John Hattie observed that we often think our profession is defined by autonomy or the ‘let me do it my way approach’. The problem with autonomous practice is that it isn’t informed by data and evidence but by assumptions and ideology. Without looking at student data, we aren’t looking at the reality.
I came across an article a few months back in The Atlantic on Andreas Schleicher, a German scientist working for the OECD. According to the Atlantic, he is the ‘most influential education expert you’ve never heard of’.
Schleicher is a number-cruncher and one of the instigators behind the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). His slogan is ‘without data, you are just another person with an opinion.’
We don’t just want teachers with opinions, we want teachers who use data to frame the right questions. Student data is not a judgment tool, it is a diagnostic tool in the same way doctors use blood tests. Doctors can make assumptions about a patient’s health but unless the assumptions are tested, you cannot diagnose and treat. It’s the same rigour that must be applied to the practice of teaching. The relational aspect of teaching will not be subverted by the use of data but enhanced by it.
As a profession, we need to move away from I think to we know. We know that using data to improve practice is fundamental to being a good school. We know that one of the most powerful ways of bring about improvements is teachers learning about and reflecting on their practice. Practice that is evidence based.
That’s the work of Helen Timperley and the inquiry model. Teachers looking at the learning needs of students using the data/feedback and then identifying what they need to know in order to improve the learning outcomes. It underscores the links between teacher learning and student learning. This is what gives us the sharper focus.
A recent report by the OECD highlighted a lack of knowledge among teachers ‘about how to interpret information on student performance, saying they are not adequately prepared in analysing student test results and using the data to improve their teaching.’ (The Australian, 18 August). Unfortunately, we get too many examples particularly in the media of the poor use of the ‘rank and order’ data that sheds little light on student learning or teacher practice.
Part of the reason why there is fear of evidence-based practice is that becomes an accountability measure for what teachers are or aren’t doing in classrooms. When teachers set ambiguous targets, you can’t measure progress so you can’t be held responsible for the learning outcomes. When teachers set ambitious and measurable targets for students, they have something tangible to work towards.
If we are to get serious about student data then we need to make this the focus of teacher training and teacher learning. When Schleicher analysed the PISA data he found a common thread across the best school systems: teacher training schools were made rigorous and selective, systems emphasised building the capacity of leaders and teachers above ‘reducing class sizes or equipping sports teams’ and once they had quality teachers and leaders in schools, they found ways of holding teachers accountable for the results while allowing creativity to flourish.
Four years ago, McKinsey released How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better, observing that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers (and leaders). I would also argue that no teacher can exceed the quality of the data.