A successful school improvement journey relies on a commitment to systematic data analysis and teacher collaboration, writes SANDRA DUGGAN and STEVEN STRETTON.

Got Data? Now What?: Creating and Leading Cultures of Inquiry by Laura Lipton and Bruce Wellman is an outstanding resource for teachers and leaders wanting to embark on school improvement for the first time or hone their skills in enacting proven school improvement strategies. It articulates methodologies in collaborative data analysis and provides processes to follow and implement. This resource also details ways for teachers to work together that will increase their collective professional capacity.

To use data well teachers need to work collaboratively.

How is the book relevant to school improvement?

The authors seek to articulate two important points. Firstly, data collection and analysis are essential to student and school growth, and need to be done in a systematic, committed and relentless way. Secondly, the effective use of data is best achieved when school community members work collaboratively, openly, and intentionally.

Working collaboratively in the school improvement space aligns thinking and enables teachers and leaders to grow together, learn from each other and collectively pursue agreed upon priorities.

School leaders and teachers use data constantly to determine improvement priorities with individuals, groups, and the school community. They use data to check on progress and to determine impact. Data use is embedded in successful school improvement.

Working collaboratively in the school improvement space aligns thinking and enables teachers and leaders to grow together, learn from each other and collectively pursue agreed upon priorities.

How could the book be used to support school improvement initiatives?

Essential Cultural Shifts

The book begins by identifying four value shifts necessary for creating effective work cultures:

  • From professional autonomy to collaborative practice
  • From knowledge delivery to knowledge construction
  • From externally mandated improvement to internally motivated improvement
  • From quick fix to continuous growth.

These four shifts in professional practice could assist improvement teams to reorient their mindsets before they engage in improvement initiatives.

The importance of high functioning teams is explored through the identification of seven specific qualities. These are:

  1. Maintain a clear focus
  2. Embrace a spirit of inquiry
  3. Put data at the centre
  4. Honour commitments to learners and learning
  5. Cultivate relational trust
  6. Seek equity
  7. Assume collective responsibility.

The reproducible activities in the book titled Scaled Group Inventory and Self-Assessment Inventory could be used by school teams to reflect on both the effectiveness of their group and the constructive nature of an individual’s contributions.

Schools are encouraged to structure the data interrogation carefully with a focus on searching for root causes and pursuing worthy problems.

The Collaborative Learning Cycle

A cycle of data interrogation and analysis is unpacked in detail. The three sub-headings within the cycle (Activating and Engaging; Exploring and Discovering; and Organising and Interrogating) are accompanied by key questions that could be useful to guide school teams through the data exploration process. Each area within the cycle is unpacked in a consistent way, outlining its purpose, processes, potential pitfalls and tips for success. There are many practical ideas within this section of the book that school teams could explore and apply. There are simple tips such as recording predictions on blank versions of charts and graphs used to display data. There is also advice about creating protocols for recording observations about the data being examined.

Five categories that theories of causation fall into are listed: (Curriculum, Instruction, Teachers, Students, Infrastructure). These are useful because they encourage teachers to see patterns and commonalities in the causes that underpin data sets. This could lead to a more rigorous interrogation of data. School leaders could ask groups of teachers to:

  • practise generating multiple theories of causation
  • encourage multiple causal theories to be explored.

Prove Before Improve

There is a tendency in schools to move to action quickly. To get the job done and move on. In Chapter Three, the reader is encouraged to structure the data interrogation carefully with a focus on pursuing meaningful data, searching for root causes, pursuing worthy problems and identifying causal theories. Following this scaffold could lead to a deeper ‘dig’ and a slower, more focused analysis of relevant data.

Actions that teams of teachers could be encouraged to undertake include:

  • changing complaints about student performance into problem statements
  • rephrasing concerns as open inquiry questions, or
  • reframing a possible solution as a hypothesis to be tested.

Data Fundamentals

Data is full of tricky terms. This book defines key data words clearly. Spending time reviewing the common terminology would ensure that teams have a unified understanding of data fundamentals. For schools not experienced in data inquiry, common data sets are described, then usefully grouped, with data accessible by most schools as examples. A school team could read this chapter then:

  • practise disaggregation of data; and/or
  • convert raw statistical data into a range of visual representations to compare the effectiveness of the display.

Working Together

To use data well teachers need to work collaboratively. Got Data? Now What?: Creating and Leading Cultures of Inquiry explains how to be collaborative around data. The first chapter presents seven actions of high performing groups. These are elaborated upon, referencing the recognised four stages of group development – forming, storming, norming, performing. A group assessment tool, measured against the four stages of group development, allows teams to accurately assess and then discuss their interactions with each other and their work.

It can be challenging talking about data with colleagues. People go off track, some dominate discussions, others take observations personally. Reproducible assessment tools aimed at a team member, a group leader and at a whole group level are provided in the book to stimulate discussion about group working styles. Useful descriptions of group interaction and thinking structures are also provided.

From Dialogue to Discussion to Decision Making

Using precise language – ‘cognitive’, ‘affiliative’ and ‘egocentric’ – authors Lipton and Wellman diagnose the problems that can undermine group dynamics. Addressing arising issues from dominant personalities or group-think may lead to more purposeful, focused discussions.

Tools for talking collegially about data are identified and could be useful in addressing team norms and meeting tonality. The communication tips about physical alignment, intonation, word choice and presuppositions are worthy of interrogation and thoughtful discussion.

We have all been in meetings where nothing is decided. Chapter Six explains how to move from dialogue to discussion to decision-making. A team could use this understanding to deliberately stage their meetings and drive their analysis through to a considered decision, rather than wheel-spin in the dialogue stage of talk.

What could be some limitations of the book for school improvement processes?

This book is full of practical ideas that can be used by professionals with any level of experience in using data. Novices and experienced data experts will find useful advice. Some recommendations, however, are highly sophisticated and may need to be simplified by leadership teams before disseminating to teams and/or individuals.

There is also a tendency to overcomplicate some processes, especially around action planning, towards the end of the book. Working with an AISNSW School Improvement Consultant would support a leadership team to shape data analysis to an appropriate action plan.

Got Data? Now What?: Creating and Leading Cultures of Inquiry (2012). Hawker Brownlow Education, Victoria, Australia and Solution Tree Press, Bloomington, USA.