29 September 2017

Data Academy Session One: What is effective data use?

The goal for the first session is to dig into thinking about effective data use. What do we mean by this, how do we know it when we see it, and how do questions support this work? This session is divided into three chunks:
  • How the hell did we get here? A brief history of data use in education.
  • What do we want to "here" to look like? Building a framework for data use that we own.
  • Where the hell are we going next? The role of questions and how we know when we have the "right" one.
And, okay, maybe I will be slightly more eloquent in my delivery of those points, but there's no need to pull punches in this space. We're all friends here.

Part One: How the hell did we get here? 
Look, this whole data use in education thing was not my idea. Nor is data use in our field a new idea. Our modern leanings---the approach of "data first, questions later"---starts in the 1980's and, like most poorly thought out concepts in education, had it's start in the business world. The Baldrige Framework, the Total Quality Management approach, and similar ideas continue their creep into educational systems throughout the 1990s, and when No Child Left Behind is passed in 2001, looking at disaggregated data as a starting point is pretty much codified for schools.

But we can go even further back than that...all the way back to The Enlightenment.A philosophy develops around the idea that the world should be understood through individual reasoning. And there’s this tension that develops between science and magic…science and religion…with the idea that the truth is somewhere in the middle. But the approach itself is very calculated and cold. The numbers don’t lie. Observe first…then infer. This is still a process we apply to most of our work with data.

I don't want to say that we've been doing it wrong for a few hundred years, because for the most part, this approach works just fine. And even within the last 20 years, I can point you toward some schools where this path through data has been the start of some amazing changes for students and families. I do want to say that this is not the only way to use data. I think we can do better than a one size fits all approach.

Part Two: What do we want "here" to look like?
I am an unabashed fan of a good framework...a tool that outlines the scope of a topic and hints at the qualities that lie within. I even used the Baldrige one when I was working on my admin credential a couple of years ago. And there is plenty of good quality educational research out there about what supports data use. There are all sorts of factors from information systems to data quality to the culture developed, PD provided, administrative support, and more. We're not starting from scratch and we don't need to decide what shape to make the wheel this year. But, we are going to look at data from a new angle and that needs to meld with other initiatives.

In this part of the workshop, we'll divide and conquer a draft framework for effective data use based on some current research from both education and data science, our instruction and evaluation models, and other sources. Groups will review one resource and put big ideas onto sticky notes. These will be placed on one of four posters that form the armature of our framework. Then, groups will take a poster and organize the ideas.

I did this activity with teachers last week and they are very interested to see what their principals come up with.

Part Three: Where the hell are we going?
It is not unusual in education to find a "data first" approach---that is, the data are the starting point. However, there's plenty of good research out there to show that an inquiry approach supports engagement with data. I've asked all my participants to identify a question they want to use as the driver for their work over the next few months. 

We'll talk a little about the Goldilocks question---the one that isn't too big or too small, but fits our purposes just right. There is nothing wrong with the big and small questions, mind you. Those are important, too. But we have only so much time and resources during these workshops. There is little point in learning an answer which is already published or one which requires so many resources (or new skills or some bending of ethics) that it can't be answered within the confines of our workshops.

In the vernacular of the place where I grew up, we "kick this pig" on Tuesday with administrators and then with our instructional coaches a couple of weeks after that. By then, teachers will be ready for their second session and we'll keep rolling from there...all the way through March.

I've asked participants to respond to some questions about their skills, what they think their question will be, and one more important piece: What is one thing you wish people knew about your school? I've been asking this question at conferences recently and the answers are fascinating. I am really interested to hear what people in our district will say.

Want to follow along? Resources for this session are here, and you can see the overview of this project in an earlier post. I'd love to hear what you think...as well as what you wish people knew about your school or district.

26 September 2017

Introducing Data Academy

In my previous post, I shared some of my impetus to build professional learning opportunities around data use. Now I want to preview the full story arc---9 hours built around starting with a question and ending with a data story.

There are five chunks. Not pictured is how the stories will be shared this spring. The role of an audience is both unique and critical when storytelling with data...so we'll definitely need a space and opportunity to engage with that. But I'm still pondering what that piece will look like. Each session will have some time to learn together, and some "lab" time for independent practice with the concepts. Here's what we have planned:

Session one: What is effective data use?
We will explore current frameworks and research around data use in schools. Topics will include data literacy, student-involved data use, and classroom “look fors.”

Session two: Frame questions and find data
We will focus on asking high-leverage questions, then using data mining, canned reports and extracts, and other options to pull relevant data from Skyward and Homeroom to answer these questions.

Session three: Clean, organize, and explore
It’s time to sharpen your skills with Excel, including how to join data from multiple sources, build pivot tables, as well as formula basics.

Session four: Visual(ization) literacy
Many of us were taught to read and write text, but few know the basic rules of creating and interpreting powerful visuals. We will focus on elements of visual communication, including color, chart choice, and other attributes.

Session five: Storytelling with data
A data story combines text, data, and visual elements. During this session, we will consider the ethics of design choices, the responsibilities of communicating data in equitable ways, and how we can use basic statistics to know when we have a story.

I am sure that these descriptions and the path we take through them will morph along the way. Although I built these sessions from the lens of my own background and work, I was pleased to see it reflected in an article by Ellen Mandinach and Edith Gummer entitled What does it mean for teachers to be data literate.


The bottom row of their framework envisions something similar to the arc I identified. They have
  • Identify problems/frame questions
  • Use data
  • Transform information into decisions
  • Transform data into information
  • Evaluate outcomes
I'll post some additional information about each session as we go along this year. If you are interested in the materials that support the work, please visit the repo on GitHub.

23 September 2017

What Lies Beneath

I've spent the last 7 or 8 years thinking about the role of data visualization in the classroom. I am not an expert, but rather an enthusiastic student of the subject. And I feel incredibly fortunate to work in a role and a district that gives me an opportunity to grow my knowledge and skills in that arena. This year, I get to extend that by facilitating some professional development.

We're calling it "Data Academy" and there are three flavours: one for administrators, one for instructional coaches, and one for classroom teachers. We'll have them start with a question, pull and organize data, then visualize it and tell a story with it. That's the basic nuts and bolts of a process we'll manage between now and March.

But there's always a hidden curriculum, is there not? Something unspoken, yet more important, that  underpins things. Like a good foundation garment, it shapes and supports...and maybe even provides a little sex appeal.

And what lies beneath my story arc this year is the need to create some change. Schools are using data the way they did in the 1980s. I'm tired of that. I'm tired of the curiosity and expertise of educators being stifled. I can't look at another red/yellow/green coded spreadsheet or endure another conversation that has a goal of merely admiring an achievement gap.

We need a different narrative.

I spent my time off in July outlining what this could look like, then pitched this idea as a series of after school options for teachers and principals. But my boss thought differently...that we would roll it out to all administrators and instructional coaches. Um, okay.

I was hesitant at first---and still am, at least a little bit. First of all, I don't want to drag anyone through this content. These are adult learners and should have some meaningful choice about where their professional learning takes them. And secondly, this sort of large scale rollout gives me some serious imposter syndrome.

There are ways to mitigate both of these concerns. Administrators might not get to "opt out" of this work, but they can choose their own question to investigate and story to share. I am working with a group of teachers in the after school series who are there for themselves (we're not paying them to participate) and I can test out each piece with them before I meet with principals.

But beyond that, this is the work I want to do...not the work I have to do. I see a different vision for data use in education, and maybe this is a good first step toward that.


The tweet above references a scene in the 1954 version of A Star Is Born:


So, I'm dreaming a bit bigger. I've invited some reps from our regional educational service district, as well as some of my previous co-workers from the state education agency. I've also reached out to former colleagues who work with our state school board association and principals' groups. If we're really going to change conversations about data, then we're going to need a bigger room and a bigger network. I can't be the only voice in the wilderness demanding something better.

I'm building a repo on GitHub for the materials and thinking about what the denouement this spring will look like. I should have (roughly) 50 people involved in telling unique data stories this year. I want some sort of culminating event...a story slam...where they can share and celebrate. But I have no idea yet what this will look like.

For now, what lies beneath are lots of hopes and dreams and fears. But I am making my peace with that and trying to focus on the future. In the next post, I'll share some of the more concrete plans and tools we'll be using this year.

¡Viva la RevoluciĆ³n!

13 September 2017

Dear Principal

You might be familiar with the Dear Data project, "a year-long, analog data drawing project by Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec, two award-winning information designers living on different sides of the Atlantic." I can't think of another creative project that has brought me so much joy and inspiration---and if you haven't heard about it, then have a look at the site and definitely buy the book.

As for me, Dear Data first inspired the data stories I have been building and posting in my school district. But I've always found the original post card idea charming and daunting. It's a more intimate way to communicate, as well as an opportunity to connect about different types of data. But I just don't have the stamina (or a partner) for a weekly exchange.

Instead, I am starting small. I have blocked out time on my calendar every other week to spend in schools. And while there, I want to capture data about something that we wouldn't ordinarily notice. Later, I'll create a postcard and send it to the principal.

Yesterday was my first attempt. I visited our two middle schools. I counted the number of smiles I saw from the moment I walked into the building to the moment I walked out.

This was definitely a challenge. How do you capture this? What are the categories? I started with a simple chart that I could make tallies on. The top line represented who initiated the smile (adult or student) and the side represented who received the smile (adult or student). But, of course, nuances arose. Did my smiles count? (I decided they did.) What about someone who was just sitting there smiling to themselves? (I decided that counted.) What about people who greeted me by name...or the autistic kid who saw me and said, "Hello, stranger." in the manner of a western movie. (I didn't count them, but I recorded them.)

I spent about 3 hours between the two buildings, connecting with people, sitting in on classes, and surreptitiously making tally marks. Back at the office, I summarized the data and then thought about how to display it.

I ended up using arrows to show the direction of smiles between people, with the widths representing the number in a particular category. I decided on a consistent measure (.03" = 1 smile) and then drew the arrows in PowerPoint to scale. I cut them out and used them at templates to draw the cards.

Here is the first one:

And here is the second one:

They're not perfect---not even close. (I haven't had an art class since 5th grade, in case you couldn't tell.) I liked the idea of using school colours, but I could have used colour better with the design. I am sure there are better designs for communicating the data. Some of my writing is a mess. However, it is important to me to get these out into the world. I can't spend days or weeks on them, because the data might not be as relevant. And, I have other things I have to do in the meantime! So, I am doing my best to let go of some of my more perfectionistic tendencies and just make something happen.

Meanwhile, I find the data on these cards interesting. One school had far more students smiling at one another, but far fewer adults smiling at kids. That same school had relatively even numbers of kids and adults smiling at adults, but the first school was disproportionate. Both had the same number of kids and adults smiling to themselves.

Principals don't know that I am doing this work this year. I don't know what they'll say or if they'll care. I don't know if they'll spend time with the cards to decipher them and think about what is represented or what it could mean...or if they'll just think this is weird. My hope is that, if nothing else, they will find a little bit of inspiration. But more on this in another post.

I was both excited and sad to put them into the district mail today. I'll never hold the cards in my hands again, even if I have the images. I like to think of them as seeds I'm sowing. I'll only learn later what I will reap.