When you first set out to become a teacher, you might have thought that your passion and dedication to changing young lives was all that was needed to unlock student potential and create a classroom full of engaged learners. If you did, you weren’t the only one.
As we got a little older and wiser, many of us have realised that our energy alone can’t progress a student. We need learning data on our side to help focus that energy where it needs to go, so our students get the support they need.
Data is woven into most of the work we do as teachers. It informs how we teach, helps us track progress and supports our report writing. But even though it’s really important, data can be complicated. It’s often difficult to collect and hard to manage. We need to make sure we’re gathering the right data, with the right tools and we need to use it in the right way.
In this blog post, we explore exactly these things — because assessments should only exist so that student learning can take place.
The right data
Data isn’t something that teachers are short of. Most of us are drowning in it, but it probably isn’t surprising to read that many schools don’t collect the information that they actually need, or use what they have in an effective way.
In ACER’s National School Improvement Tool, nine areas of highly effective school practice were identified, including the collection and use of data. It was noted that this practice in particular, required the most significant improvement from schools.
According to the tool, schools need to make a commitment to collecting high-quality information on student achievement and growth levels on a regular basis. This data should be analysed to identify gaps and competencies and monitor progress over time.
The key here is that collection must be regular so that teachers can respond to the individual learning needs of students quickly, giving them the right content at the right time. If assessments are too infrequent learning gaps may form amongst students which can make new concepts difficult to grasp.
Most teachers will know what data they need to collect in their classrooms, but to get the right information we need to make sure we’re using the right tools. And the right tools can make a big difference to the whole process.
The right tools for the job
It’s not uncommon for schools to try to derive information from assessment tools that simply weren't designed to provide that information in the first place. This is problematic for a whole range of reasons, but most importantly it means that teaching is not being effectively targeted and individual learning needs are probably not being met.
Using the right assessment tool is effectively the starting point for supporting student growth, so we need to make sure we know which to choose. There are plenty of options, but not all tools are made equal. Each has a different level of diagnostic power that will provide teachers with different types and amounts of data to work with.
System-wide assessments, like NAPLAN for example, can provide a snapshot of student achievement, but lack detail on individual gaps. Other tools, like the Scaffolding Numeracy in the Middle Years (SNMY) Learning Assessment Framework can provide more extensive information on individual students. This tool gives a clear picture of the concepts each student has mastered, those that they haven’t and any gaps in between. If targeted teaching is the aim, and it should be, then this tool is going to be much more effective at collecting the right information.
This data isn’t just the right data, it’s the type of granular information that can transform a classroom. Similar to SNMY, Maths Pathway provides the breadth and detail of data that teachers need to develop personalised learning plans for their students. Teachers are able to target each students’ Zone of Proximal Development, while also filling in any learning gaps they may have.
The right amount of time
Even with a range of assessment tools, collecting data can be difficult. The time required to design and deliver assessments, then collate, analyse and interpret the data is significant. And once that’s done, you’re often left with a class full of students with different gaps and competencies who need personalised learning plans. Even if you have the time to develop individual plans and resources for each student, you still need to measure progress across the year.
One assessment isn’t enough, either. As mentioned earlier, ongoing formative assessments are needed to track progress. This continues. Week after week, term after term. It’s an overwhelming process — we need data to effectively target our teaching, but often the process of collecting data takes time away from the teaching itself.
The way we collate and keep the data matters too. If we don’t collate it into a user friendly format that’s easy to refer to, we’re probably not going to use it as often as we should . Our teaching won’t improve and our students might not reach their growth potential.
That’s why time should be a top consideration in our data processes. Let’s face it, time is a resource teachers need more of in general. So how can we give teachers more time to undertake the data collection and analysis needed to effectively target teaching? How can we set aside time that we simply don’t have?
The process that gives time back
The best data process is one you can sustain. One that can be embedded in the day-to-day, instead of something that sits outside, requiring time and effort that, as we’ve established, just doesn’t exist.
Technology is providing new ways to achieve this by streamlining the way we collect, collate and analyse data so more time can be spent using the information in the classroom, with our students.
When we say technology, it’s important to know that we’re not talking about glorified spreadsheets or paperless classrooms. We’re talking about leveraging technology to develop adaptive assessment and learning tools. Tools that can provide real-time data and pinpoint student competencies and gaps to identify the content they are ready to learn. These tools can diagnose student levels, track progress over time and measure mastery.
Sounds too good to be true, right?
Well these types of tools do exist, and in 2013 two Australian teachers set out to develop one for their own classrooms.
Maths Pathway’s founders Richard Wilson and Justin Matthys used complicated spreadsheets to track the gaps and competencies of their students. And they spent hours maintaining it every week so that every student in their class could receive the personalised learning they needed to grow in maths. What they were doing was working, but it was also time consuming, so they put their heads together to build something better.
Maths Pathway is the product of their genius. While the model isn’t wholly about data collection or technology (these form one important component of a larger model), it solves the problem they both faced in their own classrooms and today it’s helping more than 2,232 teachers across the country who have struggled with the same challenge.
The model provides these teachers with granular data on each student that is collected by diagnostics and ongoing formative assessments developed by pedagogues and mathematicians. This data is live and actionable and is available to teachers in dashboards and downloadable reports. The model also incorporates curriculum mapped content, which is delivered to students in fortnightly cycles based on the results of the diagnostic.
While Maths Pathway leverages technology in this process, the system isn’t all online and learning isn’t done in isolation. Teachers have access to a range of Rich Learning tasks and can use data that automatically groups students at a similar level to deliver targeted explicit teaching.
By making this process technology-driven, not admin-driven, efficiencies are created that actually give teachers more time, not less. So teachers have more time to teach. And because it happens automatically, it’s much easier to embed in the day-to-day. The result for students is truly personalised learning.