Improve Your Teaching with One Piece of Data

by David Hamilton, Director of Programs, EXPLO Elevate

This is the first in a three-part series on how data collection + information design can expedite your progress toward a teaching goal (no matter what you teach).

Last week, I watched a colleague emerge from his classroom looking beleaguered.

I had seen him just 50 minutes before when he was full of energy – excited to try out a new project. “How did it go?” I asked. “Let’s just say… not as expected.” “What went wrong?” “Everything.” He said. “I have to change… everything.”

When a class doesn’t go as planned, it’s easy to come up with a laundry list of things that need to change. However, anecdotal evidence can be misleading, particularly the kind that comes from in-the-moment gut reactions. Things are usually never as bad (or as good) as they seem. The trouble is that teachers and school leaders often make big decisions about how to improve teaching based on anecdotal evidence.

Working only from assumptions keeps us frozen in our practice when we should be looking for ways to improve by actively and strategically collecting data. Even one piece of data can uncover multiple opportunities for improvement.

Start with Your Goal and Work Backwards
When everything goes wrong, take a deep breath and revisit your teaching goals. What is one thing you are working to improve? Determine one piece of data that would help you assess progress towards your goal. If this happens in my class, I will have improved.

Gather Evidence, Not Opinions.
Data is evidence. It’s observable and objective. You may not like what the data reveals, but it’s a judgment-free starting point for assessment and reflection. Here are three ways to think about data collection in your classroom.

  • Counting: Quantifying one element. Use counting to answer questions that begin with, “how often?” “how many?” or “how much?” The result is a number or a set of numbers. If you want to make more room for student voices in your class, you might count the number of minutes you talk vs. the number of minutes students talk.
  • Scripting: Transcribing something said aloud verbatim. Scripting is not journalism or stenography. You are not creating a narrative or transcribing everything. If you’re hoping to assess the quality of student responses to your questions, script only the student responses.
  • Tracking: Mapping movements or behaviors. Tracking is a record of activity, and the data often lends itself well to diagrams, maps, or sketches. If you expect students to work together during a project, you might draw a map of your room and track student movement with lines or mark points on the map at regular intervals.

The chart below lists common types of data you might collect for each of the three categories:

Note how each cell in any three columns is a record of one thing. For instance, tracking the “flow of student conversations” maps how the conversation developed over time. It is not also a record of what was said. Some data like “volunteered answers” appear in more than one column. You might count the number of “volunteered answers” or script how students answered your questions. Both records are helpful and will lead to different insights.

Ask for Help
We cannot teach and simultaneously document our teaching. Explain your plan to a colleague and invite them to collect data for you. When colleagues are busy, record a video and review it afterward.

Consider involving your students. Ask a student to count the number of questions asked and share the result. “What might this number tell us about today’s discussion? What would help this number get bigger?” Involving students models a lifelong and professional commitment to continuous improvement.

No Data is Not Always No Data
You might collect the data perfectly and find it not all that helpful. That’s ok. If your data doesn’t lead to a meaningful reflection, return to your goal. Ask, “What else could I document to get more helpful information?” Redesign your approach and try again.

Keep in mind that no data is not always wrong. If your strategy was to record all the questions asked and no one asked a question, that blank page is good data! There were zero questions.

Make (And Test) Just One Change
Think of your teaching as an ongoing experiment with multiple variables. Collecting one piece of data creates a benchmark. Making one change allows you to assess progress relative to your benchmark. When it feels like nothing went right and we have to fix everything, focusing on one variable can lower our anxiety and lead to a more significant impact.

This is Part 1 of a three-part series on Improving your teaching with one piece of data. Read Part 2: Observing Robots.