What could be better than big data? It has been a huge privilege to spend the past six months visiting an outstanding special school, which has commissioned research on the impact of the Rhythm for Reading programme.
Sensory-shock is one of those over-worked, high impact, culturally jarring phrases bandied about to solicit attention. Its use speaks to violation, but of what? It points to a loss of cognitive control that is immediate and devastating. In this school I learned that even seemingly small changes in the tone of voice of someone new, can be experienced by some of the students, as a sensory-shock.
Imagine the atmosphere. The school succeeds in providing an optimal learning environment. The students’ sensibilities and sensitivities are the priority – not simply on the mission statement, but always, everyday, all of the time. The students feel good; therefore they make progress, are productive and stay focussed. Maintaining high performance conditions for the students is what makes this special school extra special.
Having learned so much by visiting every week, I continue to learn as I engage with the data. In a natural setting where stress is minimised at all times, the effect of the Rhythm for Reading programme on learning is evident. On the other hand, when one class had a change of teacher, thus generating a shift in the conditions, the data clearly showed the effect of stress, which is also of interest.
Big data are not responsive to isolated events in individual lives; such events are simply aggregated into the muffled ambience of the overall picture. In other words, the immediate and devastating temporary loss of cognitive control caused by stress cannot be sensed by big data unless it is a relatively-widely occurring trend. Humans have evolved to be highly attuned to the emotional responses and needs of others, but our socio-cultural scripts have determined that our emotional sensibilities are relatively suppressed, which is why the big data revolution appears to be moving in the right direction.
Just as the school provided an ideal learning environment tailored to meet the students’ needs and sensitivities, it is appropriate to reflect in depth on the progress made in the specific setting, to map the trajectories of individual students and groups of students and to keep the influence of the context and conditions very much to the fore. This type of approach is grounded in the detail, conditions and context and therefore provides high levels of internal validity. The data collected from teachers and students also speak to the context and equip the school to contribute confidently to a wider debate about progressive teaching and the future of SEN education. Real data, grounded in the context of the real world, could be better than big data.