Saturday, May 19, 2012

Give Me That Old Time Religion

We are not new acolytes in the service of charts and graphs. Some of us may worship at the altar of Excel, but that does not mean others have not had their own methodology and purpose.

It is surprising how many schoolmen avoid charts and graphs as though their use required calculus and the practice of the black art. Successful practice of school administration is no different from the practice of business; both require the constant habit of visualization. Many problems of school administration involve the clear and concise presentation of facts and relationships. The stump speaker to the contrary notwithstanding, facts do not speak for themselves. Relationships have to be made vivid to be understood. Unless facts and relationships are presented in a manner at once clear and interesting, they are as useless as locks without keys. Charts and graphs present facts and relationships more forcefully, in less time, and require no more space than the same facts presented in words.
---Bowman, E.L. 1921. Graphic aids in school administration, article I: visualizing organization facts. American School Board Journal, 63(12), 29 - 31. 

Last month, I introduced you to E.L. Bowman---enthusiastic proponent of data visualization as watchtower for schools in the 1920's. I have two more of his articles to share. I like these little historical snapshots. Technology may have been a limiting factor in getting these ideas to take root, but there was still a lot of deep thinking happening about the potential of using data for educational purposes.

In the first article, Visualizing Organization Facts, Bowman extols the virtues of organizational charts like this one:

He also looks at flow charts for coursework and job responsibilities. Bowman includes rules for drawing and duplicating charts, while reminding us that "If [a superintendent] causes these plans to appear in the form of graphs, he makes easier the comprehension of his ideas by others." Mind you, he also likes the idea of using these charts to remind others who's the boss. (Not so different from today.) While I have rarely seen org charts used by schools and districts, I do think that visually presenting processes could be a very powerful tool for schools. What are the pathways for graduation? What interventions are available for students who need additional support for their learning? What are the next steps with behavioral issues? How could graphics help communicate with non-English speaking families about navigating school with their children?

The last article that I have (so far) is about Establishing Routine through Graphs. Here's my favourite quote from this one:
There is scarcely a state school system in the country ·that has not in the past called for unnecessary statistics in the compilation of its annual reports from subordinate districts. Much of the data thus demanded on pain of forfeiture of state subsidy was never used, but was embalmed somewhere in a bulky printed volume.

Remember, this was 80 years before NCLB. I'm telling you, the dude was ahead of his time. Anyway, in this article, Bowman focuses on the procedures schools use to make purchases, track time, and develop lessons.

In most cases, I feel like these visualizations are cumbersome and unnecessary. I'd hope that most of these "routines" are streamlined today, either due to better prepared workers or technological advances. I was amused at the end of the article to read Bowman describe the awesomeness that is having a calendar on your desk. Word.

If my forays into Google Books reveal any more of the long lost gospels of data viz in schools, I'll be sure to post them here. For now, go in peace.

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