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Data-Informed Practice: It’s Not Just About Test Scores (Part 4: Professional Learning)

Happy May.  In Part 1 of this blog series, I discussed how a focus on test scores has led to a culture where most data use is event-based – that is, something educators do outside of their everyday practice.  In Parts 2 and 3, I discussed possible solutions to this problem, in terms of common understandings and computer data systems.  Today, I’m going to address a third potential solution: data-related professional learning.

Data-related professional learning is almost entirely focused on individual learning.  That’s great – I’m all about building individual capacity.  But there are problems with this approach: while individual learning is important, it’s also temporary in an organizational sense.  That is, when the focus of data-related professional learning is solely on the individual, knowledge often either stays within the learner or is forgotten by the learner.  In either case, it provides little benefit to the school or district as a whole, because there’s no way to transfer or preserve this knowledge.  It’s where knowledge goes to die.

One thing that could greatly improve data-related professional learning is a shift in perspective, from data-related professional learning as an isolated, individual event to data-related professional learning as a critical part of the school or district’s organizational learning.  I’m not saying, “don’t focus on the individual.”  I’m saying focus on the individual in terms of how they make the school better and how the school makes them better.  When one learns, we all learn – and vice-versa.

What might that look like in practice?  Professional learning opportunities would still enable the acquisition of information, but structures would also be in place to ensure the transfer and preservation of that information.  This implies structures that enable easy and frequent reciprocal sharing of new knowledge between individuals, small collectives, and the larger organization (e.g., school or district).  It implies structures that enable formal codification of new knowledge for sharing throughout the organization.  Perhaps most important, it implies connections and linkages that don’t currently exist: integrating data-related professional learning experiences together to form a tightly-linked set, integrating data-related professional learning with other district professional learning, and integrating data-related professional learning into larger school/district learning aims.

Seriously, can you imagine a school or district where this happened?!  I’d sure like to teach and learn in that environment.

As in Part 1, data-related professional learning isn’t an event any more than data use is an event.  And just like event-based data use, most forms of data-related professional learning in current practice don’t bear any resemblance to the way we work as educators.  When we learn, we don’t just learn for ourselves, we learn for all of us, right?  Let’s look at data-related professional learning as a process, just like every other form of learning that we do.  Thanks for reading.

(An aside: Jo Beth Jimerson and I are publishing research supporting these ideas.  One is already out and can be found here.  Another will be published later this year in Teachers College Record.)

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