The story behind the numbers

329 lbs. That is the image that was posted on Instagram this week by a friend of mine while standing on a scale in his bathroom. To many, they would see this number and question the health of my friend. 329 lbs is 160 lbs more than I weigh. Why would anyone take pride in sharing this picture with the world and celebrating this weight with so many others…well…a person who has spent the last 18 months losing more than 190 lbs, That’s who. 329 lbs is an AMAZING celebration. 329 lbs represents months of hard work and sacrifice. 329 lbs is a testimony to what is possible with focus and effort.

I weigh 180lbs. I run on average, 50 miles per week. I compete in marathons. I am 41 years old. I have a resting heart rate of 61. I visit the gym to lift weights 5 days a week. To many I would be an example of health. However, what if I also told you that I never met my grandfather on my dad’s side because he died of a massive heart attack when my dad was still a teenager? What if I also told you that my dad had his first heart attack when he was in his 40’s? What if I told you depression and diabetes were conditions that were prevalent on the maternal side of my family? Does your impression of my health change at all?

We are at an interesting time in American schools where numbers are used to try to tell stories, and often times are used to try and tell the whole story. The reality is that numbers often represent a snapshot in time and without greater context, often tell us very little. I am a proponent for assessment. I believe in the power of formative assessment to help guide instruction. I believe teachers should work to become data literate, but this means helping them understand the full story behind data. Just as literacy in most schools is a focus on teaching students to make sense of letters and words-teaching them to piece them together to make greater sense when used in full context- we all need to be data literate, able to understand that numbers in isolation rarely tell the full story and never show the future.

Take a look at the chart below. It represents real data based on real numbers. What it shows is that in my home state of Michigan, researchers have discovered a correlation. They have discovered that when kids are eating more ice cream there are more childhood deaths associated with drowning. Again, this is a real statistic. Some may see this and come to the conclusion that ice cream should be banned. That it is causing the death of children. Others, however, may look a little deeper and begin to ask the right questions: When are kids eating ice cream? When are kids swimming? When they realize that both of these events occur more frequently in the summer, they may begin to realize that although ice cream consumption and drownings are correlated, they are not causes. Data, numbers, can tell us something, but rarely do they tell us everything.


Earning a g.p.a of a 4.0 is an amazing accomplishment, but so is earning a 2.8 by a student who may have come from a home with no former high school graduates and little parental supervision.

Running a 3:45 marathon is incredible, but so is walking across the room for the 1st time, leaning on the shoulder of a hospice nurse after recovering from a life altering stroke.

Giving a 12 minute TED talk is fantastic, but so is listening to a child speak his first words as an infant learning to communicate.

We have to get ourselves to a place where we understand that numbers are important, but they NEVER tell us everything. Numbers guide us on the questions to ask, but should never be used as the answer. What numbers do you collect on kids…and adults…in your school? Do you know what they really say or have you already made up your mind?


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