Diagnostic Data: the importance of the Little Data

A few observations to begin

Any teacher today knows that most schools are data mad! End of year targets, Half termly reports, tracking of assessments and the list goes on, and on and on ……

As a young teacher this is all I’ve ever know, but it doesn’t stop me being completely and utterly aware of how unbelievably unnecessary it is.

I remember being a student teacher and constantly being told to level pieces of work in the name of ‘progress over time’. In fact on one occasion, I sent students away over half term to construct their own castles (back in the day when I was such a ‘fun teacher’). When they returned I was told by the Assistant Headteacher that I should level these. Need I say more!

Now in a post-level world some schools are leading the way in creating more meaningful assessment models. However, most schools still seem stuck in the same misguided mindset.

As Tom Sherrington has outlined ‘we continually attempt to make something complicated, very simple and we turn real meaning into a code.’ Why? Because this misguided mindset comes down to one fundamentally wrong assumption…..assessment is for measuring.

Those headline figures are always so attractive. BEST RESULTS EVER! 100% A*-C. This could not be more wrong. As the old teaching proverb goes ‘you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it’ and you don’t help students learn by measuring their learning and reporting it.

However, that is not to say we should not be creating data. We should! But we need effective DIAGNOSTIC data, which is about the students in front of us, and involves next steps to support their learning.

Creating Diagnostic Data

When I had my first observation as a PGCE student my feedback was ‘how do you know what every student in the class has learnt?’ At the time I didn’t understand what this meant. Later I dismissed this as unattainable. But now I know that at the end of every lesson I need to know if every student has learnt what they should have.

How have I been doing this? Well first a moment of honesty….I’m working on it. I don’t have some magic formula but I have borrowed some ideas from other bloggers which have really helped me to (as Hattie terms it) make the learning visible.

First, low stakes testing and lots of it. This has really improved the quality of students’ knowledge. It makes clear to students as we move from one topic to the next that they are not leaving prior knowledge behind. It also helps to reduce the forgetting curve. But most interestingly for the purpose of this blog it creates lots of interesting data. With this I can instantly see what topics students struggle with and identify students who are having problems with knowledge retention. I can therefore DIAGNOSE issues students have with lesson content.

The issue then becomes about the crucial next steps. I rely on three (completely unrevolutionary) approaches here. Going over the correct answers, reteaching content or setting homework. Pretty simple but effective, and takes up very little of my time and energy.

My second idea is marking every book every lesson. I’ve seen a lot of posts about this so I won’t bore you with more on this but it works. The first time I read about this I just thought how am I possible going to have the time for that. But after trying it, I now realise that it can take minutes to mark exit tickets from every student and indicate whether they have achieved the learning intentions of the lesson.

The next lesson students come into the classroom and have a task to begin which is differentiated based on their success in relation to the learning intentions. This takes very little time but it is far more powerful than me giving detailed comments every so often.

Concluding remarks

It’s all well and good creating this data and giving students next steps but to make this truly diagnostic, teachers need to ask question.

I keep a record of all this data in my mark book. This allows me to identify patterns and search for solutions. Little Johnny isn’t meeting the learning intentions every single lesson. Why is this? What can I do about it?

This data also allows teachers to have discussions with others. Just this week I had a meeting about a student. Armed with all this data I was able to give very detailed information about this student. Could the same be said if I had a mark book with only levels and grades?

My point is that it is completely possible to know if every student has met the learning intentions of lessons. By recording this and creating data we can find patterns (about students and classes) and we can have meaningful discussions with staff and students about their learning.

Therefore data can be hugely valuable. But it’s not the big data, which measures the students, that matters. It’s the little data that matters, as teachers on the ground can utilise it to help students learn.