On the wicked and the tame: data and educational policy

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Data now proliferates across education systems globally. In this regard, data not only represents the outcomes of education but also drives educational ventures. International comparisons such as PISA abound and are used regularly to comment on the state of play vis-à-vis national standards and quality. Added to this, national testing is a feature of many systems, and this in turn drives the work of schools and teachers (c.f. Adams, 2008). But the use of data is not unproblematic. It is notable that commentators across jurisdictions cite both in favour of or in opposition to the use of data as a means to direct educational development. Such discussions are woven into the fabric of commentary on education and such data commentary can often be found in media outlets which regularly discuss the ways and means by which social problems can be dealt with more effectively. Matters such as educational attainment are paraded as an issue to be discussed and debated ideologically and politically. One aspect of this debate is the means to which educational, and other, data are put. At the national level, certain jurisdictions (for example England, Australia, USA) regularly utilise quantitative data outputs to create policy imperatives which drive the development of national and local systems and so convey meaning on an international stage; in such endeavours, associations are found, assumptions are drawn and causation is inferred. But the problems and issues that this use of data seeks to solve are often quite intractable and beyond simplistic understanding or comment. Problematically, what often follow such ‘issues identification’ are simplistic measures designed to alleviate problems and build on strengths. In short, a rational policy-making approach is often to be found, dealing, as it does, with the most efficient means to get from situation A to solution B. These technical-rational solutions rest on the assumption that information, goals and targets and associated methods will efficiently and effectively achieve objectives (Head and Alford, 2013). Notably, though, such technical approaches to social policy problem solving overlook the values, perspectives and lived experiences of those involved (Head, 2008).What this often leads to are performance measures designed to identify and track improvement in reductionist ways: performance measures are set; appropriate behaviours to demonstrate success are identified; and, measures are taken to audit behaviour and outputs. These measures are then used to signal success or otherwise. However, as Rittel and Weber (1973: 159) state ‘As we seek to improve the effectiveness of actions in pursuit of valued outcomes, as system boundaries get stretched, and as we become more sophisticated about the complex workings of open societal systems, it becomes ever more difficult to make the planning idea operational.’In operation, though, policy is much more difficult to pin down. Problems, although seen to be ‘tame’, are in fact far more ‘wicked’ (Rittel and Weber, 1973) in their nature and require different solutions. This paper, then, uses the work of Rittel and Weber (1973) to identify the ways in which the use of data has become ‘tamified’ that is, subject to simplistic, rational decision-making at the expense of an approach that explicitly acknowledges and works with the problematic and difficult. The paper identifies the problems with ‘tame’ data use, and instead proposes that data and associated educational approaches and policy be seen through the lens of the ‘wicked’; that is, through an approach that sees policy problems as highly divergent, uncertain and complex. Convergence around these three themes gives rise to wickedity (Bore and Wright, 2009).Methods: This paper uses work instigated by Rittel and Webber (1973) to argue for a re-conceptualisation of the way in which data can be used at the level of the professional, the organisation and the system. Specifically, it starts from the viewpoint that scientific and technical expertise alone cannot solve problems and that values debate and deliberation concerning the nature of issues and possible ways forward needs to occur. This is a deliberative process where values 'frame' the definition of problems. Given that different social groups will have different problem solving measures and approaches and that modern social problems are often ill-defined, inter-linked and rely on political judgements, simple cause and effect relations are insufficient as policy solutions. To follow, the paper then argues that whilst policy might, at face value, seem simple and straightforward, it is in fact deceptively complex and that the issues faced by theorists and policy makers are now increasingly intractable (Wexler, 2009). What follows here is the way in which the ‘complex turn’ has led to deepening dissatisfaction with technical-rational solutions and an embracing of complexity. Technical-rationality could not, argue Head and Alford (2013: 3) ‘come to grips with the professional norms and practical knowledge of those who provide valued services to individual clients experiencing real problems. Nor could it comprehend the experiences of diverse citizens who are supposed to be helped by these interventions and the values underlying their needs and desires (e.g., equity, respect, opportunity, adequacy of resources).’ The paper duly proposes that ‘tame’ solutions, i.e. those that are well-defined and stable, with a defined solution that is clearly right or wrong that belong to subsets of classes that can be so defined and actioned in the future and with self-evident solutions are not necessarily to be found in the educational policy realm. Rather, educational policy, it is argued, is mostly ‘wicked’; that is it: has no definite formulation; continually evolves; has solutions that can only be described as better or worse; do not fit into a classification system; and have many causal levels. The paper argues that to understand the ways in which data can be used for educational purposes ‘wickedity’ (Bore and Wright, 2009) needs to be considered, planned for and addressed. There is a need to ensure that such considerations are at the forefront of policy enactment and formation that ustilises various forms of data and data capturing techniques. Findings: From the above the paper then identifies three ways in which education policy can be conceived: as ‘what works’; as ‘evidence informed’; and as ‘policy as evidence formation’. These positions are resultant of an acknowledgement of increasing levels of wickedity; that is, as policy is reconceptualised from ‘what works’ through ‘evidence informed’ to ‘as evidence formation’, greater attention needs to be paid to the ways in which policy-problems have no set rules for engagement. What is argued in the latter position is that policy is self-forming through the actions of those at the level of the policy enactment, rather than at the level of the policy discourse. Policy is formed through the moment-by-moment actions that go together to make up the ‘educational moment’. Due to the fact that data plays a large role in the formation of human interaction, and due to the fact that the instantaneousness of human interaction is highly divergent, uncertain and complex, data is a wicked issue. From this the paper then posits that educational policy needs to be based on two things: thinking which is global, undertaken from multiple perspectives, and which is uncertain; and based on action that is long term in orientation, contextualised and flexible. Accordingly, two taxonomies are provided which consider thinking and action at the level of the professional, the organisation and the system. These two taxonomies, it is argued, provide a lens through which can be examined the ways in which data is both produced within education and the producer of education. These taxonomies provide those engaged with educational policy with a means by which they might understand and utilise data in its wicked forms.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 23 Aug 2016
EventAnnual European Conference for Educational Research - University College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland
Duration: 23 Aug 201626 Aug 2016


ConferenceAnnual European Conference for Educational Research


  • data
  • educational policy
  • performance measures

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    Adams, P. (2016). On the wicked and the tame: data and educational policy. Paper presented at Annual European Conference for Educational Research, Dublin, Ireland.