Using Data Stories to Reflect on the Learning, Part 2

  • Using Data Stories to Reflect on the Learning, Part 2

    By Jordan Benedict, posted September 11, 2017 —


    In part 1 of this blog series, we sent out a call to change the way we look at data: from quick snapshot vignettes to longitudinal narratives that dig deep into your students’ individual learning story. The call to action requires a few key shifts in how we think about using data; we want to move—

    •    from summative data to formative data;

    •    from monitoring episodic achievement to witnessing the complexities of long-term learning; and

    •    from data for accountability measures to data used to empower students and teachers.

    To see this shift in action, let's run through steps and an example together. It’s messy; it’s not perfect; and neither are teaching and learning. Improving the process is what makes us all enjoy our work.

    Step 1: Ask, “What do I wish I knew?”

    Educators all too often do work for the sake of doing work; we feel compelled to fix something. Instead, replace that nagging question with those that will influence learning. The question should always align with your vision and values, be focused on students, and feel like the answer could be inspiring.

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    Step 2: Ask, “How can we measure this?”

    Developing measuring tools is one of the trickiest steps, which is likely the reason we rely on large companies to develop testing protocols that guarantee “valid” and “reliable” results. This insecurity has closed the door on creating agile, customized, student-centered, data-collection techniques that inform our context. Educators should feel liberated to create tools their teams can use. A variety of resources are available. We used School Reform Initiative (SRI) as a starting point. Don’t let technical jargon stop you from creating meaningful feedback mechanisms. Make your protocols simple, use multiple choice rubrics or scales, and prioritize uncovering the student learning journey. Then write new and exciting chapters; language and scales can be tweaked later.

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    ** A step-2 side note: School personnel who have used data for accountability rather than data for empowerment might be trepidatious to embark on Learning Walks. Here are a couple tips to shift the focus to learning:


    •    Develop focus questions that keep the lens on students, not teachers.

    •    Exploit the fact that humans regress toward the mean: A teacher doesn’t need to fear that he or she has less collaboration time when a teammate comes in. In fact, as we collect department data, the results will come out to a statistical average that reflects the program as a whole, not a focus on the teacher.

    •    Regression toward the mean can also protect your question reliability: For each response to a question higher than the norm, there would likely be a response to the same question lower than the norm. Again, the focus is to dig into the work.


    Step 3: Set team norms.

    Educators  must feel safe with data, how the data is collected and analyzed, and the ways the data might be shared. Data norms are a must before teams begin.

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    Step 4: Collect the data in timely ways, and follow up.

    Teams should have a plan for completion and check-ins along the way. Short time frames allow for multiple rounds of data collection. Consider limiting the data project to less than a quarter of the year. Educators’ jobs become overwhelming at times, so it is essential to build in guidelines and incentives for support.

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    Step 5: Analyze the data using a protocol and data displays.

    Our brains recognize visual patterns from data better than they do scanning a spreadsheet. Use functions in spreadsheet applications (.e.g., Google sheets) to make charts and data visualizations, or use an online plot editor (e.g., Tableau, Plotly). Let your data come to life! Adopt a protocol that focuses the conversation on results and focus questions, rather than straying toward one particular experience. Several resources and tools are available on my website,

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    Sample made for Shanghai American School by Jordan Benedict of


    Step 6: Repeat.

    This process should not be a one-off; in research terms, we want the study to be reproducible. The live data dashboard encourages teachers to shift, rather than moving on. If the example team truly values students’ individual ideas, they should be revisiting how their students progress throughout the year and watching for how the data changes as their teaching practices shift.

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    Step 7: Share the data with students.

    Students will glean new and different insights from the data, and they will actively work toward the set goals when they can see the results. Educators have a tendency to work on data and make decisions without students, yet it is imperative that students contribute toward their own learning goals.

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    The story we have told is simple: Teachers were inspired to start a journey of discovery, they created an inclusive plan, they ensured the safety of their team and celebrated progress, they made a reproducible tool that tracks long term acquisition of values, and they used the most important contributor to learning: the students.

    It’s your turn

    Find your shared values, ask those burning questions, collect your student-centered data stories, and empower change. Use the comment section below to share your own unique data story, or join me on Twitter @JordanGBenedict with the hashtag #EdDataStories.


    2017_09_11_Benedict2_auPicJordan Benedict is a statistician, math teacher, triathlete, data coach, and life enthusiast. He has spent the majority of his teaching career overseas in the Middle and Far East, working with students from fourth grade to AP calculus. In his current role at Shanghai American School, Benedict facilitates data workshops and builds custom visualizations of learning data for action research projects, department protocols, and whole school exploration. He is the curator and creator of Visualize Your Learning, a repository of data explorations with access to communication, advice, or independent consulting.