Importance of context

Kiwi teachers are four times less likely to be criminals than the average person. Phew, that’s good news. Despite average pay, low entry benchmarks and mixed training quality, our teachers turn out to be more honest and scrupulous than the average New Zealander.

This week political debate ensued after the release of statistics showing that over two years, almost 300 teachers were reported to their governance body because they were convicted of criminal acts.

The range of crimes were violence, sexual offending, drug and alcohol offences, pornography and dishonesty.

It doesn’t sound good – hundreds of teachers were with our children eight hours every day while they led criminal lives.

What is an acceptable rate of convictions? Surely it ought to be better than the average population. It turns out that it is – four times better in fact.

The teaching community attempted to place some context where Government agencies felt they could not (Neither the Government, MoE or the Teachers Council had material offering context). They said that it wasn’t too bad considering there were 100,000 teachers (The Department of Labour says there were 66,000 teachers in 2002 – so I imagine that the definition of teacher has been widened to reach 100,000).

They were undoubtedly worried that saying anything else would appear to be defending these ‘criminals’. But by offering platitudes and not hard contextual data the public is left only with the nasty facts to use for their judgement on the teaching profession. 

From a political communication perspective, transparent information cements misconceptions because of a double-whammy mental effect; it provides simplified “data” which people store in their minds as information about a subject, and it attaches an emotional feeling gained from reading the data story.

In this case we not only have uncontextualised data which shows offending by hundreds of teachers, it is presented as a “high level” of offending, illustrated with some lurid examples.  

Political organisations MUST provide context assertively if they hope to fend off or temper harsh judgement now, or in the future. Facts and stories live past a 24 news cycle. This data will be retained by people and used consciously and subconsciously in their judgement of the teaching profession into the future.

In this case, the information added to an individuals store of data about teachers will be something like: “hundreds of teachers are sex and violence criminals”.

The aim of context is to provide a replacement piece of data that helps people choose to see the data in a more realistic light. In this case it would be something like: “teachers are four times more trustworthy than all other people in my town”.

Without context, the fad of ‘transparency’ of information does not lead to better politics and policy. Instead, uncontextualised data or other information provides an unrealistic sense of scientific accuracy and rigour. This then drives policy steps which are consequently misguided and often disproportionate.


Criminal convicton rate among teachers. A search on the Teacher Council and Government websites could not find the source data. Please let me know if you know where it is.

Criminal conviction rate among NZ population

Check out another blog on the issue on Thomas Lumley’s Stats Chat

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