The Power of Data in Schools
Using and analysing data is an expectation for teachers and school leaders around the world. International comparisons such as PISA and TIMSS play a role in the increased data culture in schools, but more broadly, increased accountability in all employment sectors and a financial desire for “bang for your buck” has translated into the field of education.
In the Australian context specifically, this global rise in accountability measures has affected policy and framing documents such as the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians (2008), the Australian Curriculum (2014), the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (2011) and the Australian Professional Standards for Principals (2015) – all of which reference the need for educators to be using and analysing data in their classrooms, departments and schools to modify practice and cater for student needs.
The Knowledge Gap
Unfortunately, teacher education programs have not yet caught up to these expectations on teachers and leaders. Some undergraduate and post-graduate programs now offer data analysis subjects as a part of their degrees, but without access to real data and real humans producing the data, these subjects are limited in their usefulness. Further, where these subjects have been introduced, they have only been in place for the last couple of years, meaning only a handful of recent graduates have had access to this type of training.
I think a real concern for the Australian education system is that there are clear expectations on teachers and leaders regarding the use of data, yet the majority of our profession haven’t had the training or experience they need to use it well. This is concerning because, ultimately, without a good understanding of student data and performance, students will be the ones that are negatively affected by this limited skill set of our teachers.
I strongly believe that data has real potential in our schools and that it can and should be used for the right reasons – to celebrate success and to recognise an area of strength that may not have been otherwise obvious. Student performance data also helps us cater for student needs more effectively, differentiate our practice and challenge students to reach their potential. All of these uses of data ultimately benefit students, and that is why we urgently need to address the deficit in skills of our teachers.
Enter Using and Analysing Data in Australian Schools
I’ve recently had the opportunity to explore these ideas in detail in my first book, Using and Analysing Data in Australian Schools: Why, How and What. The idea of this book developed slowly. Long before I considered writing a book, I felt that data had real potential in our schools, yet it was under-utilised. Then, the more I spoke about the benefits of school data, my peers began coming to me with questions about how to use data to support their teaching. I regularly ended up in conversations with teachers, middle and senior leaders who told me that they knew they should be using data more, but were not sure how.
The aim of my book is to provide the context behind where we find ourselves regarding data – in a way, answering the why and how. In the first part of the book, I talk about the importance of three key attributes of a teacher using data: grit, growth mindset and positive psychology. Without these three attributes, attempts to use data will ultimately not be as successful as they could be. Further, I’m a keen advocate of using data in feedback with students wherever possible, as ultimately they’re the ones that can change their achievement, so there’s a section on feedback.
The book then gets into the nitty gritty of the data – the types of data that are available and regularly used in Australian schools, and how they differ from one another. The second half of the book is a series of 37 “cheat sheets” that consider some ways that data could be used and analysed, including tips for implementation as to how the data could be used in feedback to students.
The final section of the book discusses the feedback loop to students more specifically, and offers a series of questions and templates that could be used by teachers and teams wanting to analyse their class/cohort or school data.
Writing this book has enabled me to share my perspectives on school data in a way that will hopefully help teachers and leaders in Australia. In an educational landscape where student and school data are often negatively regarded, I hope that my book offers a contribution on the positive ways in which data can be viewed and used.
Ultimately, using and analysing school data should always be about and for our students, and data should always be used in conjunction with our understanding of the humans behind the numbers. Data has so much potential in our schools when viewed positively and when it is student-centred. I think Dr Hans Rosling puts it perfectly:
“The world cannot be understood without numbers, and it cannot be understood with numbers alone. Love numbers for what they tell you about real lives”.
–Dr Hans Rosling, Factfulness, 2018, p. 202
Selena Fisk Selena Fisk, EdD, has 15 years' teaching experience in schools in both Queensland and in South London. She earned her Doctor of Education degree from the Queensland University of Technology in 2017 and has held a range of leadership roles in her career. In 2017, Selena started her data consultancy practice, Aasha for Schools, to help teachers and school leaders see the inherent good that data can bring, as well as the benefits of using data to develop thriving learning communities. Read more articles by Selena Fisk