.

In a TED talk posted in October 2016, travel writer Pico Iyer says while knowledge is a wonderful thing, “the illusion of knowledge can be more dangerous than ignorance.” While numbers can inform and explain, they can also mislead or give us only partial knowledge.

The writer is Director, PRAYATNA. Email:

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Printable version | May 24, 2022 7:05:23 pm |