Framing the right questions

In the past few weeks I’ve read at least three articles on ‘big data’. We are moving rapidly from knowledge capture to data generated insight and innovation.  I think that the questions being posed for business in the age of data can be equally applied to education.

How can we ‘create value for our students/teachers using data and analytics?  And if data is helping companies like Google and Amazon to develop new models of delivery, providing the customers with personalised and targeted information on likes and dislikes and information and opportunities which they may previously not known about, can this sort of data help education develop new models of personalised delivery?  The answer for me has to be yes, or we risk irrelevancy in the schooling space.

Schooling will benefit from looking at the innovative businesses who are capitalising on the opportunities being powered by the Internet.  Companies who are learning from and transforming what they do and how they do it through the data and tools available.  Imagine if schools had access to student data from pre-kindergarten or if primary schools shared student data with high schools? We wouldn’t have to re-invent the wheel time or start from square one because a student changed schools.  Critical information would be available for teachers who could then pick up the ball so to speak and identify new learning challenges. Imaging capturing data on career progression 10 years plus from exiting school and using that data to inform planning and learning opportunities for current students.

There is a great article in this month’s Harvard Business Review about using data to drive growth.  It’s well worth a read.  The authors pose five key questions for businesses.  These are questions that deserve our immediate attention.

1. What data do we have?
2. What data can we access that we are not capturing?
3. What data could we create from our operations?
4. What helpful data could we get from others?
5. What data do others have that we could use in a joint initiative?

Good data helps us frame good questions and good questions will help us find new ways of individualising content and personalising learning.  We need to be working smarter not harder in a connected online world.  

8 thoughts on “Framing the right questions

  1. Yes, being able to utilise data in helpful ways can be immensely valuable. I think that you’re correct that there would be opportunities in education to use this also to provide value to educators and students.

    That being said, in industry, as you would know also, you need to take care with which company’s you share private and confidential information, which tools you use and how the company’s will make money from your use, data or paid services. Sometimes having proprietary data solutions is the best to mitigate risks. Google for example, while enormously convenient for its services can come with an extreme cost of lost privacy and data mining for advertising profit. In a world where privacy of students is paramount for their future reputation, schools must be diligent in selecting the right tool for the right job, and not choosing convenience over safety, now or in the future.

  2. Hello Greg, another great thought provoking article. If you don’t mind I might stir the pot a bit and take some of your ideas in a slightly different direction.

    The articles you refer to seem to saying – ‘look at the data and to see what good questions can be framed’. I think it is useful to look at this from the other direction. Start first with the questions we want answers too and then define the data we need. John Hattie once said that ‘Data should never exist in a vacuum’, or to heavily paraphrase Patrick Griffin ‘Data outside the context of a decision is trivia’. Lets start by defining the decisions that we need to make as teachers and design the data collection that can inform the decisions.

    I think it was Michael Fullan who said that ‘Personalisation is easy to pronounce and very difficult to implement’ – but why? What are the teaching questions we need to, but cannot answer, if we are to implement personalised learning? For me a starting set of questions could be: ‘What is the most appropriate learning for each individual student in my class?’ – and we need to ask this on a daily basis; ‘As a teacher, given the current progress of the students in my current class, what is the best use of my next 15 minutes?’; and on an individualised student basis – ‘what is the most relevant point I should emphasis in my next conversation with this child’; finally in a personalised learning context teachers need to ascertain on a micro-level, ‘who needs my assistance (or assistance from others), and what assistance do they need?’

    It is this focusing on the micro that I think is the key to leveraging data to improve education. While I am not quite sure how Google works, if the ads that they present me with are a guide, they care most about what I have done in the last day or two, the are quite interested in what I have done in the last week or so, and become decreasingly interested after that. They collect data on me to personlise the ads I see to be relevant to me ‘in the moment’ – I think they know that what I browsed for 2 months ago may not be relevant any more, just as a test score from 2 months or 2 years ago (as maybe the case with NAPLAN) may not be the best piece of data to inform the next conversation with a student.

    I like you believe that personalisation has to be the answer – but ‘easy to say …….’


  3. I love this thinking. We have built amazing technology that allows us to capture and analyze data as it flows through school communities – between teachers, students, parents and school administrators. We can use it to create differentiated learning experiences for individual kids at a particular point in time on the one hand, while tracking factors affecting whole cohorts of kids across their entire school careers. Education Departments, as well as individual schools, should regularly ask the 5 questions posed by the HBR article. There is enormous potential for improving kids’ experiences of school in the answers.
    Thanks for the article Greg!

  4. A few years ago, I read a book on how data was changing all these different industries and aspects of society. Only Education seemed to be missing. It occurred to me at the time that teachers constantly collect data, but it’s only used in meaningful ways or kept long term occasionally. We’ve hardly begun to appreciate how technology can be used to record and store information that can improve the learning of students.

  5. Data = Feedback! It’s what gives relevance and focus to what we do. Decades and more ago we took data in schools ( spelling, arithmetic, tests etc ) Biggest problem was that it wasn’t quality data and we did nothing with it to inform our teaching. Successful businesses have been crunching and analyzing data because they know it builds and drives growth. Education is learning from this and getting better but Harvard’s 5 questions should be a greater part of our ongoing challenge to reach every child. Those same questions should also be integral to preservice teacher training to produce teachers who value, understand and search for better data.

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