Can the Numbers Lie? V

It turns out that T, who needed to see me yesterday morning, was having trouble with scanning Latin poetry – not with the rhythm, or the overall concept, but with the mechanics, with determining whether this syllable is long/heavy (2 beats) or short/light (1 beat).  “Do you want to approach it mathematically or musically?” I asked, since she’s strong in both areas.  When she decided on a musical approach, we worked through one line together, she did another on her own (100% accurate!), and she started feeling confident.  For T, numbers were helpful, both in identifying the problem (“How many of us are finding 60-80% accuracy in scanning by now?” I asked on Tuesday) and in solving it.

“Didn’t we do better today?” asked X … and her group had, in fact, done a better job of managing themselves.  Thursday’s class was more self-paced, so it might have been easier to get – and stay – distracted.  Since X is an athlete, it might help to collected some focus-related statistics.  We’ll take some time today to talk about that: what numbers to track, how to track them, how to use them once collected.  For X and her friends, numbers will be helpful, but we’ll need to find the numbers, the tracking system, the most effective way to change numbers into action.

I didn’t see Ms. K on Thursday, but I thought of her when I read Brendan’s Google+ comment:

I think that some people are more temperamentally inclined to look for connections, for example, Myers-Briggs intuitive types.  However, just as someone who thinks in terms of the big picture can learn to appreciate details, someone who tends to think in terms of boxes and categories can learn about the connections between them.

One of the flaws of subject-bound, age-graded instruction is that learning new ways to think doesn’t tend to be supported unless it’s part of the content for a given subject.  There’s no class on integration, so there’s little room for it within the confines of school.

Having known her for years, I don’t think Ms. K is an intuitive type!  She likes things laid out clearly – “just tell me what you want me to do,” she mutters when presenters in meetings “get all theoretical on you” – and she values simple, linear cause-effect relationships.  “You can’t argue with success,” she said, because her students always score really well on standardized tests.  From her perspective, that can only mean one thing: she’s a good teacher and her methods work just fine.  Ms. K is a good, caring, compassionate teacher  … but those numbers could be interpreted in many ways.  Are there areas on The Test where her students don’t do as well as she’d like?  Are the students doing well because of her instruction, or because they came in with prior knowledge?  Is there a way to reach the students who don’t perform so well?  And what about N, that “bad, lazy boy,” who almost failed the class but had a near-perfect score on The Test?

Numbers … and non-numerical, qualitative data.  We school people excel at collecting data, but what then?

In the second chapter of Driven by Data, Paul Bembrick-Santoyo describes “data conferences” that his team  – and administrators in the high-performing schools he consults with – hold regularly with their faculty, both individually and in grade-level or subject-level groups.  He describes effective class-level reports, and ways to use them to determine not just obvious trends (60% of students missed the questions about Objective 3.2) but, if possible, the causes behind them.  (On question 5, which involved these two specific subskills, most of the wrong answers were D.  Why was D an effective distractor?  Were there other questions that these students missed in similar ways?)  It’s a very different approach to numbers and data from the “typical” one, where the teacher  gets a “report,” weeks later, full of beautiful charts and graphs but lacking specific, student-level information.   And in chronically low-performing schools, where teachers often feel helpless and hopeless, it’s important to know that you can make this small change and start to see results.

But I think back to SXSW Edu last week, and to the panel at the end of Bill Gates’ closing keynote.  Diane Tavenner, the charter-management CEO he featured, said her schools used that approach, in the beginning, and found it helpful, but incomplete.  When they changed their focus from getting kids into college (a worthy goal, given the communities her schools serve) to helping them succeed in life, they realized that the students, not the teachers, needed to be the primary customers for numbers and data.  I’m sure they still have some “data conferences” between teachers and administrators, but the primary conversations  are now between teachers and students.  And that changes everything!

In her blog post yesterday, Emily addressed the issue as she, too, reflected on SXSW Edu:

1) People kept talking about how technology can both breed connection and isolation, depending on how you use it;


2) There were constant conversations about how we can help students own their learning.

So, in the “all connected” department, I put this together. And I realized that, in order to breed connection rather than isolation, teachers, too, need to own and embrace the technology, in students’ and their own teaching….

It’s hard and scary for any organization to realize that its primary customer has changed.  If you’re a large company or a small restaurant, your first response is probably to get mad, then increase your advertising budget!  Schools have never been totally clear about who owns the data or the learning, and that makes change even harder.  But it’s increasingly clear that the way forward, both for improved learning factories and for joyful learning communities, leads to – or through – a place where the learner owns the data and the information.  What will I – we – need to do today, and in the days that follow, to deepen and spread that new understanding?

Published in: on March 15, 2013 at 10:52 am  Leave a Comment  

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