Got Data?

The world of education is filled with “buzz” words. Perhaps one of the most used (and potentially abused) “buzz” words is the word DATA; what it lacks in size, it makes up for in its usage in daily conversations about student learning. Schools are data-rich: state test scores, daily attendance, parent surveys, graduation rates, student interviews, and teacher-student ratios are just a small sample of the data that our teachers have access to. The problem for educators is, what do you “do” with all that data?

This year our Facilitating Teachers (FTs) are working with their Communities of Practice (CoP) to tackle a problem impacting student learning in their home school. To prepare their CoP for effectively addressing the problem of practice, we have recommended that FTs focus first on collaboration and building trust and rapport within their CoP, and the Adaptive Schools (AS) strategies they are learning provide some practical ways to do that. Only after creating that environment of trust and respect will CoPs be ready to begin examining data. While some FTs have completed AS training, the bulk will participate it in this fall.

For those FTs that have completed AS training, though, they are starting to learn about Data Driven Dialogue (DDD).  This training will empower FTs to be able to effectively collect and analyze data with their CoP; they identify which data to collect and learn strategies to analyze it once they get it. On the surface that task seems simple enough – get data, figure out what it means, find a solution, and fix the problem – but experience has taught us that rarely is anything as simple as it first seems. Thankfully, we have the expertise of Bruce Wellman to guide us through a process of what we need to “do” with data, and how we should facilitate conversations about data with our colleagues. Bruce, the co-author of Data-Driven Dialogue, facilitated the the first two days of a four day workshop where he taught FTs and DEEL staff about the Collaborative Learning Cycle and how to use it as a tool to drive meaningful data inquiry.

Through a variety of strategies and structures during our training, Bruce helped us learn about and practice the stages of the Collaborative Learning Cycle: Activating and Engaging, Exploring and Discovering, and Organizing and Integrating. Each of these stages has specific parameters in place to support group thinking, perspectives, assumptions, and dialogue in a safe and productive environment. Reading and hearing about each of the stages helped us gain a better understanding, but the magic happened when Bruce lead us through several activities that gave us the opportunity to experience the individual stages for ourselves.


Bruce pointed out for the group that most of the time in education doing trumps understanding; educators are fixers and problem solvers by nature. In order for our FTs to truly address their problems of practice, they must be focused on getting to the root of the problem through intentional dialogue, discussion, and decision making, all of which are  embedded in the stages of the Collaborative Learning Cycle. The Activating and Engaging stage is about taking time to make predictions about data and identify our assumptions about why we believe we’ll see the data we expect. The Exploring and Discovering stage is about actually digging in and analyzing data; not yet determining actions to take, but just looking at the quantitative aspects and making observations. The Organizing and Integrating stage is about generating theories of action so we can move forward with interventions.  

Before we can begin to look at specific data – before we can even enter that learning cycle –  we need to know what data to collect and why we are collecting it.  We call this identifying a Theory of Causation – or asking ourselves “What is it that is causing the results that we are seeing?”  Perhaps one of the most useful take-aways for the group was an activity to support this process where FTs engaged in dialogue and discussion about what types of data to collect.

During the activity FTs worked in pairs (or trios) to determine a specific problem or focus area they would like to solve. Topics around the room ranged from reading comprehension in 10th graders to classroom management in middle school students to written expression in first graders. Once groups identified their problem for the activity (which was generally aligned to their respective action research topic), they worked to frame that problem from three different perspectives: by using a problem statement, forming a hypothesis, and asking a question. Then, FTs collaborated with each other, plus the DEEL staff members and Bruce, to generate responses for the 3 different frameworks, eventually choosing which one was best for their problem so they could begin contemplating what data sources to use to gain more insight. Not only did this exercise provide FTs with a deeper understanding of how they will begin to work on their problem of practice, but it gave them them the confidence to implement the facilitate the same process with their CoPs.

In addition to learning the tools and strategies themselves, it was very insightful when Bruce would take the group to the “balcony view.” Knowing that FTs will be leading collaborative data inquiry with their CoPs, these opportunities allowed FTs to take a step back from the participant role and take a view from the facilitator’s seat. These experiences allowed FTs to focus on the purpose for each strategy, protocol, or structure, which in turn gave FTs a deeper understand of their role as a facilitator and the practical insights on how to actually facilitate the process.

Days 1 and 2 of our Data-Driven Dialogue training were highly engaging and motivating, and now participating FTs are becoming more clear about next-steps for attacking their problems of practice. The process of data-driven dialogue is one that provides protocols and tools to empower our FTs to “go slow to go fast”, ensuring they stay focused on building trust and rapport within the community of practice and empowering them to successfully examine data for root causes rather than surface level interpretations. Our FTs left Day 2 better equipped to begin to address their problem of practice with their CoPs, more aware of data sources available to them, and excited about their role as a facilitator of change in their schools. We are looking forward to continuing our learning next month for Days 3 and 4 of Data-Driven Dialogue with this group of FTs, as well as training the rest of our FTs in this process next semester.


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