Developing meaningful data: changing narratives for improved practice

Matthew Dagan, primary deputy principal at Riverside School Prague, says independent schools are well placed to use data in more meaningful ways to improve student learning

Across the world, new data metrics are being used to analyse the effectiveness of operational systems in all fields and industries. The world of education is hardly exempt, though the purpose and use of analysing these new data metrics, many times, misses the essential target. How can we use student data in a meaningful way to impact teaching and learning?

Schools have access to more data than ever before. However, various factors keep these schools from using data in a meaningful way. Budgetary constraints, school governance, legislative influence and a general lack of data comprehension/fluency stop many schools from benefiting from such a powerful resource.

Independent schools have a unique opportunity in the current landscape to capitalise on student data and use it for more global, school-wide initiatives, as well as specific, student personalisation and planning. This use of data is a departure from the traditional, performance-driven nature of many school systems, which derive data analysis solely from a linear model of achievement results. The resulting shift in data-use should move toward a nature of maximising student capacity.

Three steps must be considered in order to enact effective change in our schools regarding data and its impact on teaching and learning. We must, (1) reset the traditional mindset among school stakeholders by viewing student assessment data as a resource for identifying and building student capacity, (2) prioritise what our schools define as ‘meaningful’ data and (3) embrace building sustainable structures, around our data, which require a pedagogical approach to its use and application.

Developing data as pedagogy in independent schools

Redefining the reason why schools assess and collect summative student data is imperative if we are to effectively change how we use such data. The singularity with which this can be achieved is becoming obvious. Data should be used to support the student as an individual, separate in comparison from his/her cohort, where such personal data can best identify future target setting, areas of success and potential areas for maximised capacity. This way of using data is already being acknowledged by professional industries and universities alike who have recognised traditional talent searches (primarily maths and language-based testing) as having grossly missed out on identifying our most talented students.

We know that teacher attitudes toward data, as well as comprehension and fluency of statistics, determine the effectiveness of how data impacts student learning. Research shows that school leaders can influence such outcomes though data-driven programme designs, time allocation, creating data access and participating in data routines themselves. Student achievement scores have also been linked to teacher data routines, skilled facilitation, professional development and the active involvement of school leaders in data conversations and processes. This all points to a restructuring of systems and tools through which we analsye our student results. More importantly, it reasserts the need to embrace data in a different way, one that redefines meaning and involves best teacher practice.

The research and narrative pertaining to student data shows that it needs to be used and reflected upon from a pedagogical standing. Only when our school leaders and teachers begin to reflect on summative data as a way to impact teaching and learning, can we truly realise the impact our collected data can have. When viewed through a pedagogical lens, data can be embraced through peer coaching cycles, instructional support and professional learning communities. From this perspective, all independent schools can begin to build their own data framework with structures which more effectively impact student teaching and learning.

Independent schools have a unique opportunity in the current landscape to capitalise on student data and use it for more global, school-wide initiatives, as well as specific, student personalisation and planning

A developing case study

Within the role of deputy principal and assessment coordinator at Riverside School Prague, an independent UK curriculum school, I’ve had the unique opportunity to work with peers and school administrators who believe in the power and change data can have on students and staff.

This process began when school leadership identified which data the school wanted to prioritise as essential to our annual assessment analysis. Simply put, we defined what ‘meaningful’ data would mean in our school. This prioritisation included an emphasis on student wellbeing and self-efficacy, academic progress and potential student capacities. Triangulating data points from these foci led to more specific analysis and meaning, such as student learning biases, verbal deficits and the identification of ‘fragile learners’ (the comparison of self-perceived learning capability vs. student baseline potential). This prioritisation shifted our focus away from achievement and towards a student-narrative approach where student data could now be used in a variety of ways, by various school stakeholders.

The school’s leadership also backed the realignment of our management structure, so that the use of data empowered the vertical roles and responsibilities of all those within the senior management team, including the creation of a data team across all school sites. This promoted a stakeholder mentality amongst school leadership, who could now find value and use the data for differentiated and specific needs. With a clear vision and structure as to how data could be used and distributed amongst staff, a final step became clear. We needed to create a tool that provided access to student data in a more purposeful way, so that all staff could access the full potential of student data, and hopefully impact future teaching and learning in a positive way.

The plan to develop a digital application, accessible by desktop and mobile devices was created. The aim was to create a tool that displayed our student data in a way which allowed for the analysis of specific and triangulated data, as well as cohort overviews and specific narration of each individual student. Target goals of the application included GDPR-secure protocol, accessibility, sortability and visual display for increased fluency and understanding of student data.

More importantly, we could prioritise our data as we deemed meaningful to best create student narratives. The ‘Student Portraits Application’, aptly named, enabled staff to digest various triangulated data sets, self-efficacy measures, as well as value-added indicators related to student achievement and progress. This tool promoted a pedagogical approach to the use of summative assessment data, where instructional coaching structures could be implemented, requiring teacher interaction, data exercise and continual data reflection. While seemingly overwhelming, the Student Portraits Application provided staff members with the freedom to access and ponder student data at their own will, giving more freedom and flexibility to the ways in which these teachers could apply the newly accessible information.

Riverside School Prague

In its first year since being introduced, the Student Portraits Application has reaped short-term success where staff survey feedback demonstrates considerable growth in our overall use of data, its perceived impact on student identification/planning and learning outcomes.

One quarter of our teaching staff used the data application at least once a week, while another quarter reported using it at least once a half-term. Another 38% responded that they reflect on the application around once per term. This is just under 90% of our staff reporting that they actively reflect on student summative data.

Furthermore, 87.5% of our staff felt that they were able to make more informed teaching decisions since having access to the application, while 75% felt that students were positively affected by having such access. All staff members surveyed felt our team exercises and instructional coaching time increased their understanding of student data. While our short-term achievement results have held steady, measurable changes in student attitudes toward school have increased.

As our journey with data continues to develop, we feel the real measure of the application’s effectiveness is how often we question our practice and strive to make changes to improve. This hopefully is seen through new initiatives and innovations that are developed as a by-product.

Such initiatives and questions, like rethinking our setting practices and redefining how we identify student ‘talent’, remain the true standard as to the success of our data practice. It has reinforced a student-centred ideology through a new data lens which redefines our perceptions on how and why we will use data going forward.

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