Intentional Dialogue Around Data

Nearly every day we sit in rooms with data in front of us and we ask ourselves if our children are successfully reaching proficiency.  We say “error analysis is the answer”, “they missed that standard”, and “let’s remediate and test again”.  We talk across the table for hours postulating on the fact that “they just aren’t getting it”.  George Bernard Shaw once said that, “the single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it had actually taken place.”  What if we are compliantly talking about data when really we need to be immersed in dialogue driven by formative assessment?  What if we chose to look at our data through a different lens?  What story is our data telling?  Why is it telling the story this way?  How can we find out?

This year our Facilitating Teachers (FTs) have started to use what we call the Collaborative Cycle of Inquiry, a model developed by Bruce Wellman and Laura Lipton.  Through this cycle, teachers look deeply at students’ present state of learning.  They look at the gaps in learning and instead of saying “what do we need to do for these kids?”, they ask “what might be going on in core instruction that is producing this gap?”  This is a shift in thinking from looking at “what can we do as we move forward” to “what might have been happening to influence these results?”  This cycle has three distinct parts that create a culture of thinking, producing a journey from prediction to assumption, then to a theory of causation, and ending with a plan of action.

As I have been out visiting in schools with FTs and attending their meetings with Collaborating Teachers, I am seeing a renewed engagement and a heightened sense of awareness of what stories are being told by the data and their intentions as a result of their learning.  Teachers are looking at students as a collective whole and identifying factors playing into their success or lack thereof.  They are seeing where they have some control and then creating innovative strategies to close gaps in learning as well as accelerate where proficiency has already been achieved.  They are studying models of success to reach all students.

Simply put, the cycle has three phases FTs intentionally follow.  From making predictions about the data and identifying assumptions behind those predictions, to analyzing the actual data, to generating what we call “Theories of Causation” where teachers identify contributing factors, all the phases empower teachers to look beneath the surface and begin to discuss root issues.  Conversations don’t revolve around, “what does the data say?” as much as they revolve around, “why might the data say what it says?”

I have noticed that the phases of the model set the stage for rich conversation empowering teachers to focus their talk so it doesn’t just stay on the table but moves into purposeful action.  They hold an intentional mindset of uncertainty.  The group needs to remain open minded and communicate all the possibilities that lie in the data, breeding fresh perspectives and viewpoints to be deciphered.  Teachers generate possible theories of causation by previewing multiple causal factors like instruction, students, teachers, school culture/climate, and structure.  Teachers are encouraged to use these factors to Investigate what inferences, explanations, and conclusions they might draw from the data.  Once this is done teachers begin to form a plan of action researching potential targeted strategic solutions.

I continue to be amazed at what teachers are discovering as a result of going through this cycle.  As they experience the powerful shift from “my data” to “our data” they begin to find their own voice and make informed choices about strategies to use to grow their students.  There is a renewed sense of collective understanding and ownership within teams who are now working with a unified vision of success for themselves as they seek to meet the needs of their diverse learners.  A direct result of going through the cycle is a noticeable surge of collective efficacy among teams and a stronger bridge to closing gaps in learning.  The cycle is being repeated across the district as facilitating and collaborating teachers are collecting data as part of their work, making informed decisions of what best practice in next steps might look like.  It is inspirational to see a team realize they can be their own solution, and the power of the impact this type of deep dive into a genuine communication about data can have on learners.

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