How do you use data to inform your practice?

One of the common questions asked of candidates when interviewing for leadership positions is ‘How do you use data to inform your practice?’

Very often, the responses will circle the topic without actually addressing the question. It would be fair to say that most respondents speak to the interpretation of achievement results in standardises tests such as NAPLAN and PAT. This is probably not unexpected, given the constant pressure to improve academic achievement in our classrooms.  And, of course, nationally, we are constantly being reminded of our global standings in the likes of PISA and TIMMS.

Marc Prensky, in From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom said “…assessment is important, if used correctly, for helping both students and teachers improve.” (p17). But he also said “… high stakes assessments of today are poorly designed, used badly and give us wrong information. (…) They are used badly because they only serve to rank, and do not provide useful feedback to students and teachers to help them improve.”(p17)

Data from standardised assessments like NAPLAN might be better used for initiating professional discussions instead of driving decision-making or shaping school improvement plans.

Without in any way diminishing the importance of academic achievement, I suggest that focusing solely on data that relates to academic achievement is short-sighted. Education encompasses more than just gaining fundamental academic and knowledge-based skills; it crucially involves nurturing emotional, spiritual, moral, and ethical virtues. We as educators should not only measure the acquisition of knowledge but must also exercise discernment in evaluating social and emotional growth.

As well as knowledge and skills, a school’s legacy to young people should include national values of democracy, equity and justice, and personal values and attributes such as honesty, resilience and respect for others. (MCEETYA, 2008)

So what constitutes data and how do teachers and school leaders collect and use it? There is a significant portion of a child’s social, spiritual, or emotional development that cannot be quantified through empirical tests, and in cases where it is possible, the associated costs are often prohibitive. The assessment or evaluation of a child’s development in these domains must, therefore, rely on the professional judgment of the teacher. Emeritus Prof. Dylan Wiliam says that the idea that decisions should be driven by data rather than by hunch, prejudice or guess-work is, to be sure, very attractive. (p107) He also demonstrates that a teacher’s professional judgement does not constitute hunch or guess-work. It is the product of informed observation and experience. In the average classroom and indeed school, modifications of practice and action, more often than not, arise from observation and understanding that an observed practice or action has not yielded the desired result. There would barely be a model for change management that does not involve reflection and refinement as part of the cycle. The 1993 Jesuit document Ignatian Pedagogy – A Practical Approach says “A comprehensive pedagogical paradigm must consider the context of learning as well as the more explicitly pedagogical process and that five steps are involved:

  • Context
  • Experience
  • Reflection
  • Action
  • Evaluation.

The teacher should be context aware and reflect on the teaching and learning experience, make change as required and then evaluate the impact of that change. That this paradigm has its genesis in the writings of Ignatius of Loyola, a ‘nobleman turned theologian’ almost 500 years ago, is quite remarkable. Even more so is the similarity that exists between this paradigm and the change management models promulgated today.

Carl Bereiter, in 2014, coined the term Principled Practical Knowledge (PPK) to describe knowledge that possesses characteristics of both practical know-how and scientific theory. Good teachers have PPK by the truck load. They call on a wealth of practical experience and observations that when coupled with theoretical knowledge, provide both know-how and know-why of teaching practice and they can put this knowledge to use in the quest to improve their practice and the learning experiences of their students. School leaders and classroom teachers have the evidence in front of them every day, in every lesson, and surveys, video analysis and peer observation. Deliberate reflection based on this data gives rise to PPK. Developing a method to document and track observations and reflections is one way that a teacher might ‘use data to inform his or her practice’.

School leaders need to assist teachers in grasping the concept of collecting valuable in-class data to enhance the learning experience for their students. So, returning to the opening question, ‘How do you use data to inform your practice?’ Why is this a question for candidates? Quite simply, it is a question because school leaders have a responsibility to ensure that before they decide to endorse or adopt any change to teaching and learning programs, they have looked at the data to ensure that the proposed change will actually realise the desired educational impact. The data analysis implemented at a system or school level will typically differ from that we expect classroom teachers to participate in. It will often involve the examination of whole-of-school data. How they use this data and how they convey the information to their staff and colleagues is critical. Their responsibilities also extend to helping staff reflect on their practice in order to enhance their professional capability. In this case, the data might involve much more than metrics of academic achievement.

So again, I return to the question “‘How do you use data to inform your practice?”  Do you have a response? Do you use data to inform your practice? Do you use it to shape professional conversations? Do you use data other than that which measures academic achievement? What is the tool that you use to document your data? And if you are in leadership, how do you use data to help your colleagues enhance their professional capability?

Bibliography

Bereiter C, 2014 ‘Principled Practical Knowledge: Not a Bridge but a Ladder’, Journal of the Learning Sciences, 23:1, 4-17, DOI:10.1080/10508406.2013.812533

Jesuit Institute 1993 ‘Ignatian Pedagogy – A Practical Approach’ available online at http://jesuitinstitute.org/Pages/IgnatianPedagogy.htm 

Prensky, M. R. (2012). From digital natives to digital wisdom: Hopeful essays for 21st century learning. Corwin Press.

Sieben, R. (2017). What constitutes data in the average school and what does data-driven decision making look like?. Australian Educational Leader39(3), 56-60.

Sieben, R. (2017). What constitutes data in the average classroom and what does data-driven decision making look like?. Australian Educational Leader39(4), 36-39.

Sieben, R., & Bentley, B. (2021). From pedagogue to principal: Addressing the declining candidature for the principalship. Australian Educational Leader, 43(4), 36-39.

Wiliam, D. (2016). Leadership for teacher learning: Creating a culture where all teachers improve so that all students succeed. Learning Sciences International.

About the author:
Rob Sieben is the Operations Manager at Hutton Consulting Australia.

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