8 ways to use school data so that students are treated as humans

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Since January, a new leadership role for me is based in our head office where our Teacher Academy provides training and support across our 28 UK Campuses. Developing, implementing and evaluating a programme for all of our teachers is a privilege and leads to rich conversations with a committed team. As part of our two day residential courses, teacher are encouraged to undertake action research (an area where I have lots of experience)  around their identified topic.

Data was the focus of the course this week. This is an area that often provides a strong reaction in teachers, even without us asking which comes first, assessment or data? One delegate, who didn’t realise that they were attending a data course, commented that they had nothing to do with data. When they responded positively when asked if they had ever marked a book and changed a lesson as a result, I gently pointed out that was data. Furthermore, I asked whether they had ever used information about a child’s background or home circumstances when planning a lesson. The teacher had and therefore realised that data was in use all the time to enable better learning. Data too often reduces staff and students to spreadsheets and a RAG rating. It’s far too easy to forget that there are humans behind the numbers.

Indeed, the first rule about data is that we work with humans, not numbers: there is always a story behind the individual. For example, data is useful, especially in larger schools, for identifying patterns, lines of enquiry and questions.

Consider he following video where Joshua Bell, one of the world’s most renounced musicians, busked in Washington DC.

I wonder, how many great students go unnoticed because we don’t look beyond the data?

At the start of the second day, we employed the ‘I used to think…. now I think’ visible learning strategy to spark a discussion. It’s important to note that the organisation has no strong tradition of being data rich and data driven, a contrast to many educational settings. The resulting dialogue was waring as, nit only did it affirm that the first day’s input has been reflected upon, but that the cohort had really grasped the key themes we were trying to achieve. It also demonstrated that we had moved away from some of the common misconceptions of data, such as:

  • It’s a tick-box exercise
  • Data only flows upwards for leadership and inspectors
  • Data is used only for leaders to hold teachers to account
  • Data is to keep parents happy
  • Target grades are far too hard to reach

1. Data needs to inform planning

The main purpose of data is to make learning better. It is to allow the teacher to ask the questions such as:

  • ‘Did I explain that clearly?’
  • ‘What misconceptions need addressing?’
  • ‘What key knowledge do we need to revisit?’

Data that isn’t used for this purpose, I would argue, is pointless. If such data exists and has taken time to collate, then we need to stop it. Stop it right now. Spend time on planning, marking and teaching.

I remember working with a brilliant History teacher of almost 30 years. He joked about his ‘data dice’ that he rolled to make up the numbers. He explained that he just underestimated where the child was at the start of the year and uniformly put them up, held them where they are through the data cycles. The reason? No one ever spoke to him about what he put in. Leaders take note. As a Head of Geography, we spoke openly about the information we inputted and asked questions about it.  Data must flow in both directions.

2. Data isn’t just numbers

Sure, attainment and achievement data are important (if you don’t know the difference, look it up…). We all know that, moderated, carefully planned and well marked test information is brilliant. But. There is so much more. I always keep a record of each student’s interests and information. It’s in a little book. I add in conversations with parents, homework information (we’ve banned that word this year by the way), participation in the talent show or sporting achievement. I do this for two reasons. The first is that I have a rubbish memory. The second, and most important, is that this information is used to build relationships. During the meet and greet at the door I’ll ask about the hobby, dream or passion. Good relationships between teacher and student are the key to successful educational outcomes.

A structured conversation often yields far more powerful data than test results in ensuring that every students achieves. Although without data you’re just another person with an opinion (W. Edwards Deming), a series of anecdotes that tell the same story can be opinions that become powerful learning data.

3. Data depends on the audience

I’m a parent, classroom teacher, school leader, system leader and chair of governors. For each of those roles, I want different data and a different way of presentation. As a parent, I’m not concerned with the progress of a young person (when was the last time you heard of an employer asking about a child’s progress by the way? ‘I need someone with a P8 of at least +0.5’ or do they want people who have attained high grades?).

Teachers and leaders needs to be adept at summarising and seeing the overall pattern, then doing something about it. The most important audience of your data? The students in front of you.

Ofsted? Thats the problem of SLT to crunch the numbers and pour over the spreadsheets, as long as we don’t become the Dangerous Data Deputy who lives for the spreadsheet but forgets to speak to the child.

4. Data is the start of an enquiry

It’s quite interesting being in an all through environment as it’s tested my belief that progress can’t be seen within a lesson. (I am an advocate of sequences of lessons, like Mark Enser) This is because, in Year 3 handwriting, you can see the progress within a lesson. Of course, this needs to be built upon, but a primary exercise book is a stunning artefact of learning where progress is very visible. But I get distracted. Any data is always the start of an enquiry and shouldn’t be the start of a witch hunt. It’s not about who is to blame, but what is going on and what can we do about it?

I once worked for an inspirational headteacher who taught me to always ask questions from data sets:

  • What is the current picture?
  • What are we gong to do about it?
  • What will the impact be? How will we know?

I’m always suspicious of data that shows a continuous upward trend as we all know that progress over time isn’t neat and linear. Have the high accountability stakes and performance related pay have driven teachers not be be honest?

The key for any leader is that data shouldn’t be used to blame, but to enquire. For example, after showing a teacher the whole Year 10 data set, and how anomalous theirs looked compared to others. Through asking questions, we reached an answer and a way forward, as well as identifying the main problem as a break down of communication around working at and predicted grades. The problem lay with me, not the teacher.

5. Ignore the outliers

So many conversations around data focus on the exceptions. Now, although every child counts, or matters, when analysing data many teachers forget about the main body of young people that need input. It’s easy to spend a lot of time on 3-4 students that either overachieve or underachieve at the expense of the 28 or so other students in the class.

6. We must always ask ‘what can we stop doing?’

Collecting any form of data whether through feedback, observation, marking, structured conversations, attendance or focus groups takes a long time. We need to prioritise with what makes the difference and stop doing what doesn’t. For example, does writing an individual comments about every child in a report that goes out three weeks later a good use of time? Shouldn’t teachers just talk to the young people in front of them? With sophisticated software and algorithms, shouldn’t reports home to parents write themselves from existing data? Why do teachers have to double enter data? What is the point of any information if it is hidden from others?

7. Data must be fit for purpose

Look, you may have the most colourful class markbook ever but, if what you put in is rubbish, it isn’t going to help. For example, the results of a science department were transformed when, informed by research, we saw that the end of unit tests were not asking students about what they had learned in previous units.

Similarly, we improved the results in geography by ensuring we provided opportunities for students to deliberately practise the higher order skill of analysis rather than simple knowledge and explanation. Don’t get e wrong, I love the knowledge test but, knowledge is actually with quite a small proportion of the marks and ‘describe’ and ‘explain’ are only two of a dozen or so command words.

8. Data causes emotional responses

In students, reachers, parents, leaders, inspectors and governors. Data are never objective. A dropped test mark can motivate one and destroy others. reinforce the self-talk that a student is rubbish or a teacher is untouchable. Be wary of relying upon one metric, and triangulate with a number of different sources of information and, no matter what, follow any information with a coaching conversation that results in a change. Data without action is as useful as a chocolate fireguard.

Reading: The Magic-Weaving Business, Sir John Jones

Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

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