This year I have been given the opportunity to lead our school’s newly formed data team. When this was initially offered to me, my first thought was “I’m a word person, not a numbers person.” What I realized is that data is not just numbers. This is a common conclusion that people jump to. The truth is that numbers (quantitative data) are just the easiest way to get a point across in a quick and easily accessible manner.
Think of it this way. If you do not have an expertise in a specific topic, you can look at numerical data and get an overall understanding if something is working or not working once you have just a little bit of background. Everyone has experience, good or bad, with traditional grades given in schools. The closer you are to 100 the better. Since most people are only familiar with this type of traditional grading background information must be given when students are given scores from standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, or GRE. Once the information as to what constitutes the lowest and the highest of possible grades is established, it is easier have a general understanding of the score that is reported.
Data that is not based on numbers (qualitative data) can be harder to share with those outside the field that is being discussed. This type of data requires extended explanation of the situation and the conclusion that was drawn. The best example I can give comes from a conversation I had with one of the art teachers I work with. She, along with others, were concerned that as we rolled out our new data procedures to teachers they were going to have to start quizzing and testing students more often to generate data to be used for the purpose of making instructional decisions. This seemed like an extra step to individuals who are used to evaluating students on site and making adjustments accordingly from there.
I asked her how she made the adjustments in her teaching when a student doesn’t understand or performs a skill poorly in her art class. She explained some changes she had made for a few students who needed review as well as some adjustments made for students who were more advanced. I then asked her how she knew which students to make those adjustments for. I mean with over 100 kids coming in and out, she didn’t just randomly give one kid one set of tasks while providing a different list for another. She reached over and pulled out a clipboard that was full of notes. Names of students in each class along with observations she had made while they were working were scribbled onto a collection of papers. That is data. It is not as easy to read, it does require some explanation, but that is data.
That discussion has given me the ability to broaden the definition of data for the teachers I work with which has allowed them to think about their utilization of data for the classroom in a different way. While we are only now getting teachers to really understand what using data in the classroom can look like and the impact it can have on instruction, I am excited that the teachers seem to be seeing the benefit to the approach and are willing to take the time to work with this procedure.