3 Steps to Implement Data-Driven Instruction (Part 1/3)

I delivered my most “brilliant” lecture early in my teaching career. My junior English class was reading Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and both the concepts and the language proved challenging. I, myself, was not a huge fan of this extended essay when I was in high school, but as I re-read it as an adult, I was fascinated by Emerson’s use of imagery to shed light on the complex spirituality of Transcendentalism.

I spent entire class periods passionately explaining Emerson’s ideas that matter was more a phenomenon than a substance and that god was not a separate entity above us, but a presence that permeated our being – I used student-friendly language and drew elaborate pictures and diagrams on the board. From where I was standing, the class watched in silent awe and admiration, dazzled by each pearl of wisdom I bestowed upon them. When it came time for the essay test, I watched in horror as students stared blankly at the questions before them – questions for which I had given explicit answers in my enthralling lectures over the previous week.

Quote From “Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Why Use Data to Drive Instruction?

This early lesson in the gap between what we “teach” students and what they “learn” should be familiar to any classroom teacher. Good assessment shows us what students understand and retain; while performance-based and other subjective assessments are playing an increasing role in how we understand and support student learning, the importance of data can not be discounted. In an interview with Edutopia, Grant Wiggins (co-author of Understanding by Design) explained the importance of objective data to help “triangulate” (expand, verify) the information about student learning that is gained through performance-based assessment.

A 2007 study by NewSchools Venture Fund supported the idea that when educators use data to drive instruction, they measurably increased student achievement. In order to effectively differentiate instruction, it is crucial to move beyond the idea that giving a student an 87% is a meaningful assessment and that writing comments on a paper is meeting individual student needs. Two students may both score 87% on a quiz while making different types of mistakes on different types of questions. Writing ‘r/o’ in red on a paper does not mean a student understands what a run-on is or how to fix it (even if you assume they’ve read the comments).

True data-driven instruction requires that we assess not only what the student has done right or wrong (Step 1), but the skill or knowledge gap that has caused their success or failure (Step 2). Once we have figured out the obstacle to understanding, we respond with a plan that targets the gap or gaps (Step 3).

Step 1: Gather Data

Whenever we start a new project or implement a new habit, the first step is always the most intimidating. When educators try a new technology, this step can be exponentially more intimidating. As teachers, we are used to being experts, and many of us are reluctant to try something out on our students until we completely understand how it works, and we can anticipate problems that may arise. Just remember, you are already generating data – any time students answer a question on a worksheet, quiz, or in a discussion, it tells us something about what they know. With data-driven instruction, we are simply using technology to preserve and organize the data in a way that we can understand and interpret.

Therefore, the most important part of Step 1 is ensuring students complete the activities. I was amazed at how much I learned about my students’ homework habits once I could view the amount of time they were spending on assignments and when they were spending that time. On several occasions, I have learned that a struggling student was spending a lot more time than was apparent (or a lot less time than they said they had!)

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Data Visualization from NoRedInk

When incorporating data-driven instruction into a class, it is helpful to know that if we take a leap of faith, the benefits will be worth the effort. It is difficult to understand how data will help you differentiate learning until you see actual results from your actual students. Every tool I’ve used (Khan Academy, NoRedInk, Vocabulary.com, GoogleForms, etc) offers a way to view sample data sets, but the data just does not have the same resonance if it is not about your students and your content.

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Data Visualization from Google Forms

Here are some ways to help you and your students take the first step toward implementing data-driven instruction:

  • Create time in the schedule – any time you add a new component to your class, you will need to eliminate something, or you and your students will become overwhelmed. Try to find something that duplicates what the online platform can do – I got rid of our textbook and have never looked back!
  • Complete the work in class at first – You will need to remove obstacles that can prevent students from completing the activities. By having them work on the platforms during class time, you can make sure they have access to devices and the internet, and they have a clean well-lit space to work in. They will also have you there for tech support, as some students will need help logging in to and navigating websites. Once they are comfortable, most students will be able to complete activities outside of class as well.
  • Grade students on time spent (or questions answered), not on correct answers – A level playing field is core to the idea of blended learning, so incentivize students to work at their own pace and on their own level. By grading for time spent, you will gain buy-in from students who have low confidence in the subject area. It also fixes the misguided incentives of typical grading systems, in which students are punished for incorrect answers, rather than being encouraged to persist through challenges.
  • Make it fun! – Many blended platforms create leaderboards (Khan sends a weekly e-mail and Vocabulary.com posts a leaderboard on your teacher dashboard). Each Monday, I play The Theme from Hawaii 5-0 and announce the week’s top achievers (in terms of minutes spent), game-show style. In class, students work in leveled groups and earn points when their group members can all complete an activity.
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Khan Academy weekly leaderboard

It’s essential that when you implement a data-driven program, all students feel that they can achieve success – the whole purpose is to differentiate learning – that means both differentiating the content and finding a way for all students to connect with the new approach. Students who are above or behind grade level tend to disengage from classes that focus on punitive measures to incentivize completion of work (especially when the work is not differentiated to their level). Adding competition must be done carefully: points should be awarded for completion of work that is appropriate for each student (in other words, the advanced kids have to work just as hard for each point as everyone else).

By adding elements of gamification, I have seen significant increases in homework completion and in student enthusiasm. (Be aware that simply awarding points does not mean you’ve gamified your class). I’ll cover more on gamification in a future post, but here’s a great blog post from TeachThought to get you started).

What do you think?

Share your experiences with data-driven instruction, or ask a question below. We’d love to hear from you!


The PLN: Teach a Person to Teach a Person to Teach a Person to Fish

“Go look it up.” Anyone born before the year 2000 knows this as the standard response when a student asks a teacher what a word means. This phrase symbolizes an old-fashioned, curmudegeonly approach to teaching, where the adult seems to not be responding to the child’s learning needs. In reality, though, the teacher is resisting the role of “information provider,” and empowering the student to drive her own learning.  As the saying goes, “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, you feed him for his whole life.”

Much of today’s professional development is driven by efforts to create student-centered classrooms, where, rather than providing students with information, we use constructivist methods that empower students to explore and create their own meaning. Too often, though, PD comes in the form of “a lecture about why you shouldn’t lecture.” Instead we can use technology to help teachers teach themselves how to teach their students.

Teach a Person to Fish

There are many reasons why we should empower students to guide their own learning to the degree that they are capable. The “content delivery” method of education, where a teacher lectures to provide students with information has its benefits: a passionate speaker can inspire students to take interest in a topic they would not otherwise care about; some students who are not fluent readers can benefit from having material delivered orally.

The limitations of lecture, though, have been well-documented: it is too easy for students to disengage from a lecture; information must be targeted to the ‘middle’ student, leaving out students who are ahead or behind; and basic cognitive psychology asserts that learning by doing leads to deeper understanding and better retention. In an article in Science magazine, Aleszu Bajak examines research that shows students are just not learning as much as they could be when we lecture. Shelley Wright delivers a great TEDx talk about the dramatic benefits she witnessed when she made the switch from a lecture-based to a student-centered classroom.

It’s ironic, of course, that organizations, like TED, that promote progressive education, are done in a lecture-based format. The main difference is that we are getting the opportunity to hear from a top expert in the world about the most important thing they have to say, in 18 minutes or less. My favorites are Dan Meyer’s “Math Class Needs a Makeover” and Sir Ken Robinson’s “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” I’ve watched these talks many times over several years, and I’m constantly unpacking and applying the information and philosophy contained in these short lectures. How many of us have even 18 minutes of insight to share as powerful as these talks? A good lecture is written, revised, and rehearsed until it becomes a paragon of inspiration, poignancy, and clarity. Unless we’re prepared to provide this level of quality to our students on a daily basis, we really need to consider alternatives.

Teach a Person to Teach a Person to Fish

Of course, simply telling teachers to ‘ditch the lecture’ is not a transformative approach. Telling people what not to do is easy; finding, clarifying, and supporting an alternative is where the real challenge lies. If we want to help teachers take a student-centered approach to educating their students, it is important to model student-centered teaching in professional development.  In his Edutopia article, “Student-Centered Learning: It Starts with the Teacher,” John McCarthy explains that allowing students to share in decision-making and believing in their capacity to lead are essential components in creating a student-centered classroom. If we truly believe in these principles, we need to be very careful about lecture-based PD, especially when targeted at a “general” audience that includes dozens or even hundreds of teachers, all of whom may have different experience, interests, and goals.

Teach a Person to Teach a Person to Teach a Person to Fish

This is why Personal Learning Networks are so important. As a grad student, I had an assignment to create a Twitter account and send ten tweets. At first, I thought it was kind of silly – did I really need to know what Kim Kardashian had for breakfast? I soon began realizing that Twitter was a place to cultivate your own experience – it takes some work to get started, but now that I’m following innovators and educators who have interesting things to say, Twitter has become a place for me to hear about amazing ideas and events that are geared to my interest in education technology.

The idea of Personal Learning Networks really came together for me when Karen Blumberg spoke at a blended learning workshop I was facilitating. The workshop had already been planned to emphasize group work time and include a few short presentations. Karen had agreed to speak informally at lunch one day. She chose to discuss online PLNs, and that’s when I realized that all of the online tools I was using (Twitter, podcasts, blogs, discussion boards) weren’t just to access information – they were about creating communities and opportunities for all of us to learn from each other in a grassroots fashion. I also realized that in order to disrupt education, it wasn’t enough to be involved in PLNs, we have to help them grow by showing teachers how to cultivate their own learning communities and drive their own professional development. Here are some of my favorite tools for cultivating a PLN:

Twitter: Next time you come across an interesting video or article, follow the author/speaker on Twitter – soon you’ll have access to a steady stream of articles and ideas tailored to your interest.

Pinterest: I started using Pinterest as a way to share articles with colleagues as we planned a PD session. (I didn’t realize at the time that most people saw it as an arts and crafts site). I maintain two pages where I post my favorite articles on Blended Learning Philosophy and Curriculum Development, and one where I post my favorite Blended Learning Tools.

EdCamp: EdCamp is the gold standard for PLNs. Events are free, teacher-driven PDs. The agenda is determined on the day of the event and participants can facilitate or participate in discussions on any topic they choose. If there is one in your area, find a way to get there.

PodCasts: You can’t read all the time. Pick any topic you’re interested in, type it into Google with the word ‘podcast,’ and you’re bound to find something. Use iTunes or a slightly fancier app like iCatcher to subscribe to a few podcasts that speak to your interest, and you’ll be engaging in professional development on your daily commute. TEDTalks Education and Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers are two of my favorites.

Blogs: If you’re reading this, I’ll assume you’re already familiar with this one.

The best part is that once you get involved in a PLN, you can easily make the shift from consumer to producer by tweeting, pinning, blogging, podcasting, and facilitating.

What do you think?

Have you cultivated your own Personal Learning Network? Do you think they’re the future of professional development?

Free up two hours of planning time each week.

How would education be different if every teacher in the country had a personal assistant? Studies by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that 78% of teachers believe (2014) they would need more planning time to properly implement the Common Core State Standards, and that, on average, teachers work 53 hours per week (2012). Of those hours, roughly 5 are spent grading, according to a 2013 TALIS study.

In my last entry, I discussed the difference between technology integration that makes traditional ways of educating more efficient vs. that which uses technology to redefine the goals and methods of education. While at heart I see myself as a progressive educator, I realize that teachers can only reach for higher objectives if they can reduce the time spent fulfilling responsibilities related to traditional education – because let’s face it, the expectation that teachers fulfill traditional roles (such as writing report cards and grading quizzes) are not going away any time soon.

Teacher Proof

I came dangerously close to enrolling in a masters program at one of the most prestigious education schools in the country, when a meeting with my advisor caused me to change course last-minute. I had already attended the student welcome session where professors presented the projects they were working on: one was a robot ‘buddy’ that encouraged students while they worked; another was a study on how the proximity of a robot teacher affected how much students remembered of the robot lecture.

I started to realize that the institution had an unspoken assumption that the problem with education was teachers – if they could just replace us with robots, kids could start reaching their true potential. When my advisor told me that Khan Academy was “useless” because it didn’t make education more creative or encourage higher-order thinking, I realized that despite her research credentials, this professor (and the institution as a whole) was too separated from life in the classroom to help me explore my passion: supporting teachers in creating the classroom experience that will best serve their students.

Fortunately, I made a last-minute change to an Instructional Technology program that focused on developing tech-enhanced curricula and supporting human teachers in integrating technology.

The Tool is not the Carpenter

I think these incredibly bright and effective researchers fell victim to a fallacy that is common in the education world: confusing a tool with a strategy. I would expect that few architects would think that hammers should be forbidden from construction sites because they don’t reduce the environmental footprint of a building or increase the amount of natural light.

Yet we see the same mindset in educational settings all the time – education professionals refer to textbooks as ‘the curriculum,’ (a tool without a strategy) and researchers tout discoveries of adolescent psychology for their learning potential (a strategy without a tool). Ultimately, teachers are the ones who have to make the connection: knowing what we know about how children learn, what tools can we use to create an ideal learning environment?

Time is Power

I believe that the best way we can enrich students’ learning experience is to allow their teachers the time to think deeply about their practice – when we create efficiencies in how teachers use their planning time, they can use the added time to make lessons more interactive and creative, and ultimately students will benefit.

I generally don’t believe in basing professional development around a single digital tool because there are too many tools out there, and they become outdated too quickly.  Google Forms is an exception (especially when combined with Flubaroo) because it is versatile, easy to use, and automates something almost every teacher does on a regular basis.

The video series below (2 videos, about 10 min each) shows how to create online quizzes with Google Forms and to grade them using Flubaroo. There are plenty of tools out there for creating online quizzes, but I recommend these for several reasons:

  • They’re both free
  • Integrate easily with other Google Apps for Education
  • Easy to learn
  • Google constantly updates and improves its tools
  • Creates data visualizations to help teachers better interpret students results

Based on the average of 5 hours per week of grading, I would estimate that about 2-3 of those five hours could be eliminated through automated grading (Flubaroo cannot grade papers – yet). Even if you completely ignore the visualization tools and their potential to make your quizzes into formative assessments, simply saving two hours of grading per person per week should grant you or your staff some valuable innovation time.

Continue the Conversation

Is it worth making traditional education methods more efficient, or should we be focusing solely on 21st century skills? Have you tried Google Forms and/or Flubaroo? Share your thoughts in a comment!