Using data to improve teaching practice and student learning

by | Mar 9, 2022

Harnessing data to have more impact in the classroom can seem like a daunting concept. But according to data storyteller and consultant Dr Selena Fisk, author of Using and analysing data in Australian schools (second edition out now) and Leading data-informed change in schools, there’s much to be gained in recognising the inherent good that data can bring. 

We met with Selena to discuss embracing data use in the classroom to support teaching practice and elevate student learning. 

HBE: We’re keen to hear your thoughts on how we can use data to genuinely engage teachers in the understanding and development of their teaching practice.

Selena Fisk: There’s something that Brené Brown always says on her podcast: ‘I’m not here to be right. I’m here to get it right.’ I really like bringing that into the data conversation because people can be quite fearful of it. But data can actually be really powerful and transformational for young people and teachers.

I talk about three main elements of effective data use. The first two are data literacy and data visualisations. But those two elements mean absolutely nothing if you can’t tell stories with the data. And that stage of data storytelling is where teachers are able to ask themselves two questions:

  1. What do students need from me?
  2. What’s my response to that information going to be?

That can be pretty daunting. When teachers have gone through their careers with very little training in or exposure to data use and then see ATAR and NAPLAN comparisons in the paper, they associate that level of accountability and ranking and fear with the data that they see in their classrooms. But they’re actually very different things.

It sounds like data can potentially be a catalyst for real growth in teacher practice. What are some of the insights you’ve gained that could help others?

When I’m working with staff around the use of data, I often talk about Daniel Kahneman’s work on the two systems of thinking described in his 2011 book Thinking, fast and slow. ‘System 1’ thinking is automatic – quick and responsive – but we don’t really engage cognitively with the question or the answer. Whereas ‘System 2’ thinking is slower and more deliberate. You’re able to sit back and think through implications, outcomes, meanings and perceptions.

When it comes to data, System 1 thinking sounds to me like ‘I know why that’s the case,’ ‘That kid’s just not a good writer’ or ‘They just had a bad day.’ All those things might be true, but System 2 thinking allows you to consider that important question: What am I going to do about it? So it’s not that dismissive, quick reaction.

So System 1 thinking is potentially making allowances and excuses based on assumptions rather than digging deeper?

Absolutely. I think it’s also important for teachers to know that while they are seen to have the most significant impact on student performance within the school, there are also many other factors that contribute to a particular result. Results such as NAPLAN are from point-in-time assessment – that alone could not reflect solely on teachers and the time they spent with that young person.

More schools are being asked to utilise data to transform teacher practice, which obviously leads to higher levels of learning. So it sounds like it’s important that teachers know how to do this at higher levels.

That’s right. But if there is one thing I would say about building engagement it’s that it’s always best starting small.

In one secondary school that I’m working with I’m doing an action research cycle with teachers in which they’re looking at just five kids in one class. That’s very different to saying, ‘Go and analyse and respond to the data with the 150 kids you teach.’

You need people to get some wins early on. Through that you build engagement.

Dr Selena Fisk

Selena earned her Doctor of Education degree from the Queensland University of Technology 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.