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Do Nothing Data

A lot of teams like to start the team/PLC process by looking at "the data." It is only be looking at numbers--the cold, hard, truth--that we can possibly know the reality of what is happening in our districts, schools, and classrooms. Right?

Well...not so fast there. Hold those horses. Slow it down a bit. Take a breath.

Numbers without context mean nothing. In fact, the wrong numbers can be used (and have been used) to manipulate and confuse us humans in various circumstances and situations throughout time.

Starting with numbers, aka, "the data" is not where teams should start. Rather, teams need systems and structures first. That way, when it's actually time to look at some numbers, the humans involved (aka, teachers) will have appropriate leadership, context, and ownership to make sense of it all. Or at least try to.

I write about systems and structures and leadership (oh my!) in plenty of other posts. But this is not one of those posts. This is a post that actually talks about data because I feel it's personally time to do so.

The title, "Do Nothing Data" is two-fold:

  1. Some data is so easy and useful, we literally have to "do nothing" other than decide to gather it, analyze it, and respond to it. It's already built in; it's meaningful, and it builds to bigger learning.

  2. Other types of data are so meaningless, additional, and time-consuming, we literally have no other choice than to gather it and then move on--"doing nothing" in response.

So yes, there's a play on words here, let's be clear.

Data is complex, and it is not all created equal. If we require that our teacher teams gather and analyze the wrong kind of data--they will be frustrated and "do nothing" with it. I see this all the time. All. The. Time. I did this myself as a teacher and in my own PLCs. I shared often how my team started out giving vocabulary quizzes because it was a quick assessment that we could give...commonly. However, after one or two PLC meetings of not having any ideas how to re-teach or respond to the vocabulary data, we realized: We need better data!

Together, through trial and error, we learned what we needed as a team.

Before we share some better ways let's get clear on what types of data feel inauthentic, useless, and unnecessary. And surprisingly, I'm not going to point out standardized tests or formal district-level assessments.

If there was one type of data point that is getting a reputation as a teacher-frustrater, it's the ungraded formative assessment. Oh yes. This little devil. Or angel. Or devil. We all have our personal beliefs on this one.

Now, I LOVE formative assessments as a type of data measurement. I just love them best when teachers look at what they were already teaching, choose some type of quick-check or common way they can assess student progress, and then analyze what the students did well/what they still need to work on.

I also LOVE formative assessments that feel authentic to a task, practice, or process that students need routine access to. For example, if we know our students need to demonstrate the skill of answering two-part questions, then we should routinely practice two-part questions. Or, with writing--if we know they will have to read multiple texts, synthesize the information, and create a multi-paragraph written response...then we should practice having them go through this process.

Students also appreciate the opportunity to practice the exact skills and processes by which they will be measured. Apply this idea to athletics or a performance of some sort. If you were coaching a baseball team, you would have students practices the exact skills that needed to be demonstrated in baseball. Yes, they may run warm-ups, stretch, and cool down, but the bulk of the practice would most often be baseball-specific drills and skills. You wouldn't, for example, spend the bulk of your practice time playing tennis.

The same principles apply w/ formative assessments, skill building, and progress monitoring.

And also: if you ask a teacher (and their students) to force a skill practice into their content area that feels overly disjointed or does not belong...this will generate the bad kind of Do Nothing Data.

If we mandate that all formative assessments must follow a particular format, we eliminate the responsiveness needed from our teachers. We also eliminate their opportunity to learn and plan together. Much like my first PLC team who eventually realized, on our own, that vocabulary quizzes were not the best data for a 7th grade ELA team...PLC teams need the space, coaching, and learning opportunities to determine what useful data is and is not.

While it is incredibly helpful for teams to integrate certain formats and styles of questions into the assessments, mandating such (from administration) usually backfires. Teacher teams end up giving assessments because, "Someone said to" and precious class time is wasted. The data is gathered, possibly even entered onto a sheet, but the teams do nothing with it, because they didn't want to give the assessment in the first place.


Some data is so easy and useful, we literally have to "do nothing" other than decide to gather it, analyze it, and respond to it. It's already built in; it's meaningful, and it builds to bigger learning.

There is, as previously mentioned, a different way that we can approach data.

By empowering teams to reflect on what they currently use in their curriculum--questions, activities, exit slips, student reflections, prompts, quizzes, tests--teachers can carve out space to analyze and reflect on what they were already using! Relevancy matters--to teachers, humans. If they identify a skill that needs to be added to their curriculum then great--they can add it.

Ask your teams to work towards tighter alignment of what they teach, and in what order. Teams will identify or co-create meaningful, relevant, learning activities that can deliver useful pieces of data that they can (and already plan to) respond to.

No one appreciates the feeling of wasted time, especially not teachers! If your teachers are gathering data, but doing nothing with it...there's probably a deeper reason as to why.

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