Data: Not a Dirty Word
Vivian Gussey Paley, a long time, highly esteemed teacher and author writes,
“As we seek to learn more about a child we demonstrate the acts of observing, listening, questioning, wondering. When we are curious about a child’s words or our answers to these words the child feels respected. The child is respected. ‘What are these ideas that are so interesting to the teacher? I must be somebody with good ideas.’ ”
Most teachers go into teaching with a vibrant interest in how children think and develop their ideas. Successful teachers are especially adept at communicating this genuine interest to their students. For Paley, a teacher’s use of data to understand her student’s learning–which for her was any form of evidence she could find that showed her what sense her students were making of the work they were doing– is an essential part of good teaching.
Yet many teachers have “data” fatigue. Currently, the very word brings a range of associations most of which are connected with the standardized testing movement. Very few teachers with whom we speak at the outset of our project link data with authentic information about student learning.
Where does this resistance to data use come from? In many schools, the focus on proficiency in the name of equity has led our profession down a path where in staff meetings or grade level collaboration teachers are asked to use numerical standardized data–almost exclusively– to gauge proficiency on isolated tasks, the results of which are then to guide their subsequent instructional decisions.
But these proficiency measurements tell teachers little about how students are, or are not, learning the material. They provide scarce information about what is getting in the way of learning when students don’t perform well and rarely capture the nuances of individual student’s developing understanding.
Data as Central to the Mills Teacher Scholars Model
Mills Teacher Scholars ascribes to Paley’s definition of data as classroom based records (student work, audiotaped conversations, videos etc.) that provide teachers a broad view of what students know and are able (or not able) to do. Data conceived in this way allow, teachers to learn more about what is happening for students in real time and over time in a classroom.
With this, data become much more than an isolated number on a page, a filled in bubble on a score sheet, or words on a paper. Data include records of student behavior that can be observed, listened to, and looked at. Anything that happens in the classroom that makes student thinking visible provides a valuable way to understand student thinking and reveals both student assets and learning gaps.
Data Analysis a la Mills Teacher Scholars
Looking at student learning data is the heart of the Mills Teacher Scholars work. Walk into a Mills Teacher Scholars’ inquiry session and you might see teacher scholars watching a five-minute video of group work to understand how a focal student is engaging in a task. Another group of teachers may be listening to audio of a student interview, or analyzing a student reading journal entry for evidence of textual evidence. The purpose of this close looking is to understand how individual students are thinking.
As teachers look collaboratively at a range of data and probe focal student thinking by asking questions that unpack their understanding and self-awareness, they continuously discover information that helps them adjust their instruction responsively–information they would have little opportunity to discover otherwise.
In the tradition of our foremother Vivian Paley, as teachers engage with students to learn more about their distinct thinking and learning patterns, strategies, and experiences in our classrooms, relationships with students themselves are strengthened and opportunities for learning are enhanced.