Monday, May 14, 2012

Three heads are better than one: Data teams in collaborative spaces

Teachers are surrounded by data, whether it’s collected formatively, or summatively, whether anecdotal, through observation and dialogue or through more formalised assessment situations - it’s a very familiar feature of the teaching landscape. How we engage with the data is critical to the decisions we make about children’s learning and the next steps for us as teachers.

In the past I’ve been used to analysing my own class data, using it to inform and to help shape the next learning steps. I’ve been able to share the data with colleagues and often used it as the base of discussion. And it’s also been collected to add to a picture of whole school progress and achievement. But generally my engagement with data has been a solo pursuit. It’s been very much about the children in my class and it’s been reliant on my view of them. What happens therefore, when there are three teachers sharing a larger cohort of learners, with a collective ownership of all the students? It's a question I asked some of our teachers this week.

It’s part of a strategic drive this year to deepen our understanding of how the space, or more accurately how three teachers working within the space, can impact on student achievement - what are some of the opportunities presented when we can work more flexibly in more flexible environments? In this instance, data and its analysis makes for a valuable conversation.

What struck me when talking to teachers was the dialogic approach to understanding progress, achievement and next steps of any individual learner. In the context of writing for example when discussing a group of children there were three heads instead of one, all able to contribute, each bringing their own knowledge of the students, across a wide range of curriculum contexts. “We all know all the kids…”, one commented- “…it’s not like having a conversation about a child in another class that you’ve never worked alongside.”

Certainly the process of making overall teacher judgments (OTJ) with three teachers seems to add to the reliability and dependability of the outcome. If “Triangulation of information increases the dependability of the OTJ” (Mitchell & Poskitt, 2010) in terms of referencing multiple sources of assessment evidence, then triangulating it further through different lenses has the potential to increase this level of dependability.

Teachers also spoke of how they would dedicate a meeting time each fortnight to talking specifically about data, about the shift they were seeing, and to draw attention to individual children. They collate the information in a shared file system, or on Google docs and use this to inform teaching, to set targets and to regroup children. This frame for evidence driven conversations has a strong element of the ‘data teams’ approach that Hattie (2012) refers to:

 “a small team meets a minimum of every two or three weeks and uses an explicit, data drive structure to disaggregate data, analyse student performance, set incremental goals, engage in dialogue around explicit and deliberate instruction, and create a plan to monitor student learning and teacher instruction” (p. 60)

It’s about making the data visible, developing professional trust and working towards improvement. It’s about prioritising and setting goals, about understanding what is or isn’t working for each student, and about monitoring the impact that as teachers, we’re having. Ultimately it is a marriage, as Allison et al (2010) puts it, between “professional collaboration and data-driven decision making” (p. 2)

The data team approach is a particularly relevant one when considering collaborative teaching in a shared space. There is already a shared focus, there is already a shared culture and already a shared responsibility for the learners. Many of the foundations on which to lay the dialogue and conversations around learning are already present. And this collaboration is critical:

“Schools cannot help all students to learn if educators work in isolation. Schools must create the structures and cultures that foster effective educator collaboration” (Hattie, 2012, p. 62).

As we further explore opportunities that are arising from collaborative teaching in open learning spaces I can’t help but feel that this is an area that can only gather momentum. Data led conversations are already happening in ways that wouldn’t be so easy for teachers in more traditional settings and a data team approach has already, if somewhat organically emerged. It’s one that over time I see will be refined and redesigned, but the focus will always be one talking about learning and critical reflection in the light of evidence.


Allison, E., et al. (2010). Data Teams: The Big Picture. Englewood: Lead and Learn Press.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers. Abingdon: Routledge.

Mitchell, K., & Poskitt, J. (2010). How do teachers make overall teacher judgments (OTJs) and how are they supported to make sound and accurate OTJs? Paper presented at the meeting of the NZARE Conference.

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