Let’s change the conversation about data in the math classroom

Spencer changed the education conversation in the 1800s.
Spencer changed the education conversation in the 1800s.

Asking questions and changing the conversation is a pathway to improvement in any endeavor. In the 19th century, a time of accelerated scientific discovery and invention, opportunities for different questions about teaching and learning were generated by the emergence of new knowledge.

The changing conversation around education during that period culminated in 1860 with Herbert Spencer’s essay, What Knowledge Is Of Most Worth? The essay sought to provide the educational community with a much-needed framework to assist in identifying and prioritizing the knowledge essential for learning. Today we have a similar opportunity to change the conversation surrounding improved learning—now that we have better tools, better data, and better cultures to support it. Improved data is fundamental to continuous improvement for systems, educators, and students. Anchored by strong leadership, current advances are creating a paradigm shift in mathematics education.

What is the right question to ask about data? As Spencer noted in his essay, to improve teaching and learning, it’s not the quantity of information that counts, but the quality and how it is used. When it comes to using data today, Hamilton et al. in Using Student Achievement Data to Support Instructional Decision Making have shown that instructional decisions can lead to improved student performance. The conversation about data and its use for assessment first requires asking a question that’s not far removed from what Spencer once posed: What Data is of Most Worth?

How to think about data use in the math classroom

The frequent monitoring of student progress, as noted by Lezotte in Revolutionary and Evolutionary: The Effective Schools Movement, was first identified as a correlate of effective schools, and has evolved from a promising idea to an institutionalized practice in classrooms, schools, and school systems across the nation. In Critical Issue: Rethinking Assessment and Its Role in Supporting Education Reform, Bond affirms that as shifts in assessment design, practice, and purpose continue, the use of differing types of data to inform, influence, and impact both program and practice are equally changing. But unlike previous shifts, the convergence of theory, practice, and the educational technology underpinning assessment and data are seismic—indeed, revolutionary—and hold great promise for transforming mathematics teaching and learning by improving capacity, providing greater equity, and using continuous improvement models for collecting new types of data that raise achievement.

Educational technology and data are transforming mathematics teaching and learning. The enablement of ongoing formative assessment and immediately actionable data is yielding real results for teachers and students of mathematics. In his research study, The Impact of Classroom Evaluation Practices on Students, Crooks found that providing individual students with personalized support and guidance is now even more powerful with next-generation digital tools and assessment systems.

Learn more about the what, why, and how surrounding establishing a data-driven culture to raise math achievement. Read my white paper, A New Math Classroom: Creating a Data-Driven Culture, and check out the related webinar Improve Math Learning Outcomes by Building a Data-Driven Culture.

Dr. Gregory Firn

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