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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Observation to transformation: The power of classroom data for teacher growth

What we see depends mainly on what we look for. ~ John Lubbock

In my posts about my school’s teacher growth model, a growth-focused coaching initiative which sits alongside other professional development and evaluation work at the school, I have tended to focus of our use of Cognitive Coaching and the Danielson Framework for Teaching. As our model is being implemented this year, however, another aspect of the process is emerging as transformative in its own right: classroom data.

To explain how we use data in our collaborative coaching cycle, a one-year cycle looks like this:

a visual look at our coaching-observation cycle

a visual look at our coaching-observation cycle

  1. Self-reflect: Complete self-reflection against Danielson Framework for Teaching.
  2. Touch base: Pre conference with Teacher-Coach, identifying possible foci, deciding on type of lesson data to be collected.
  3. Collect data: 2 x 20 minute observations.
  4. Reflect & Plan: Post conference with Teacher-Coach following the Cognitive Coaching reflecting-into-planning conversation map and using Danielson Framework for Teaching.
  5. Repeat 2, 3 and 4.
  6. Self-reflect: Complete self-reflection against Danielson Framework for Teaching.

In this post, I would like to focus on Step 3, data generation.

You’ll notice that we use multiple short observations and the Danielson Framework for Teaching, as supported by the findings of the Measures of Effective Teaching study. A number of short observations mean that teachers build up a series of snapshots of the kinds of lessons in their classrooms, liberating them from feeling like ‘this 20 minutes is representative of all of my teaching all of the time.’ It is a moment in time on which to reflect.

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What classroom data is generated?

Generating lesson data is a crucial part of our coaching teacher growth model. While all teachers are expected to have classroom data collected for the purposes of their reflection on practice, this is differentiated in the sense that the teacher decides what sort of data will be collected, depending on what they would like to know about their lessons. Below are the main types of lesson data we have been using.

Non-inferential observation notes

These notes usually look like verbatim scripting. That is, the observer takes down what they see and hear in a lesson. No judgements. No praise. No criticism. Just observed sights and described sounds. They include times and may also include mapping of students or classroom movement. Our coaches are trained in this kind of observation note taking. It can be challenging to take self and own biases out of lesson data, leaving just what happened for the teacher to do their own reflections and evaluations.

Observation notes are useful for looking at instructional clarity, questioning, student discussion and student group or individual work. In the case of the latter, the observer may go to students or groups and observe them or interact with them, recording interaction and responses. This means that observers can record those parts of the classroom where teachers are not. It also means that an in-class observer can glean details of student work and conversation which a video would not pick up.

A caution about this kind of note taking is that the observer bias does appear in what the observer chooses to take down. For instance, in a fast paced classroom discussion, often an observer needs to make a choice between capturing the teacher’s or the students’ responses.

The benefit of notes is that the run of the lesson is written down in black and white, without the distractions of watching multiple elements in a video.

Video

We have a few video options available to teachers for the purposes of lesson data collection. Still video. 360 degree video. SWIVL video. These each have their pros and cons, and require choices to be made, such as whose audio is picked up, or whose movement is tracked.

The 360 degree video is a more obvious piece of equipment in the classroom, but it simultaneously shows teacher and students. The SWIVL makes it easy for teachers to collect data on their iPhone or iPad, but as the camera follows the audio lanyard it privileges the person wearing it, usually the teacher.

Video is great for teachers wanting to see their own teaching, including movement and wait times. Our Physical Education, Music and Languages teachers love it, but so do those in other learning areas and various year levels.

Audio

Some teachers want laser like focus on what is said in their classrooms. They are keen to listen closely to their questioning or instructional clarity, and to their students’ responses, for instance. Like verbatim scripting, by isolating audio, teachers can pick up on very specific aspects of their teaching, although others will be missed.

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Supplementary data include planning documents, goals and reflections, student work samples, student feedback and student achievement data. All data have their inherent biases, benefits and disadvantages. We are finding that mixing up the data so that teachers experience their classrooms in a variety of ways may be more effective than continually repeating the same data collection strategy for the same teacher.

Importantly, all data are owned exclusively by the teacher for their reflection and use. They are not for coaches or managers to use or publicise outside of the coach-coachee relationship. Focus groups with coached teachers at the school have revealed that teachers appreciate the choice and ownership over their classroom data. The trust in the coach-coachee relationship is paramount.by @debsnet

So while I have been focusing my own practice on refining my coaching skills, something else has been happening alongside. The data has been a tool for teacher learning and development, both in its own right and as part of the coaching cycle.

I’ve noticed that when, as coach, I get the data right, the conversation seems to almost take care of itself. The data, in these cases, has set off the teacher’s thinking, reflection, planning and action, before I turn up for the post conference.

In other conversations, looking at the data in detail, with well-crafted questions, can bring teachers to the point of an ‘a-ha’ moment or a change in practice. At times it is looking closely at the Danielson Framework for Teaching rubrics which allows teachers to see alternative teaching and learning possibilities, and refines their precision of language around practice. Other conversations require deeper coaching questions which drill into why lessons went the way they did, how teachers made decisions in their classrooms, what criteria they used to make those decisions, or what might have be going on for particular students in the lesson.

The data also provide an important ‘third party’ in the coaching conversation, allowing the conversation to be depersonalised and focused on the data, not the person.

Data is powerful stuff. And lesson data ‘done right’ – owned by the teacher, objective and giving the teacher a new perspective on their classroom, themselves and their students – can be transformative.

Good One, by @debsnet