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Blog: Conveying evaluative messages: infographics, chocolates and full inboxes


Dr Mark Abrahams

Posted 3 years ago

We all value or prefer certainty over uncertainty and unpredictability. Certainty provides a sense of security, a modicum of control and some level of satisfaction when things unfold as we expect them to. That is partly why we appreciate the graphs and the tables - even if these graphs and tables only deal with speculations and predictions based on patterns, the numbers reflect some level of knowing, of certainty and of control.

And if the graphs and numbers are expertly explained as we try to ‘flatten the curve’ we draw comfort in the knowledge that the professionals know what they are doing and the graphs and numbers provide the evidence we need. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, evaluators were encouraged to play around with data visualisation software so that we could display the numbers more attractively and creatively. The software has enabled us to get data from anywhere and everywhere and to measure, compare, contrast and predict patterns of behaviour. For example, this is the same way that businesses are using the algorithms to monitor our patterns of shopping through their loyalty programmes and then they do target marketing of the products they know we prefer. This has become the way of the world, everything is summarised through infographics. Don’t get me wrong, in this era of social media and fast-paced information sharing we need to communicate with speed, succinctly and above all accurately. However, in the midst of this pandemic, as we grapple to make informed decisions about education, about schools, about their readiness, about teaching and learning, about learners and teachers, I propose that we, as social scientists and evaluators, pause to think about the people represented by the numbers that we display in our graphs and tables.

Yes, there are many deaths and the pain and suffering caused by this pandemic are very real to the families, relatives and friends of the deceased, whether there were underlying health conditions or not, but I am also considering those on the frontline, for example the health professionals who supply the data we consume. They are our reporters from the frontline of the battlefield; they are admired, appreciated and honoured by all. With schools reopening, educators, teachers, principals, school administrators and learners will criss-cross the much broader battle zone of the Corona Virus. In a quest to make informed decisions, to prove a political point, to assess conditions on the ground, to effectively mobilise resources, to take a position on whether to support the opening of schools or not, the school principals have been inundated with questionnaires, surveys, circulars, and other forms of requests for information and confirmation. Whatever the reasons behind their actions or the focus of the enquiry, they are all searching for evidence, for data, for information and the school principal is the one person targeted to provide the relevant details.

My recent engagement (pre-COVID-19) with four very different secondary schools in a mathematics improvement project required soliciting (via email) school and learner data from the four respective school principals. The one better-off school – located in a leafy middleclass suburb had an email address starting with Principal@schoolname..., the other three schools located in three townships had the names of the school’s principals and one personal account. The better-off school responded the next day, acknowledging receipt and agreed to return the questionnaire within three days as some effort was required. It took several more emails and telephone calls before the others agreed to attend to this task and a couple of weeks before any information were shared about the schools and the learners. A visit to the schools for face-to-face interviews revealed that the school principal in the better-off school had never even seen the first email requesting information. Everything was managed by the school administrator who dispatched the task to the one deputy-principal (there were two others) who was responsible for learner data and academic performance. We diligently noted the outcomes of the mathematics intervention project and found that on aggregate all learners, across the different schools, performed better after the intervention. We also found that that in the schools where the principals were more connected to the project and showed more interest, the learners were more motivated and performed better. We noted that just as schools and school bodies are very different in the South African context, school principals as our key informants for education are very different people as well. Something to think about.

We noted that just as schools and school bodies are very different in the South African context, school principals as our key informants for education are very different people as well.

Without thinking much I vividly picture my friend Phumla who is a school principal for the last seven years of a quintile three, as she calls it, ‘black but not poor enough’ secondary school. She lives, breathes and spends most of her time in the interest of the school, the learners and the community. Being an academically high performing school, located in a township comes with loads of pressure and expectations. The school is finally able to accommodate all its learners comfortably and the new buildings, the hall, the two computer labs although now two years old, present a welcome and spacious environment for many of the learners who experience their cramped shack spaces daily. Phumla is known as the ‘iron lady’ because of a strict no-nonsense attitude and for being a stickler for rules. She has personally met every single parent or guardian of the learners when they started at her school and the signed social compacts or contracts for each child are accompanied by observation notes she makes of the many mothers, and grandmothers and the few fathers that accompanied the learners. She spends one hour per day focusing on adding notes to the files of learners that were reported by teachers or other staff and a specific grade for each day. She often comes across a name of a learner where there is ‘nothing to report’ and she makes a note ‘check with teacher’ for herself. What is very satisfying for her is that her school is getting most of the top learners from the feeder primary schools in the area. She has achieved this through direct marketing with the primary school counterparts who are all female and they encourage their top learners to select her school as first choice before opting to travel outside of the area where they live to former model C schools offering them scholarships. Much of the school’s financial support has been from sources external to the school parent community, including international donors but Phumla has managed to secure the ongoing support of a few local corporate partners who are pleased with the quality of reporting and the very many achievements of the learners, academically and in broader fields such as culture and sports.

But the ‘iron lady’ persona is merely a façade, a mask she is forced to wear to manage the school, the learners, the parents, her staff, the education department, and her mostly male colleagues and fellow school principals she interacts with daily. Phumla is a single parent of a daughter doing second year law studies at a university in another province. Her husband walked out on them three years ago because he did not sign up to play second fiddle to her school and her ambitions, especially after she told him she was thinking of doing her doctoral studies. This was too much for him. Her sister has moved in with her and keeps her company and she often cries herself to sleep. She and her sister share the family curse of diabetes and she has been struggling with her weight as in forever.

The stress of her work environment, a deputy principal with a drinking problem, the conflict management role she plays in the church community, the intermittent swollen ankles and her raving crave for chocolates has given her numerous sleepless nights but still she feels blessed and driven to ensure the success of her learners. So, before lock-down regulations were announced and schools were formally closed, she made sure her daughter was back home safe and she had a medical check-up. Then she was ready to deal with the challenges, at least she thought she was. Throughout the lock-down period and more recently, Phumla was inundated with various departmental forms and very many questionnaires about the school, her learners and she was provided with updates about the spread of the virus in the country, in the province and the districts. Once she was forced to travel to the school after a burglary and she had to make out an insurance report about the computer equipment that got stolen from one of the computer laboratories. Her deputy was incoherent when she called him to assist.Somehow, the reputation of ‘iron lady’ was not enough to marshal the staff during school closure and she found it difficult to assert her authority in the online environment where staff members blamed limited access to wi-fi, lack of data, faulty cell-phones or computers for their inability to connect regularly and stay connected. The reports about their online engagement with the learners were equally poor and, in some cases, non-existent. When asked to report about this during the schools’ closure, she embellished what was happening on a small-scale to make out that it pertained to all teachers and learners. They are now back at school and not as ready as they want to be. She has indicated this in the surveys conducted by the teacher unions, the principals’ forum, by the provincial department, by the circuit office and by the district office. She is anxious about the health risk to the learners and her staff and anxious about the future of her learners because some staff members are not returning because they fear for their health as they have various co-morbidities.

Parents want to know from her if they should send the children and other parents are begging her to accept the learners because they have to go back to work. The matriculants have received much better attention than the other learners but they too are anxious about workloads and time to prepare for their examinations. Phumla has fielded hundreds telephone calls from the departmental officials, parents, newspaper and radio reporters, NGOs and she has been trying to stay in touch with her corporate sponsors because some of the staff appointed by her and the governing body rely on the funding being available.

She feels bad that she has not been able to keep up with files on her learners, she has stopped attending to all the questionnaires in her inbox. The school administrator completes the questionnaires now as Phumla just does not have the time, the energy and the capacity. She is too busy trying to keep up with regulations pertaining to the health and welfare of learners and staff, human resources regulations for staff, protocols about engaging individuals face-to-face or online and she is required to become an online instructional leader so that she can support her staff members who are frantic about all the new challenges. The demands on her time, attention and her mental strength are increasing daily. She is very concerned about what to expect when the bulk of her learners return to school. In spite of the school’s best efforts they cannot protect the learners from physical abuse at home, from the violent crime, from drug abuse, from teenage pregnancy, from hunger and from death. All Phumla longs to do is to go home, to rest her sore ankles and to have a chocolate. Let’s remind ourselves that she is a key informant providing (when she can) many of us with valuable information.

Let’s remind ourselves that she is a key informant providing (when she can) many of us with valuable information. During this era of information explosion, someone referred to it as an ‘infodemic’, I looked at a graphic depicting the latest COVID-19 related deaths in South Africa and my first thoughts were: “what attractive colours! Brilliant use of provincial maps! The different sizes of the numbering work well”. Like a lot of people, I have become numb to the message of death, the messages of pain and suffering and protect myself by focusing on the bells and whistles. In order to make evidence-informed decisions about the schooling and educational challenges ahead of us, we will need accurate data.

As social scientists we have a duty and opportunity to provide the accurate data required to allow organisations to make life changing and now life preserving decisions. The marketing experts have learned that numbers, graphs, and tables make a limited impression on people. They now show, even if these are actors, the people who selected whatever product, the individuals that chose a certain lifestyle or the family that benefited from an intervention

As collectors and sense-makers of data, let us remember that Phumla is more than a number. As a woman she faces many obstacles, as a woman-in-charge she is always under scrutiny and as an educational leader, she is indispensable.

My experience has been that it may cost a bit more in terms of time and effort, but it is worthwhile in the end to follow up on email or online requests for information and to express clearly the purpose of the request and how the information is intended to be used.

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