What is data for? Whose data is it, anyway?


If you’re a history teacher and especially if you’re a head of department then you really should be thinking about how you report to parents and to the school about the progress of your students.  If you’re thinking about that, then you really should be reading Alex Ford’s excellent blog at http://www.andallthat.co.uk/blog.html.

Alex’s extremely thought provoking pieces on what it means to get better at history, why this improvement is never linear, and how to explain it to parents and school leaders makes several excellent points.  History teachers need a way of thinking about the attainment and progress of their students, and Alex’s approach is to provide reporting points on specific pieces of work, and to give descriptive feedback about progress.

This makes a lot of sense to me.  A concrete piece of data that SLT can use for reporting, and clear description of what it looks like to make good, or poor progress in history must be more valuable than a number and sub level which no-one really understands, and which is highly open to accusations of grade inflation and inaccuracy.  Coupled with good feedback in class which helps students to understand how to progress, this makes a solid model for history departments to adapt for their circumstances.

Whilst Alex’s model does an excellent job of helping us communicate with parents and school about progress and attainment, I don’t think that it is all we need as teachers to think about improving our practice. I’m not sure that one system can do both.  I think we need to gather feedback in other ways, and produce data that will help us focus on what matters in our classrooms.

One of the big problems with the NC levels was (still is in many cases) that one (blunt and conceptually confused) indicator was used for many purposes.  Most of these purposes were incompatible or difficult to align with the original purpose of NC levels as a final description of what a pupil had achieved at the end of the whole key stage.  So, the same data was used to give formative feedback, to report on progress, to predict GCSE performance, to assess teacher effectiveness, to hold departments to account, and as part of the decision that Ofsted inspectors made in grading a school. It seems obvious to me that such flimsy data could not hold the weight of so much responsibility.

This situation also led to teachers becoming alienated from data.  Data has become something that is done to teachers.  Even when we have reported our own judgements on pupil attainment and progress, these judgements are taken in such away that we cannot use it, either in our teaching or in thinking about how we can improve our practice.  Data has become something to fear, and even to resent as it is quoted back to us in performance management meetings, appropriated in mock Ofsteds or even worse, rendered useless by a rising tide of scepticism amongst our colleagues.

An interesting project by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on identifying and measuring successful teaching recommends a blend of approaches using student test scores, student feedback surveys and observation of teachers.  You can read an overview of the project here and their final report about how these three methods could work together here.  It’s the second method that interests me at the moment, as I think that it is something that individual teachers or departments could think about using in the short term.

The MET projects first paper (here) sets out 7 indicators of good classroom teaching which can be used by teachers, especially over time, as a way in to thinking about what aspects of their practice they should think about improving.    I know some great teachers who will take general feedback at the end of a GCSE course say, or when their A level students are about to go off on study leave, but by then it is late in the day for those students, and often such feedback is bland, un-focused and results in very polite comments.  A system which periodically takes feedback quickly using a likert scale whilst a course is going on might offer much more information.  Adding questions about student confidence in particular topic areas would offer even more feedback about what a teacher needs to do next.

7 CsThe 7 Cs which form the focus of the student feedback give clear indications of the areas of practice which need attention, and much more purposeful indications that an NC level or test scores or final grades can give about what to do to help students to learn better in your classroom.  Better still, this data belongs to the teacher – it’s our data, collected about our teaching and can be used to help inform our practice as well as give direction to our own professional development.

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