02 July 2008

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Numbers

Last year, I worked with a school that was in the midst of re-centering itself. It's all too easy in the midst of the Death by 1000 Mandates governing us to remember why it is that we choose to be in the classroom---much less think about the future and what we want our schools to be.

I asked the staff to consider three questions: What happens? What matters? What matters most?

They wrote their answers into three concentric rings like this:

The outer ring contained all sorts of ideas about the school day (what happens). The middle ring was meant to focus ideas a bit---our of all the things that happen in a given day, which of those matter? Finally, the center ring was to capture what mattered the most out of everything. People from all walks of school participated and, as you might imagine, a range of answers were generated.

With their permission, I organized the information for them. I chose to use tag clouds. I could have used a graph instead---we could have counted how many people mentioned "parents" or "data." But I don't think it would have had the same impact as the clouds. I used TagCrowd for generating the visuals because it allowed me to put in my own text (most cloud services use URL or other on-line data).

Here is What Happens:

Here is What Matters:

Here is What Matters Most:

You can click on any of the graphics to make them bigger (and more readable). If you're unfamiliar with this sort of graphic representation, all you need to know is that the bigger and bolder the font, the more times the idea was mentioned by the staff.

I have to say that "What happens?" is my favourite. It's this delightful snapshot of a school day---everything from the pledge of allegiance in the morning to kids tipping over chairs to the after school safety patrol groups. There is a certain sense of cacophony to visual. You get a real sense that life in the school is "noisy" and that you are pulled a hundred different directions. It's also interesting to me to see how not only does that noise get dialed back as you progress through the visuals, but the things which garnered the most attention for "What happens?" are not the same things that matter the most. This served as a great jumping off point for talking about why there was this disparity and what we could do about it.

I have to say that it was one of my most favourite staff development activities that I've ever done. I think the visual was powerful in allowing everyone on staff to have a voice in the process and to see it reflected in the work they did together. I am hoping to have an opportunity to use a similar process in the future. There are so many new ways to visualize data, from microcharts to infoporn (safe to click---it's just about where the calories are in grocery stores) to motion graphs. We need to find ways to bring these to the classroom and staff room. They make the stories of our schools come alive and are more than worth 1000 numbers in what they communicate.


Sarah said...

I love the tag cloud idea! In the cloud for "what matters most", I would love to know what everyone's definition of "success" is... it can often be subjective.

The Science Goddess said...

We had a good discussion about "success." You have to keep in mind that most of what was originally generated were short statements. I picked the key word from each to use for the clouds. I did provide the summary of all the "raw" answers for people so they could use those as a reference.

I think the staff is still working on defining "success" and what that looks like on all levels of the school. But this was a great way to get the conversation started. Glad you liked it, too!

Joe said...

I agree with Sarah. I love the tag cloud idea also. I'm definitely sharing this with others and using it myself! :-)

The Science Goddess said...

Steal away! That's how I get most of my ideas. :)

I'm really glad to have been able to use tag clouds in a "real" way. This isn't to say that using them to show how one uses one's blog isn't a legitimate use, but this time, there was an answer for the "So what?" I usually have when I look at them.