The power of data for learning and growth

My school’s coaching model for teacher growth uses lesson data as the ‘third point’ in coaching conversations and as a non-judgemental tool for reflection, self-direction and empowered development of teachers’ classroom practices. I was reminded this week of the power of data, of video in particular, for learning, growth and reflection on practice. This reminder came while I was at the skate park with my children. Bear with me as I explain.

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my little guy on the quad bike: confident, focused, wind in his shirt

my little guy on the quad bike: fearless, focused, wind in his shirt

My youngest son is pushing towards 4 and his brother is a year and a half older. In the last week, the youngest has begun to ride his pedal bike, which doesn’t have stabilisers, or ‘training wheels’. Watching my boys each approach this learning challenge has reminded me of the differences in learners. My eldest basically taught himself to ride. I turned my back to attend to his brother, and when I looked back, there he was, doing it without any need for assistance or encouragement. He wasn’t deterred by falling over. He desperately wanted to master the skill and could taste the freedom that the wheels offered.

My youngest, in contrast, is easily discouraged. Despite being a speed demon when beach quad biking recently, falling over or falling behind can send him into desolation. Part of his frustration comes from comparing himself to his older brother who is taller, faster, stronger and more experienced (although the younger of the two was the least cautious and most confident on the quad bikes). He also doesn’t like being told to do something, so any new skill is very much on his terms. It wasn’t until our New Year camping trip when he saw friends riding their bikes at the campground that he picked one up, deciding he wanted to figure it out.

The day after we returned from being away, we went to a local skate park. My youngest wanted to take his balance bike, with which he is comfortable, but we brought just the pedal bike along. If he wanted to ride, he’d have to ride the pedal bike. (You know, embrace your discomfort zone and all that.)

He was fantastic as he rode around the skate park, over the smaller rises and along some bike paths. After a couple of hours, he began to tire and his technique began failing. I offered to carry his bike back to the car but he refused. He was torn between wanting to conquer the bike and feeling like a failure. He collapsed and stomped and cried and wailed that he couldn’t ride his bike; that he was terrible at it. Not good enough. Not fast enough.

We got back to the car, one false start at a time, and I told him that he had done a great job and I was proud of him, to no effect. When he continued to be inconsolable about his riding I tried a different approach. I said, “I took some video of you riding your bike. Would you like to see?” All of a sudden, he perked up. Yes, he did want to see.

He watched the videos of he and his brother riding that I had taken on my smart phone.

“So, what do you think about your riding?” I asked.

“Good!” he beamed.

It was only in seeing informational evidence of his performance that he was able to reflect that he could ride his bike and was actually quite good at it. Of course, there was some selection of detail on my part – I didn’t video him crying and falling over – but the raw data allowed him to reflect on his performance.

My eldest son also watched the skate park videos. He was interested in watching the much older riders, scooters and skaters, who weren’t the purpose of filming the video, but emerged in the data. He was looking for their confidence and their technique. How did they get up the steepest ramps? How did they execute their tricks? So video was useful for analysing the mastery of others who do something well.

my boys at the skate park

my boys at the skate park

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This skate-park moment took me to my experiences as a cognitive coach, coaching teachers on their practice. Our school coaching model is based around non-judgemental paraphrasing and questioning, and around non-inferential lesson data. There is no critique or praise from the coach, and the data comprises of facts and information, not judgements, suggestions or critique. It is not the coach who reflects critically on the teacher’s teaching, but the teacher, with the coach guiding their cognition.

In my role as coach, it is always interesting to hear teachers’ reflections on their data, which might be scripts of classroom talk, maps of classroom movement, audio or video recordings. Often their feeling of how it went, post-lesson, is initially nebulous or contrasts to what they see in the data. Sometimes they are very critical of small details on their lessons, or unexpected information leads to fresh insights. Often, a teacher will find a video affirming, allowing them to see the positives in their practice, perhaps those things which have been automated over time or which they don’t even realise they do. I’ve yet to see a teacher who doesn’t find video a useful tool for their own professional reflection and learning.

Taking video footage of lessons, or excerpts of lessons, is a great way to allow teachers the opportunity to reflect on their craft. It is a seam rich with potential for improvement of instruction and professional discussions around practice. This data should be owned by the teacher and not used for performance reviews or appraisals. The thing about lesson data is that it can be a reward in itself; an opportunity to learn and see one’s practice and one’s teacher self in new ways, without the need for external praise, affirmation or critique.

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5 thoughts on “The power of data for learning and growth

    • My pleasure, Anna. A number of teachers I have coached have said that collecting (video and other) data on their practice, and making time for reflecting on it, is something they think they’d like to do but often don’t find the time to do within the busyness of teaching. One thing the coaching model provides is the opportunity for formalised reflection and the impetus for carving out that time.
      Deb

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  1. Neat attunement, Deb. Defusing emotionality also enabled access to executive function (thinking how risky this can be when undertaking with adult practitioners).
    So many opportunities to practice and learn!

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    • Thanks, Sam. I think my coaching self has the most to learn in those relationships which are highly personal and automated (as in, they have historical, embedded patterns of behaviour). I often forget to channel my coaching self. Of course, coaching isn’t always appropriate, but the toolbox is useful to keep in mind, especially when emotions are running high.
      Deb

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    • Yes I’d agree with this too, my PhD research on the use of narrative video in teacher growth is indicating the power of seeing someone else in a video as a means for reflection on self. Seeing one’s self in a video can be too threatening for many, despite the best controls and coaching in the world – narrative instead provides an opportunity to externalize issues in their practice and be able to look more objectively at self. It is somewhat ironic but interesting that we can find objectivity through the subjectivity of metaphor in narrative.

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