Data walls. A wall by any other name…

It’s report season. I should be finishing my reports and reading the reports of my team. I’m doing neither. I will pay for that later, but for now I ‘need’ to explore the issue of data walls. To be honest, I was a bit surprised to find myself in a very robust discussion on the weekend about these seemingly innocuous walls. Perhaps that means I haven’t properly thought through the deeper meaning or intention of these walls, perhaps I’m being deliberately disingenuous or, maybe, just maybe, my experience of data walls thus far has been overwhelmingly positive which leaves me somewhat at a loss when confronted with arguments against them.

Before we go further it’s probably important that I define, to the best of my ability, what a data wall is and how it’s used. In its essence a data wall is a visual tool used for representing a student’s achievement of particular skills, standards or knowledge. They can look different in every school or for every aspect represented, there are no hard and fast rules. The underlying principle seems to be that each student within a particular target group – be that a class, a particular group of students or a whole school, is represented and their progress against agreed and consistent measures is monitored and recorded. A quick search for ‘data walls’ turns up a number of articles and blogs about this particular topic if you’re interested in more information. A quote that spoke to me was this one: “A data wall unites a school by bringing a staff together to see students as “our students” versus his students or her students.” Kasey Kiel, a Literacy Coach in the USA, in this post.

For some people it seems that the term ‘data wall’ brings up a lot of anxiety around formalised or standardised testing, it seems in opposition to formative assessment and can be seen as an unnecessary diversion for teachers who already have enough to do. These are all completely reasonable concerns and in some cases may well be perfectly valid. A data wall, like any tool in education, is only as effective as those who use it, it’s not a quick fix or a silver bullet but a tool to add to our assessment toolkit, to feed into our teaching and learning programs and through which teachers engage in rich and constructive dialogue (in my experience).

In my school, a smallish primary school in inner city Sydney, we use our data walls as part of our ongoing formative assessment processes. We use a selection of the aspects of the NSW Numeracy continuum and the aspect of writing from the Literacy continuum. This process is in addition to our use of specific software and other documents for other aspects of learning. In our stage meetings at particular points throughout a term each teacher brings work samples around a particular aspect to share. Teachers already have an idea of where on the continuum they would place each child and use this opportunity to compare their judgements to those of their colleagues, to discuss the samples and to engage in professional dialogue around the content against which we are assessing students. The response of teachers to this process has been overwhelmingly positive, teachers report they are more confident in identifying not only what their students are doing well, but where they need to go to next. It’s my belief that the teachers are already experts, that they effectively implement formative assessment strategies continuously in their classroom, but that this process gives them a structure through which they feel secure, they can collaborate and create a sense of shared ownership and understanding of students at the school beyond their own class.

Our data wall at the start of the process. Looks different these days.

Our data wall at the start of the process. Looks different these days.

In this instance data walls have nothing to do with ‘tests’, they don’t divert teachers from their core business but rather provide them with an opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue around student progress, programming, assessment strategies and all manner of topics completely embedded in our daily work. For us, a data wall is not about checking skills off that students need to achieve in order to get a good mark in NAPLAN, it’s about refining our practice, clarifying our understanding and building a common language and expectation that supports all students as they move through the school. Yes, teachers know their students, yes they use formative assessment strategies every minute of every lesson of every day whether they realise it or not but I do not believe data walls inhibit this, rather they provide a wealth of opportunities for teachers to collaborate and a structure by which schools develop consistency across a range of practices.

Perhaps they are poorly named. Perhaps the term ‘data’ is off-putting. Perhaps it brings to mind the ogre that is NAPLAN and external judgment and irrelevant information. Perhaps it’s time to rebrand according to purpose. Or perhaps we look at purpose rather than name and avoid getting caught up in semantics. Perhaps we need a data wall to record how we all understand the term data wall, then maybe we can develop consistency beyond schools…

I really appreciate the process of the data wall, the wall itself is just that, a wall with coloured names on it, it’s the conversation I’m interested in. How about you?