The data walls concept originated with University of Chicago education researcher David Kerbow, who in the late 1990s promoted visual displays to chart students’ progress in reading. Kerbow called these displays “assessment walls,” and he meant them to be for faculty eyes only, as tools for discussion and planning. But when that fundamentally sound idea met constant anxiety over test scores in K-12 schools across the United States, data walls leaked out of staff-room doors and down the halls.
“Diving Into Data,” a 2014 paper published jointly by the nonprofit Jobs for the Future and the U.S. Education Department, offers step-by-step instructions for data walls that “encourage student engagement” and “ensure students know the classroom or school improvement goals and provide a path for students to reach those goals.” The assumption is that students will want to take that path — that seeing their scores in relationship to others’ will motivate them to new heights of academic achievement. They are meant to think: “Oh, the green dots show my hard work, yellow means I have more work to do, and red means wow, I really need to buckle down. Now I will pay attention in class and ask questions! I have a plan!”
How efficient it would be if simply publishing our weaknesses galvanized us to learn exactly what we’re lacking.
The writer describes how it has affected one child in her class in particular and how that child has a story behind her that influences her learning journey. Data walls just do not reflect the story of the child that the data belongs to.
It also seems that these data walls are also an invasion of privacy and are against US privacy laws - so education authorities were telling US teachers to swap out names on the charts for codes. But children still know.
And clearly, this form of motivation is rather demotivating for adults, so why do we inflict it on children?
Someone from Delaware in the USA even sent a letter to schools telling them to get rid of their data walls or a law suit would be filed: Delaware Public Schools: You Have Until Thursday T Get Rid Of Your Data Walls Or I Start Filing FERPA Complaints. This quote says it all:
My unfiltered definition of what a data wall is? It’s a tool used to shame and bully students into making them do better. Under the guise of competition, someone who’s in the “red” will just magically, one day, decide to change his or her performance to get into the “yellow” or “green.”
For some students this will work. Fine. But for others, like the many children with special needs I’ve taught over the years, this will not work and will continue to be a demotivator and could… cause unnecessary emotional harm.
What do I have on my walls....
I started at a new school in 2013 and when I entered the classroom to begin setting it up, there was a data wall of sorts on the wall for writing. It was the first thing that was removed. In my opinion walls of a classroom should be about celebrating the learning within the class, supplemented with resources that can support learning.
- Children's writng
- Children's art
- Children's project work
- Information about our topic theme
- Resources to support the learning and act as teachers
What prompted me down this recent reflection was a post on NZ Teachers by an experienced junior teacher asking for some fresh ideas on displays for Reading, Writing and Maths to show where children are at and displaying their next steps, as she and her colleagues wanted to show consistency across their school. I made several comments on this post and some interesting and thought provoking discussion was engaged in by a variety of professionals that was both enlightening and alarming.
- people identifying what the poster was wanting to do immediately as a data wall.
- people seeing this as a great way to let students know the next steps.
- the concern that this was a name and shame tactic unwittingly.
- people seeing it as a way of showing progress through reading, maths or writing levels and stages.
- some prefer these sorts of things within the students own books, for example, I personally would put goals in their own writing books, show progress in their Learning Journey book or give them their own bookmark with goals on it.
- others get the students to set their own goals and work towards them... some of which are publically displayed for celebration.
- ERO are expecting to see these data displays and are questioning teachers' practice if they do not have them.
- some teachers said the children asked for these displays and their classroom cultures were supportive and respectful.
- some teachers talked about parents caring more for data displays than the children and comparing students to each other without understanding their learning journey or progress made within a level.
- some teachers talked about being the child who is always lower, whose progress is not happening as fast as the rest of the class.
Then a couple of days ago, a tweet from a PLD specialist I follow caught my eye leading to this blog post by American educator George Couros (who I also follow), You Are Not A Number. In this post, George discusses the importance of assessment and data, but his assertion that data driven is the stupidest term in education. We are child driven.
How often do you go to a conference and they focus on seeing the genius and finding the strengths of each student you serve?
- If I struggle, that I can be comfortable asking for help.
- I am valued as an individual.
- If I work with you, you know my name (at least), and I know yours.
So why the data walls?
These just weren't around twenty-two years ago when I stepped into the classroom. But these things work in cycles.
Last year, as part of one of my Masters of Education papers, I looked into how we got National Standards. I published this paper on one of my other blogs, Back to the Future: How has economic policy influenced the development of education policy and how the educational achievement of children in New Zealand primary schools is measured? Yes that is a mouthful of a title, and if you click through to read it, may I suggest you have a large cup of coffee and a large piece of cake to sustain you through the 5000 odd words I wrote.
To cut it short however, we had data walls of a sort and league tables back in the late part of the 19th Century and we have merely come a full circle with the formation and implementation of National Standards in 2009 resulting in league tables and the obsessiveness with data we now have.
Over 100 years ago, one had to pass a standard set, and if you didn't, you stayed another year in that 'standard class' until you did. Results were published in local papers and teachers were compared to each other by the success of their pupils. Initially this was done through an external examiner coming to the school but was later changed to a written exam administered by the head teacher.
Passing the standards was abolished in 1955 and a norms based assessment was initiated. This has been largely in place ever since, improved and changed as research and evidence deemed appropriate, until the implementation of National Standards.
And this is the system I grew up and was educated in and it was largely the case until 2009.
Which brings to mind a story from Welby Ings' book Disobedient Teaching that I want to share now:
Back in 1962, at Pukeatua Primary there were also lions, cheetahs and rhinosceroses. They lived in Room 3 and sat at desks in lace-up shoes. The lons and cheetahs, who made up most of the class, didn't have much to do with the incinerator, but Nigel Terpstra and I, who were rhinoceroses, did. As the only members of the bottom group we were delegated the dubious responsibility of being rubbish monitors..
We were a result of the sixties, a decade in New Zealand schools that saw a clear push towards reassessing the highly steamed nature of education. J.C. Daniel's essays on the effects of streaming in the primary school were wdely cited in the argument for continued social promotion and mixed-ability grouping. Unfortunately, at Pukeatua Primary and in many other schools up and down the country, what happened was that roups one, two and three were simply replaced by lions, cheetahs and rhinosceroses (or their equivilent), and eventually most of the rhinoceroses woke up to the fact that a fancy name still equated with beng at the bottom of the pile.
Being at the bottom of the pile isn't much fun. It's the place where many of us have found ourselves at some time in our schooling, and it's the place where we are most unmotivated to learn. Nearly all of us have come through school systems that use comparative methods of assessment, and most of us have learned that they do one thing very well: they teach us that we are not as good s ther people. They teach us that in the race for learning, there are winners and losers and, as in most races, the losers outweigh the winners.
Data walls have come in with the drive for accountability. In the 1980s that drive was started with the rise of neoliberal politics in New Zealand. The Picot Report brought about the devolution of our centralised education system to self-managing schools. By the time National came in during the 1990s, education was in community control but funded by the central government and they wanted to know if they were getting bang for their dollar. The call for a national testing system in primary like the one in the UK went out, saved by the 1999 election being won by Labour who opposed such a system. Yet when National won the election in 2008 they were ready to put a softer plan in action to ensure accountability for the dollars in education, and National Standards was formed and implemented and data walls followed that as night follows day, just as they have in the US and UK with their testing regimes.
Reflecting on where I have been...
So while I tried very hard over the last twenty odd years to mask it, my students probably always knew that the Kereru group was the top reading group and the Kiwi group was the bottom reading group, and the Short Tailed Bats were the highest numeracy stage and the Weta group was the lowest numeracy stage.
Yet nowhere have I advertised that. On the book box and the modelling book cover will be the name of the group and who is in the group, but no indication of reading level or numeracy stage. Yet children know. They look at the colour wheel on the back of the reader and they know. They look at the content of the numeracy worksheet and they know.
And they look in their Learning Journey book and they know. Because as a teacher, I collect and record their data and it goes in their Learning Journey book (or whatever your school calls it). I collate that data and put them into groups to teach them. I collate that data for senior management and the Ministry and I put it on the SMS. I collate that data to inform each student's parents. But most importantly, as I collect that data, as I analyse it, as I put it into the Learning Journey book with the student, I talk to that student about where they are, where they came from, what they do now that they didn't do then, what I envision them moving towards and how they will get there. I talk to them about what they will have to do and what I will have to do as a teacher to move them forward.
During the year I inform the student and the parents of the progress. Below is a summary I came up with that I update each term for some of the basics, spelling, basic facts, numeracy stages and reading levels. This is in their Learning Journey book and I think it gives much more information and context alongside any writing report I write.
But I also include each of the assessments (except Gloss and running records because they are very teachery) so parents can see the raw data, so they can see how close their child is in spelling certain words, so they can see which sorts of problems their child is struggling with for basic facts.
I include a full summary of their child's running record.
Instead of a copy of the Gloss, I put this rocket of the Number Strategy Progression in that explains what each strategy means and the expected time a child should be at this strategy. I highlight and date where the child is at, and when I retest, I do another highlight colour and date that.
I also use a similar rocket for the basic facts. The child highlights what they can do and put in an astrix beside the ones they need to focus on. This one allows the child and parent to see at a glance what the child has mastered and which areas they need to focus on to move up the rocket.
I have had a variety of other ways to inform parents about how their child is doing in my classroom. I use these in the Learning Journey book to show understanding of the learning or activities undertaken. Photos are fabulous for doing this.
First up is a good old fashioned self-evaluation using smiley faces and a comment box. I video the students completing each of these tasks and then they watch themselves and colour in the face they think best applies. We do this at the beginning and end of the swimming season so the student will see the progress made. In the comment box the student writes what their goal is next to be a better swimmer.
This is an example of using pictures to tell the story. We used one of Judi Billcliff-Canton's poems and drama activities as a trial for her. I took photos of the students as they completed the challenges as an example of their learning. The pictures clearly show their ability to meet the challenge set, which is included along with the poem to inform parents.
This evaluation was for PE after several sessions on soccer skills with our Sports Energizer, Garth. He explicitly taught the skills for trapping, kicking and dribbling and I took photos to use as a reminder for me as a teacher and to enable the students to reflect. Hence I have included the photos in this document that the students reflected on and glued into their Learning Journey book.
Below are two assessments I have used to assess student knowledge for a Science unit and a Health & Safety unit. I use a mixture of multiple choice questions, questions requiring a written answer, matching and self-assessment.
Below are two matrix type assessments. I have used these personally as the teacher when assessing or as self-evaluation for each student as well as a criteria for them to refer to. The first matrix is one for writing a pursuasive text for Anzac Day. We make the meal that the average Anzac soldier ate at Galipolli and eat it and then we need to justify if we could eat that meal every day for eight months. The second one is for writing a pursuasive speech.
These are a sample of some assessments I use to inform students and their parents of their progress and ability in my classroom. These are in their Learning Journey books and the students and I discuss these entries as they are completed and glued into the books. They are encouraged to take these home to discuss with their parents, who are also encouraged to write responses in the book. These books are used as discussion document during parent-teacher interviews and provide specific examples when discussing the learning done and next steps. These books are practical for parents to refer to when reading the bland written reports we now have to produce.
Yes, they are a lot of work, but I have a real sense of satisfaction at the end when they go home. More so than a data display wall would give me. I feel pride in my students for having a record of their learnng and progress, a book that celebrates our learning journey throughout their time with me. It is their book, and no one else can nosey through it without their permission, which negates the parents gathered around a data wall commenting on every other child but their own. Students are excited to go back and see how much they have changed and deciding on which aspect they are most proud of.
I have also used things like bookmarks that the students bring to reading to remind them of their goals. Each time I assess the student, I update their bookmark.
I will also get the students to directly glue things like this Sheena Cameron description of how a reader uses prediction directly into their own language book for their own reference.
While I acknowledge that children will always know if they are bottom of the class or not, we can give them the dignity of some privacy. To display their next learning step or what they have achieved on some reading rocket is garish in my opinion and unneccessary. There are other ways of informing students of their achievements, next steps and goals that do not make them despondent about learning. As one of the first photos I published at the top of this post says, "How would you like to be Norissa?"