Using Data Stories to Reflect on the Learning: Part 1

  • Using Data Stories to Reflect on the Learning: Part 1

    By Jordan Benedict, posted August 28, 2017 —

    Educators often emit disparaging groans when another expert begin to tout the importance of using learning data. Many of us have heard that we need to use data, but we are un clear  about how to perform an analysis. We are often told we need to develop systems of practice on collecting and using data, but we aren’t given the necessary time. As educators, we are told to “get on board,” yet we have reservations around how data has been used in the past.

    In numerous districts, data is used as an accountability measure. Often, standardized test scores are seen as a great decider, emerging in the waning hours of the school year as a way to pass judgement on those who have not pleased the data gods. It’s no wonder teachers struggle to buy in.

    Data, when used in this penultimate way, misses the story of our students’ learning. Learning has twists and turns, ups and downs, ebbs and flows. Used appropriately, learning data should do the same: reflect the journey our students take each year and the adventures that cohorts of students take over their K–grade 12 education. Data used in isolated instances is but a snapshot of a moment, full of variability and lacking in context. Imagine if we took a snapshot when Luke Skywalker lost his hand, or when Superman was killed. These fleeting moments miss their previous and successive triumphs, their growth from small-time hero to protector of numerous worlds, and their progress in cultivating meaningful relationships that aid their quest. A single snapshot misses the whole story.

    Seriously, making that shift—from snapshot data as a barometer for accountability to longitudinal data that follows the complex narrative of education—is important for educators to do.


    Storytelling with data requires an element of time and repetition. Both for monitoring progress and for noticing the subtle changes and connections. Storytelling with data honors an administrator’s need for accountability, simultaneously acknowledging that a single snapshot lacks in sample size. Storytelling with data is used in an ongoing practice within professional teams who get genuinely excited about the climax and conclusion of their learning story. Data should be dynamic, not static, and the analysis done by teachers and students together, ensuring that students’ learning stories remain autobiographical.

    If we want to accurately tell our story, data protocols should begin within schools. Formative assessments can be developed by teaching teams, benchmark assessments can be created by departments, and walkthrough rubrics can be driven by divisions. It only makes sense that the impetus and expertise comes from those who are closest to the tale and understand the nuances and minutiae of their unique classroom of characters.

    We are not far off from these aspirations. We have recording devices for walkthroughs and digital rubrics for assessments. We have model nations, like Finland, who are paving the way for more flexibility and autonomy. My call to action is this: If we want to impact change, we need to analyze data in inspiring, ongoing, empowering, and authentic ways, following our hero’s journey through the trials and tribulations of each academic year.

    Your turn

    Use the comments section below to share how you use data to narrate the unique learning journey of your students, your classroom, and your school. Let’s get the conversation started! Join me on Twitter at @JordanGBenedict and use the hashtag #EdDataStories. In Part 2, we will examine explicit strategies for authoring your own data story.


    Jordan Benedict is a math teacher, triathlete, data coach, and life enthusiast. He has spent the majority of his teaching career working overseas in the Middle East 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.