“The reflex is in charge of finding treasure in the dark
And watching over lucky clover isn’t that bizarre
Every little thing the reflex does
Leaves you answered with a question mark”
– Duran Duran
That’s right. I opened this post with a quote from Duran Duran. Breathe it in.
I won’t pretend that I often seek the wisdom of the sage and stylish Simon LeBon. But in this case, the lyrics point to a larger truth– white jeans and mime shirts are hot
The title of my position is “data specialist.” That’s the kind of title that leads people to ask exactly what you do, given that I don’t have a formal IT background and I’m an English teacher at heart. I tell people that my job is all about getting teachers and schools leaders past “We have data and don’t know what to do with it,” and closer to “We know what to do with it.” But that path is something that I had to conceptualize in a way that made sense to people. The educators I worked with understood that the most effective thing they could do with data was analyze it, present it in ways that made sense, then find ways to act on it within the confines of their school– and, if necessary, work to loosen those same confines if they could.
I often discuss the concept of becoming data reflexive. Too often, “data” is something done in bursts, on special days, when the consultant comes in, or when someone’s looking. It usually involves consulting binders full of charts, making teachers fill out data protocols and hand them in to supervisors, and arguing about having too many or not enough tests. When data is something that’s done in discrete chunks like this, it’s like p.d. that you go to for one day and then go back to your classroom and never use– without sustained interaction and reflection, it’s never gonna work.
Data reflexivity, though, represents the idea that, when making a decision, an educator reflexively turns to data in order to inform that decision. Data isn’t an awkward appendage; it’s the source code, so to speak, of what’s happening in the life of a classroom, a school, and a district. A programmer knows that when software isn’t working, go to the code and de-bug. That’s a reflex– the same can be said for a teacher re-stating directions when a students says he doesn’t understand or a counselor closing the door and offering a tissue when a student comes in crying. Those actions are reflexes, for the most part– that behavior isn’t so much learned like you learn how to solve polynomials. In the same way, teachers that use data reflexively always think of what’s happening in class as an endless source of data to be taken, and can switfly and fluently collect and analyze data and use it to inform what they do next.
Of course, data isn’t just numbers or performance on a test. “Constantly collecting data” doesn’t mean over-testing, and it doesn’t mean becoming a robot about students’ lives. We collect data all the time without being conscious of it– when we meet someone, we feel out their mood, their trustworthiness, their personality; all of these things are sources of data. That’s important to remember since too often, “data” only means performance, and only on certain tests, at that.
Ultimately it’s the reflex to turn to data to inform fundamental questions like “What do my students already know,” “What things that I do resonate with my students most,” or “What do students of difference ethnic groups think of their school experience” that marks true data reflexivity. Using data can be as much a behavior to shape as it is a concept to understand– my hope is that thinking about it as such can remove some of its mystery.