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Educational Statistics: The Pandemic's Ally or Foe?

If like me, statistics conjures up images of a long-troubled relationship, welcome to this blog. It is written with you in mind. If like me, you begrudgingly, one eye closed, interrogate numbers to make sense of your world, worry not, “I have got you”, and even have an emoji to match this sentiment! However, if you were the mathematics genius, skipping all the way to math lesson 001, and you are drawn towards the allure of mathematics in everyday life, seeing the world as Fibonacci, then I have something interesting in store, for you too. I hope that this blog will dismantle the assembly of numbers as statistical jargon, and expose the real ‘stories’ behind statistics, as humans with histories, futures, opportunities and dreams.

When I hear statements like, if business as usual continues, 2080 is the year when pupil learning outcomes in the global south will catch up with those of the global north, I comprehend the implications of such a statement with mixed feelings but presumably, accept that some clever mathematician somewhere, made some even cleverer calculations and projections to arrive at this statement. If this statement originates from a large international institution, I am sure you can think of a few, then I rarely question its conception. I assume that some clever geek made some assumptions which they called hypotheses in true statistical style and most probably followed it with a swanky graph for ease of interpretation for those at the back of the statistical world. More relevant perhaps and pandemic related, is the alarming learning disparities around the world exacerbated by the pandemic. You may have heard about the impact of the pandemic on different groups of children, especially the poorest, who were probably already lagging behind the ideal ‘learner curve’, and the pandemic, as though by magic, exposed their technology poverty, parental gaps and other inequalities.

For the children in the global south, the situation is worse and potentially more urgent because the education landscape before the pandemic was already in learner crisis to the tune of 60 years’ worth of learning gap between the global south and the global north as discussed above. This will most definitely have increased due to the pandemic; however, I think it is important to stop for a moment to reflect on the challenge of blindly accepting education statistics and how debilitating this can be if we do not critically engage with them. For instance, what is this learner crisis? It would be pointless to answer this question without knowing where we ought to be on the education journey as opposed to where we want to be, say in 60 years? Countries, regions and even children will have different ambitions, how do we reconcile this? Do we want to aspire to be where the global north currently is, in 60 years? What is our competitive advantage? Can we even do better by learning from the mistakes of the global north to turbocharge our vision of quality education?

A closer interrogation of the 2080 aspiration evokes further questions, indulge yourself too:

  • If the global south were to ‘catch up’ with the global north in 2080, does that mean that the global north will remain static? Does the global south have to run a marathon at a 100metre pace? Is that sustainable for global south countries aspire to arrive at this point at the same time in 2080?
  • If the global north is inundated with challenges in their education system, including limited non-classroom based learning, factory-style education and low vocational focus, should the global north be the flagpole upon which the global south is measured, and aspirations based?
  • Global north classrooms adopt the concept of learning at the right level, which enables children to be categorised according to their abilities. Surely, the same principle should be accorded to countries which have different levels of development, resources, aspirations and cultures. Why is it, that the standard to be achieved by countries is universal when they are not equal?
  • Lastly, when calculating the 60-year gap in learning outcomes, what was measured? Who decided that this was the most important variable to measure? What was excluded?

Statistics are an abstraction of ‘unknowns’ reproduced in sophisticated algorithms and graphs using elitist jargon and when not carefully contextualised, serve the interests and knowledges of those involved in producing them and not the people they purport to display. Statistics then become the muscle and skills of the gladiator in a roman amphitheatre, recreated in a globalised education arena. We become spectators in the bloody combat of the mighty and lose ourselves, sometimes momentarily in the euphoria of the display of greatness showcased before us. Without ethical responsibility, statistics can be a tool that perpetuates injustices especially when they are adopted blindly without critical application. Besides, who can argue with a statistical regression which is supposedly the work of a ‘bulletproof’ code, engineered through years of machine learning and mathematical modelling? While I continue to wince at statics, I hope that we can all can speak truth to the power of statistics by interrogating the ingredients which were used to make the sumptuous statistical meals served to us, however famished we may be.

An example of the power of transformational statistics in Uganda is Mobile Money (MM). Introduced in 2009 as a model of mobile-based financial transaction for the informal sector, catering for those who did not meet the elite requirements to open up a bank account, enabling individuals to have their mobile number to act as an account on which they could deposit money, pay for goods and services conveniently, for a small fee. By 2019, $31 billion worth of transactions had been made via MM. To appreciate the size of this sector, we can compare it to Uganda’s economy in the same year which was GDP $34 billion. Out of a population of 45 million people, of whom more than 50% are under 15 years, there are 27 million MM account holders. This implies that most eligible adults of over 18 years probably have more than one MM account. Synthesising the above statistics enables us to appreciate the potential of mobile technology to transform the education sector. We can begin to aspire beyond the global north standards as the gold standard, looking internally at our own competitive advantages and opportunities, reimagining our future and education. Mobile technology and mobile financial services present a powerful asset to Uganda’s education aspirations. Are we harnessing this potential fully through research, investment and teaching?

Statistics are not just numbers. They are powerful recreations of life and make meaning of life. When life is infused within a painted statistical canvas, we can see our life beyond our current human limitations. In that moment, Fibonacci is recreated, redacted and enacted.

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What do you think?

Written by Bea Simpson

PhD Scholar at Cambridge University | Co-Founder Tusome Africa

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