Geeking Out on Data

Posted by Deb Vaughn, Oct 08, 2014 2 comments

Deb Vaughn Deb Vaughn

If you read past the title of this blog entry you are probably one of the chosen people: the data geeks. You are the ones who love debating bar graphs vs pie charts (answer: bar graphs win. In general, they are clearer and easier to understand.) You spend hours deciding if a survey question should be multiple choice or single answer. You look for any opportunity to include an excel chart in your presentation. Yes, I’m talking about YOU. Don’t be afraid: you are among friends.

In the world of arts education, data can have a negative connotation. We live in an age of over-collection of data, much of which is never used to make decisions or change policy. This is frustrating for the data generators (schools, teachers, grantees) and data gatherers (parents, teachers, funders, administrators, policy makers). When data is presented, it is often over-visualized, leading to confusion and misinterpretation. Google “data visualization” and prepare to have a psychedelic experience with some really pretty designs. But in no way will it increase your understanding of any important issue.

bad data viz

Earlier this month, I attended the Oregon Program Evaluator’s Network conference. The keynote was entitled “A Data Viz Vision” and presenter Stephanie Evergreen of Evergreen Data basically blew my mind with her detailed perspective on how to use and present data more effectively. Her blog is a great resource for tips on how to use standard settings in MS Excel to make your visuals easier to understand. I’ll give you one trade secret as an example, but if you want more, you’ll have to visit Stephanie’s blog. Did you ever think to use your graph title to provide information about what the data tells you? It isn’t enough to say data “speaks for itself.” People will make all kinds of assumptions about what they see. The best thing you can do is help them see the point you are trying to make.

before graphDVafter graphDV

How does all this relate to arts education? It got me thinking not just about HOW we present our data, but WHEN and even IF we present that data. As a statewide organization with limited resources, it’s intimidating to consider what it might look like to map our service delivery. What if the data showed that we aren’t reaching every student? The reality is: we aren’t reaching every student and it’s scary to imagine the repercussions of presenting that publicly. But then I think about this map of which New York City schools have arts specialists and I’m inspired. It’s a brave thing to make your shortcomings public, and you can’t fix a problem that you can’t see.

There’s also the question of: what the heck are we even doing with our data? Ask yourself when was the last time you used data that you collected to inform program or policy change. This is an issue I’ve been thinking a lot about as I consider how to streamline reporting processes for grantees. If I’m not going to use the data, why am I asking for it? Is there a better way to get the information I need? Do I need different information than what I’m getting?

How are you using the data you collect? How does it inform your decision-making process? How is it shared internally and publicly? How might it be formatted ore presented differently to make it more useful?

I’ll leave you with this take-away from Stephanie Evergreen’s keynote, which I hope comes in handy the next time you need to roll out a new report: food always brings people to the table. So let’s figure out how to get the data into the cookies! Doesn’t that sound like even more fun than a bar graph?

2 responses for Geeking Out on Data


Masha says
October 16, 2014 at 9:20 am

"Data" is problematic for art educators, not because we cannot construct or read graphs., but the main problem with "data", or numerical data that is supposedly a reflection of art education realities, is that this approach is unsuitable for art education in itself. Many would argue, like Maxine Greene and Eisner, that quantitative research is inappropriate to represent the human features of education in general. Art is about context, and there is no bar graph in the world that can eloquently demonstrate the realities of a classroom with or without art. Aesthetics, which is fundamental to our human existence, is already a part of many classrooms considered non-art.
I am so confused by this movement for supposed art advocates to jump on the behaviorist/positivist bandwagon. If you align yourself with these technocratic notions that education and teaching can be measured through numbers, then I really question whether you have art's best interests in mind. Art is about authenticity, and expression of context, not packaging a shallow ideal for mass appeal.

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May 21, 2015 at 11:40 am

As a data geek with an MFA in Theatre Design , I enjoyed this post very much. The trick is try to clarify what questions you want to ask before you begin your data collection effort. I do agree with the post-er above who says that we may need more qualitative than quantitative measures to discern the effects of arts programs.

Thanks for the thought provoking article!

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