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?

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9 thoughts on “Data walls. A wall by any other name…

  1. I completely agree, Michelle. Your use of data walls very much reflects my own understanding. I see data walls as fluid, we can visually represent the progress of our students as they continually move along a continuum of learning. They make collaborative planning for next steps easy, I like that they encourage teachers to collaborate and view the students as ‘ours’ not ‘mine’ and I think they also inspire discussion and through that we deepen our understanding of where our students are at and how to identify their learning needs.

  2. Hi Michelle, I was following the conversation on the weekend and can appreciate the pros and cons that were put forward. Data walls do need someone to keep everyone on task to keep the data up to date and it can take time. But if we are all together having a meeting and quickly update our data for five minutes it is time well spent as support teachers and classroom teachers can discuss where the children are or are not moving to and why. The data walls are a very useful tool for collaborative planning and conversations that help with consistent teacher judgement. Bringing the work samples to compare help us to see what the descriptors of the continuums actually look like. I love how we can use it to target and group children who are working towards similar learning goals. Thanks for your thoughts, it was a conversation well worth having.

    • Thanks for your comment Anne. The conversation really made me think about what value I see in data walls. I really feel like the conversations teachers have around the information gathered can’t be underestimated. I also think it would be good to check with teachers to see how they feel about them after using them for a year now.

  3. Great post. I don’t think data walls are bad but I have seen some which focus on test scores, grades and other summative measures which have little impact on future learning. I think teacher judgement based on what happens in classrooms is more powerful. I also think the conversations your staff have about the data wall is the key to it’s success.

    • Thanks for your comment Jason. I can see how data walls might be ‘misused’ but wanted to point out how they can provide a really positive focus for teacher conversations.

  4. I think good teachers know where their kids are levelled and don’t need a data wall to tell them that. However data walls are not just for that reason, they are tracking kids, monitoring progress, understanding on a deeper level what kids need and where they need to be. I understand that people feel anxious and stressed when data walls are created – they do create accountability but essentially it is accountability in front of an audience. Our whole school has access to out data wall. I think that people feel judged if their kids don’t move or if others notice that kids in their classes are very low. I think the way that literacy coaches or leadership teams introduce data walls to staff and the conversation that happens around the data wall are all essential in the creation of a useful data wall. The introduction of this sets the tone for the whole school year. Conversations need to be kept positive and engaging not judgemental.

    • I totally agree Kirsty, thanks for making that point. It is really important to be clear about the purpose of the data wall and ensure that this is reinforced in all conversations around the data wall.

  5. Thanks for connecting via Twitter, which brought me to your blog which is good reading. On a study tour of ‘good practice’ schools in NZ a couple of years ago I saw a ‘data wall’ for the first time in a primary school. I thought the concept was great as it really focused teachers on progress, using a variety of measures to track student learning. Importantly, it quickly identified when students were stagnating and robust staffroom conversations were about cognition and learning processes rather than content and deficit thinking. I think when data is used positively it has immense power to support student learning. Working in a high school we’ve only dabbled with it in practice, gathering literacy data on EAL students but I’ve found there isn’t the ownership of literacy responsibility to use this data to focus on improvement in the same way.

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