Nelli Piattoeva & Rebecca Boden
Today we take a critical look at numbers. Think about it: numbers are everywhere in education, from grades to impact scores to rankings. My guests today, Nelli Piattoeva and Rebecca Boden, have recently co-edited a special issue for the journal International Studies in Sociology of Education that looks at the “ambiguities of the governance of education through data” (read their open access introduction!).
Nelli Piattoeva is an Associate Professor at Tampere University in Finland where Rebecca Boden is the research director and professor at the New Social Research Programme.
Citation: Piattoeva, Nelli & Boden, Rebecca, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 209, podcast audio, August 10, 2020. https://freshedpodcast.com/nellipiattoeva-rebeccaboden/
Will Brehm 2:56
Nelli Piattoeva and Rebecca Boden, welcome to FreshEd.
Rebecca Boden 2:59
It is fantastic! Hello, and it is great to be here.
Nelli Piattoeva 3:01
Hi, Will. And thanks for inviting us. It is great to be here.
Will Brehm 3:05
So, I want to talk about numbers today. And so, when I think of numbers in education, my mind typically goes to grades. And often, I have this anxiety about grades because of all the bad marks I used to get in tests and how I used to hate tests growing up. In education, are numbers found sort of beyond grades?
Nelli Piattoeva 3:23
Well, if I start -Thanks, Will, for this question. Actually, in our special issue, the starting point is that we can find lots of numbers now in education way beyond school grades. And the type of numbers that we’re speaking about in the special issue are rankings of schools and universities, both national, international standardized tests, impact factors that we as scholars are often monitoring and being afraid of also, publication counts, work time allocation models. So, actually, what we try to map in the special issue is how the types of numbers that education is now producing, and is kind of a target of, have proliferated greatly. And they are produced by state agencies, by international actors, by commercial actors. So, lots of different numbers way beyond school grades. And it was funny actually, how you mentioned fear of grades in your question because what we are also seeing in studies is that numbers are far from kind of rational and empty of feelings and emotions. But actually, these organizations and professionals that are being increasingly controlled through numbers are also experiencing different emotional states that numbers produce in people or in institutions and even countries, right? We talk about PISA shock, for instance.
Will Brehm 5:03
And I would imagine that these feelings are never, or rarely, positive. It is usually anxiety, fear, you know, feelings of despair in many ways.
Rebecca Boden 5:14
Well, actually Will, sometimes I disagree on that. I mean, I think numbers can quite often be used by people to massage egos, to boost careers, in the use of kind of like competition in order to gain advantage. So, numbers are not always about fear. Sometimes they are kind of exploited for some kind of, you know, perverse delights.
Will Brehm 5:40
Yeah, right. Like, how many Twitter likes I get, or how many downloads.
Rebecca Boden 5:45
Exactly. Or how many Google Scholar likes you get or…
Will Brehm 5:49
Right. And so, it does fit into ego and sort of boosting ego. But it is sort of this up and down thing I would imagine because there’s a lot of anxiety before you get that reward of, you know, a million downloads.
Nelli Piattoeva 6:02
Rebecca Boden 6:03
I think in terms of numbers being everywhere in education, I think the fact that Nelli and I are working together on this project is indicative of what’s happened because Nelli works in education studies, but I’m actually professor of accounting and what’s known as a critical accountant, which means I’m interested in how numbers are used in regimes of control and accountability. And I have been working on education, particularly higher education, for the last 20 years, watching this spillover of all the accounting control techniques that very familiar in the mainstream commercial world into education. The very fact that Nelli and I work together so happily -it has been such a generative exercise- is absolutely indicative of the invasion of numbers the way in which they’ve escaped into this domain.
Will Brehm 6:55
So, how has it changed over, you know, 20 years or even further back? I mean, how have these regimes of control through numbers changed in higher education or education generally, you know in the last 20-30 years?
Rebecca Boden 7:07
Well, for me historically, what’s interesting is that, as the UK in particular – let’s set the UK as an example- as it’s kind of neo-liberalized, it’s become increasingly important to engender competition between schools, to teachers have become untrusted subjects, so they have to be controlled and directed. And there is a whole kind of regime of almost kind of tailorization of education in all of its aspects: concern for value for money, a concern for rankings, a concern with PISA. And as all of that’s emerged, what you’ve seen is the importation of technologies of numbers in, to actually kind of support and promote all of that. So, that is the kind of negative side of the numbers, and I think that certainly in higher education that’s very evident over the last 20 years. I suspect it’s been happening even earlier in schools. But that’s in the UK. I mean, Nelli might have something else to say about Finland, which is obviously very different educational context.
Nelli Piattoeva 8:15
What is interesting, and if we get back to your example of a student being afraid of bad grades, I think that’s a really good point to also kind of see what are all the changes that have happened. So, now we have not only the student being afraid of bad grades, but we have also, for instance, schools in the UK or in the US, that are essentially anxious about having bad grades or bad numbers on standardized tests mandated nationally or on a state level because with bad numbers, they essentially are at risk of being closed down, or their teachers being made redundant, or the salaries of the teachers being reduced. So, the kind of consequences that the numbers now carry for different actors in the educational sphere have become much more severe, I think, than they have ever been before. The other change that we can talk about is also who are the producers of numbers because kind of historically, we would see state bureaucracy being the main producer of a particular types of numbers that were used to make some political decisions, but not kind of taking numbers necessarily as the sole source of those political decisions. But now we have a proliferation of actors producing numbers, as they said also earlier, commercial actors, international and national actors who also make business, right, and kind of build their reputation as they produce numbers. And also, numbers are becoming the kind of main currency of political debates and decision-making kind of taking space away from other kinds of evidence, qualitative evidence, for instance, or case studies and so on. So, these are just some of the changes that I think are really important to mention here.
Will Brehm 10:20
Why have numbers sort of gained so much power and appeal to policymakers, and business, and school officials? You know, I just can’t understand why they took on such a role that they do today. How did that happen? And why did that happen?
Rebecca Boden 10:37
My own interpretation of that is that numbers have the advantage of appearing inherently objective and accurate and kind of scientific, but the reality is that they are always subjectively determined. So, it’s an ultimate kind of power tool, really, because you can make up a number to demonstrate whatever you like, but what you’re able to demonstrate is you’re presenting the absolute, accurate, objective truth. So, it’s an accounting joke like you know, “Why do people talk about creative accounting, ALL accounting is creative”. The thing about numbers is that they are always subjectively determined. And it means that those in power can determine and shape the numbers that are produced, the numbers that are used, and they are used ultimately to control and direct or to steer at a distance.
Will Brehm 11:33
Can you give an example of how numbers, or what a type of number is in education that is subjectively determined?
Rebecca Boden 11:39
So, numbers that are subjectively determined in higher education, something that we will all be familiar with -those of us who work in higher education- is journal rankings. So, the idea that some journals are better journals than other journals. Now, if you think about the processes that determine what makes something, you know, a four-star journal in the UK terms, or a three-star one, or a JUFO one two or three in Finnish terms, is always decided subjectively by panels of people who then kind of disseminate this as if this is a kind of like, accurate, objective, scientific measure of whether something’s good or not. We might use impact factors of journals, all of which are subjectively determined. What goes into that number? What characterizes it? So, what we end up with at the end is a set of rankings around journals, a number attached to them, which then translates into some kind of objective reality in the minds of often with the managers of universities, and governments who funded universities who then use those numbers to say, okay, you produced this you can have this much money, you published in these lesser ranked journals, you can have less money. So, that is the way in which these things get entirely fabricated, to be quite honest. But it becomes a number. And there are consequences that flow from that number. And it is a number determined by those in power, basically.
Will Brehm 13:10
It sounds like what you are saying is that numbers sort of hide all of these subjective, political decisions that were made to arrive at that number. By just having a simple number, we sort of lose sight of everything that took to make that number.
Nelli Piattoeva 13:23
Exactly. And I think this is one of the real big points that we also want to make in the special issue and that authors make throughout the collection is that it is not enough to look into how numbers are used once they’re made available for political decisions or in the public. It is really important to look into the processes of data production. What are the values? What are the worldviews? Who are the actors who are behind the numbers? What are all the different reductions and interpretations that need to be made in order to produce even, maybe a seemingly kind of simple and easy number. There are lots of different processes that need to be disentangled, and I think that is a kind of a big question for researchers also to address.
Rebecca Boden 14:16
So, if you look at something like journal rankings by impact factors, or citation counts, like who decided that a number of times something was cited made it a better journal? I mean, that is a nice, neat, encapsulated kind of question to ask about how these things are subjectively determined. Of course, I would argue with things like impact factors, which is based on citations, it was the publishers themselves who decided kind of, you know, to set those things up and which journals to include, which tend to be their journals. So, they promote their journals so that they decided to start counting citations in their own journals and therefore demonstrate that their journals are very important.
Will Brehm 15:03
Rebecca Boden 15:04
We all suddenly start accepting that the number of times something is cited becomes a measure of its value.
Will Brehm 15:11
And then it ultimately ends up having that sort of value, in reality, it sort of does impact.
Rebecca Boden 15:17
Will Brehm 15:17
And I guess that is the sort of next question then is about, you know, how do these numbers sort of change and impact the way in which people in schools operate and exist? Rebecca, you just gave an example of impact factors, but you know, more generally, how can we begin to think about this sort of affective nature of numbers on people in institutions?
Nelli Piattoeva 15:40
Well, I was thinking about, for instance, if we start from PISA, right. We know how much we see debate on education across countries that is very much shaped by PISA scores that these countries have gained in a particular year. So, it is almost like -if I think about Russia, for instance. Now, one of the political objectives of the current government is to get Russia higher on every international ranking of learning achievements than there exists in the world. And that is a kind of a goal that I think very much shifts attention away from some of the problems that there exists on a local level. In a country as big as Russia, you can find elite schools in big urban areas, you can find very poorly resourced rural schools, you can find schools catering to very different groups of children with different languages, with different cultural backgrounds and it seems that the conversation is now kind of silenced on the very contextual nature of education, not only across countries, but also within countries. And attention is shifted on, how do we produce better numbers? And as numbers, we know they simplify, they reduce reality. So, basically, they don’t really tell us what is happening in particular schools and how can we address the very specific needs of those children or teachers. So, for me, the consequence is that even though PISA, or other big assessments, say that they are good helpers in making political decisions, I’m honestly afraid that as we focus solely on these numbers, we are ought to make bad political decisions because we don’t really understand the reality in schools anymore as it is experienced by teachers and students.
Rebecca Boden 17:55
Maria Nedeva and I some years ago looked at the evolving of this kind of process in a slightly more structural way. So, we looked particularly around science policy and also funding for science research in higher education. And you can almost see a kind of three-stage process. So, you see, at the start of high-level policy-making, decisions about the implementation of policies start to be attached to numbers. So, people become fixated on a number. So, Tony Blair in the UK deciding that the participation rate must be 50% in higher education is a nice example. So, numbers start to drive policy. And then that’s used almost like a set of kind of strings on a puppet down to universities where they start, sort of say, “Well, if you get a 4.2 in this, you can have this extra tranche of funding”. So, it becomes a very kind of fine-tuned way of steering organizations at a distance by government. And it looks like you are leaving universities and colleges and schools as very independent, but in fact, they are entirely tied by the funding streams that come with it with these numerical indicators. So, you’ve got a numerical indicator, if you reach this target level, you can have this funding
Will Brehm 19:14
Rebecca Boden 19:15
So, that is the second stage is what happens to the kind of management and leadership of organizations of individuals, schools, colleges, universities, who start to be driven by these numbers that have come down from government. And then the third stage, which Maria Nedeva and I kind of thought about some time ago, but actually kind of wasn’t really evident then, but it has become evident over the last 15 years is that numbers start to kept inhabit the psyche of individuals within organizations. So, it drives the culture, it drives the thinking, people right down to you know, small children in schools see their value and their worth and their attainment in terms of the numbers.
Will Brehm 19:57
These key performance indicators, the KPIs.
Rebecca Boden 20:00
Exactly. So, university staff will see their value in terms of how many four-star papers do they have for the REF. Children will see their performance in terms of their exam grades. Teachers will judge themselves, and they always kind of inhabit this number infrastructure. And it can almost blind anybody to anything else because there is no thinking outside the box. So, there is that loss, as Nelli said, of all that contextual stuff around what are we doing and what’s our purpose because the purpose comes to be to meet the numbers, to have good numbers.
Will Brehm 20:40
Thinking back on my own history in say primary school when I really hated taking tests, because I did so poorly, I think one of the reasons was because I thought I wasn’t smart when I did poorly, right? The numbers sort of said, “Oh, you don’t know this content or how the question was asked, and therefore you did bad, and therefore you’re not smart”. And you start evaluating yourself through this one, single number on, you know, one single test in the month. And I think it had serious effects because you know I sort of hated schooling and learning and, you know, it had these sort of residual effects all based on these numbers, as you say.
Nelli Piattoeva 21:22
I think maybe one more consequence that I also want to bring up is when numbers carry such aura of authority and kind of have become the primary source of information and knowledge for decision making -what does it mean to questions and issues that haven’t been quantified? They are not easily representable through numbers? So, does it mean that then these issues don’t exist, or we can’t discuss it in public because we can’t present them through numbers when numbers have, you know, the highest political currency. Because even though it seems like our world is saturated with numbers, there are still many issues that are not represented. There are lots of missing data because, you know, powerful actors who are able to produce numbers, and the production of numbers is expensive, haven’t been interested in quantifying particular issues…
Will Brehm 22:25
Nelli Piattoeva 22:26
Well, for instance, maybe I’ll just bring one example from Finland now. Maybe not to say what is not quantified but to show the hierarchy between numbers and other evidence. So, this Black Lives Matter discussion has also had very good repercussions even in Finland here. And in the media, they have started to discuss also the incidents of racism and discrimination in schools by using some very personal and painful accounts of students. But then a journalist came in with a PISA example saying that, “Well, have you seen that our success in PISA is actually a little bit critical because if we look at the success of students with immigrant backgrounds, their scores on literacy tests are much lower”. So, suddenly, I felt that this debate became much more important in the media because also the big data, the big numbers, could be used. And so, it was almost like these personal accounts are interesting and important, but it is only with big numbers that we can really make this big issue that needs
Will Brehm 23:38
Like legitimize it
Nelli Piattoeva 23:39
Legitimize it and really make it an issue that requires political attention.
Will Brehm 23:45
Nelli Piattoeva 23:46
So, I think here, sort of it is really worrying if numbers kind of eat other evidence, basically, or make other evidence less important or less trustworthy, maybe.
Rebecca Boden 23:59
Yeah. But there’s also a danger inherent in that example you just gave, Nelli, which I suspect isn’t likely to manifest itself in Finland, but might well in other countries, which is that people start saying, you know, “We can’t be taking immigrants because there’ll be adversely affecting our numbers”. So, for instance, English schools, in particular, have quite a bad reputation for permanently excluding or “off-rolling” students who are not going to do well in the public examinations when they’re 16. Because that’s a major means of ranking those schools is how well the kids do in those six public examinations they take when they’re 16. So, there’s been quite a few scandals around schools deliberately seeking to off-roll those kids by encouraging their parents to so-called homeschool them, or by excluding them because they twist the school’s data in the wrong direction. And Nelli is right, I think it becomes very hard in those contexts to hold on to the humanity of what we’re doing, and the humanity of what education systems are supposed to deal with. Because in a sense, the students for their children or university undergraduates become just kind of the site of number creation. And that’s all they become, and they stop being real people. And it takes a lot of commitment on the basis of schools in the UK, to start saying, “Well, do you know what we’ll take traveler children, we’ll take difficult children, we’ll take children with special educational needs, even though that means that’s going to drive our numbers down” because they see the mission in a different way. And I think it’s a very grave danger in a lot of higher education and a lot of school education that we in a sense lose the sight of what education is to be about and it becomes about the production of these good numbers.
Will Brehm 26:02
So, this special issue that you put out was probably written by the authors and yourself before the coronavirus pandemic hit. And now today, you know six months into the pandemic, numbers seem to be everywhere from positivity rates and death rates and the R-naught value. And you know, it just seems like we are saturated every day, at least on my news feed as I scroll through the news, it is numbers, it is all these charts. You know, thinking about what you have learned through this special issue, you know, how do you approach all of these COVID-19 numbers that we see so regularly on the news and in the newspapers and on social media?
Nelli Piattoeva 26:45
Well, should I start?
Rebecca Boden 26:47
Will Brehm 26:47
Nelli Piattoeva 26:49
Well, I’m sure there are many ways in which I think COVID has taught us a lot about not only numbers but also the meaning of education and whether or not the role and the meaning of education are possible to capture through numbers. So, for me, it has been really interesting to follow the debate here in Finland, where a lot of attention was brought to the issue of the social meaning of schools in terms of catering for children from unstable backgrounds, providing warm meals on everyday basis, providing the kind of safe environment with an adult that they can trust. And of course, also, we can ask if school means so many other things -apart from just learning and the kind of the results of learning that we can easily quantify in tests- how is it that we can bring back or enrich and diversify our debate on education. So, it’s almost like numbers as they became kind of one of the main means to represent and discuss education; I hope that now we realize that there are many aspects of school life that are not possible to represent through numbers. So, I hope that this is the kind of critique of numbers that we will also, we will be able to develop on the basis of these experiences right that we have all as parents with children at home, as, I guess, social workers and teachers. So, we understand I think now the much broader meaning of schooling in society is way beyond standardized tests and learning.
Will Brehm 28:44
I mean, that is a very hopeful sort of outlook as to what is happening. Rebecca, do you share, you know, Nelli’s, sort of, hopeful spirit when it comes to numbers and our current moment of COVID?
Rebecca Boden 28:55
I do for Finland. But I am in a rather interesting position in that I shuttle back and forth between Finland and the UK. And I spent the first part of the pandemic in Finland and the second part in the UK. And I suppose I will make my remarks about England rather than the United Kingdom here because I think experiences in Wales and Scotland have been so different. But I think what COVID has done for education in the UK is exposed the fragility of schools and indeed of universities in many, many ways. I think COVID has exposed the fragility of almost every institution in the UK, to be quite frank. But schools we have now got a much-heightened awareness of the appalling child poverty rates in the UK, which came about because of things like schools were closed, so kids weren’t getting their free school lunch. And then there was a realization about how so many families in poverty, some 4 million children living in poverty. So, that became exposed, and numbers around child poverty became exposed. The numbers in terms of the finances for universities has become a huge issue because of the realization … because of the marketization of higher education in the UK. If the students don’t come, the universities don’t get their fees, and the universities go broke. So, now we have a very significant number of universities in England in particular in quite dire financial straits. An awareness around the number of overseas students in the UK. So, there’s been a really interesting kind of teasing out and an exposure of the way in which the education system works by all of these really, really awful distressing numbers that have come through. And I personally hope that that has a real kind of important, public, pedagogical role in that people, you know, finally realize that sort of 30% of children in British schools are living in poverty will make them think much more contextually about why schools aren’t doing better. So, I think there’s some kind of appreciation and understanding of those kinds of issues. On a more general level, I think I would say this as an accountant: I find all of the COVID coverage has probably had an important public pedagogical aspect in terms of people’s understanding of statistics and numbers and an appreciation of how they work. You can watch on Facebook, there’s’ much more intelligent kind of discussion and analysis of numbers and a much more kind of critical questioning of them as well. So, little incidents like, you know, the British government sort of counting items of personal protective equipment. They counted gloves individually, rather than as pairs because obviously, we only have one-handed nurses and doctors. So, little incidents like that gives a kind of much greater public awareness of how you know there are “lies, damn lies in statistics” as Darrell Huff wrote kind of 50 years ago. So, that in itself, I am hoping we will have a kind of spillover effect. There’s a huge concern about what’s happening to children in Britain and a complete and utter kind of unwillingness on the part of government to engage with the psychological and the social effects of the trauma that British children have been through. Much worse than Finnish children because it’s been so hard here. And yet government is kind of clinging to its kind of set number things. So, my partner, who is a schoolteacher, has just told me on the radio was a former head of Ofsted, which is the government school Inspection Agency, saying, “Well, children have missed lessons since March”… Well, obviously… “So, there is stuff that they haven’t been taught that they need to be taught. So, teachers should give up their school holidays in order to help these children catch up”. And it is almost as if children are these kind of empty vessels to be filled up with facts, which will then be objectively judged, and they can be graded. So, this is where numbers lead to. It sort of dehumanizes children in particular and turns them into these kind of units that you count. And a complete and utter kind of blindness to the fact that these are kind of human beings. And that, I think, is one of the most distressing things that’s come out. So, that tension has come out. There is also the raw emotion amongst the public around what is happening to their kids, and they can see the mental health difficulties of kids, and a government absolutely, totally committed to this rule by numbers.
Will Brehm 33:45
It is a fascinating tension, as you say. And I think, you know it is not over yet. And I think we will have to sort of monitor this and see what happens going forward. And you know, you are both welcome back to tell us how numbers have played out in the post-COVID world whenever we get there. So, Nelli Piattoeva and Rebecca Boden, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. It really was a pleasure of talking and congratulations on your special issue.
Nelli Piattoeva 34:13
Thank you very much.
Rebecca Boden 34:14
Thank you very much, Will. Thank you.
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