Data driven decision-making is a hot topic these days.
- View historical information about their students.
Look at predictors to see how they will do on standardized tests.
Disaggregate data by race, gender, language, special needs, and poverty.
Analyze the results of formative assessments as the school year progresses.
Drill down into the data to find the learning standards, performance indicators and specific skills that need more work.
The question is, now that all this data is available, what is the best way for a teacher to use it?
Most educators talk about using information to break their classes into smaller subgroups based on the learning needs that are identified in the data reports. Once students are placed in these smaller groups the teacher then creates lessons and activities that differentiate according to their learning needs. This seems to be an improvement over teaching to the middle of the class, or teaching a specific skill on a schedule irregardless of whether the students are ready for it or not.
Perhaps the best of all worlds would be to create an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or every student. But for stressed out secondary teachers that see more than a hundred students per day, this may be impractical. Perhaps differentiating instruction using data this way, is as close to individualized instruction as we can get in a large public school environment.
Grouping students by academic needs, although an improvement, may not deliver the results we think they should.
Grouping students this way doesn’t take into account their learning styles. For example, I may be a student who is a hands-on learner. Grouping me with students with similar academic needs may not improve my performance if the mode of instruction continues to be lecture or worksheet. Similarly, a student in my group who learns best by rote practice may not do well with a hands-on activity.
Would we make more of an impact if we understood our students learning styles, as well as our own teaching styles; and created learning groups that were assigned lessons and activities matching their learning style preferences?
I remember long ago when I was in the English classroom one of the most successful students asking me regularly,
“Mr. Reilly, how many words does this essay have to be?”
I would smile and respond,
“However many words it takes you to say what you have to say.”
She would look at me in frustration. I didn’t understand at the time that her learning style was very concrete and my teaching style wasn’t. Some kids loved it. Kids like her were very frustrated. I was oblivious to the many different learning styles of my students.
When we discuss data driven decisions, I believe the laser focus on the skills we teach does our students a disservice if we don’t pay attention to the way we choose to teach…
…and the ways our students learn best.