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Data-Informed Practice: It’s Not Just About Test Scores (Part 2: Common Understandings)

I lied.  I said I would write a two-part blog on this topic.  Today was intended to be the second part, about what we do to broaden “data use” beyond just test scores.  But as I began to write this second part, I found that it was too long to warrant just a second entry.  So I’ve expanded this series of posts into a 5-part series.  Part 1 you’ve already read, describing the problem.  Parts 2, 3, and 4 will illustrate how we can reconceive of data use, using three examples: common understandings, computer data systems, and data-related professional learning, respectively.  Part 5 will be a summary post.  So here goes…

In Part 1, I noted that the de facto definition of “data” has become test scores.  And, I described that I believe this has led to “event-based” data use, where data are used in specific events that are often disconnected from daily practice.  Further, I argued that improving this situation should start with a shift in how we conceive of data – from the narrow (again, de facto), test score definition to one where data are defined as anything that helps educators know more about their students.  How can we address this problem such that data are defined more broadly and embedded more appropriately in practice?  Building common understandings is one important solution.

By this, I mean that educators, schools, and districts will need to come to understandings about what they mean by teaching and learning – and how data support these.  The operative word here is “understandings,” which means they don’t necessarily have to come to agreement on everything.  Instead, they look to understand each other’s approach and perspective, and in doing so, will probably find a fair amount of overlap.  I like Senge’s idea of “shared mental models” here. 

In working to build common understandings, both leadership and faculty must understand that plans, policies, practices are always subject to individual interpretation – that’s just human nature.  Accordingly, educators possess varied interpretations of teaching, learning, and data use, and will adapt their practice in different ways.  As my dad used to tell me, “different people have different ways of staying alive in this world.”  Thus, building common understandings isn’t just about getting on the same page.  More importantly, it’s about self-determination and tapping the diversity of ideas and experiences that educators bring.

By now, you can imagine a ton of benefits besides just aligning ideas.  Building common understandings builds relationships, builds trust, builds commitment, builds knowledge, shares insights, pools knowledge, builds capacity and helps a school or district be better at communicating “who we are and what we do.” 

There are a lot of different ways to do this, most of them involving collaborative activities.  The specific activities themselves aren’t so important and they don’t have to be a big deal.  In fact, the people involved might never know these activities are designed to build common understandings.  We can imagine a lot of these: writing common assessments, grading papers, doing lesson plans, using a data system, and a host of others.  The big thing is to get people talking about their work and how data can be used to support that work.

(An aside: in our research, we have outlined a process called “calibration” that can help in building common understandings.  For one of our study districts, we created an improved, more concrete version of this process – they loved it and found it really useful.  We haven’t been able to write about it, but maybe we will someday.  Or maybe I’ll blog about it.  Or, hey, maybe somebody wants to hire me to do a webinar on it!)

You can see how building common understandings can take you way beyond test scores and event-based data use.  It’s key to embedding data use in everyday practice.  There are other things that can be helpful also, including Part 3’s topic: computer data systems.  I’ll write about that in a couple of days.  Thanks for reading. 

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