Turning data into insight

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By Tony Emmerson, Senior Deputy Head, The English College in Prague

That the use of data in schools is still a matter for debate puzzles me. How can something so useful be in any way controversial? How can there be any doubt that it is a good thing?

The answer, I believe, is in the word itself. We need to talk less of data, and more of insight. Data can mean nothing more than numbers in a folder, gathering dust. Its beauty, or at least its value, is in the eye of the beholder.

At worst, data can be used to confuse instead of clarify. Insight, on the other hand, is surely beyond controversy.

Doing good things with data

Data, in schools, has the potential to be misused, and it happens far too often.

A lack of understanding of how predictions are generated and how they should be used can turn them into inappropriate measures of student and teacher success.

The search for better value-added can become a quest in itself, where schools focus on how a line moves on a graph rather than creating the best possible learning experience in its classrooms.

Sometimes data is hoarded by a tiny few and never shared, and sometimes it is shared in its full raw complexity, such that busy colleagues have little clue what to do with it, and even less motivation to do it.

What all these poor examples have common is that they use data in a way that brings no extra insight. When all is said and done, very little has been said or done that will be of benefit to the school, it’s staff and, most importantly, its pupils.

Better insight leads to better outcomes

The insights that Cambridge CEM data can provide are excellent, and I would say essential, in a 21st century school that wants to do the best for its students.

In the classroom, the CEM student profiles give a snapshot of each pupil as a learner, allowing teachers to form individual expectations based on an external reference point, and for non-native speakers of English also see how well the students can communicate in English.

As someone who has taught second-language learners for over 16 years this is vital insight. How much of the lesson do they understand? Is their academic vocabulary lagging behind their basic conversational language skills? Is an extremely intelligent student getting frustrated because they lack the tools to structure and communicate ideas in English? Or are they just quiet?

On a pastoral level you spot not only those who are coasting, but also those who are pushing themselves to the limit, so encouragement and care can be applied in the right way to the right student. The baseline tests also provide a preliminary screening for additional learning needs, in a way that is very time efficient.

Better insight into students results in better learning outcomes and better pastoral care.

Professional development and data

As a school leader I have a professional responsibility to assess the quality of teaching in my school. Doing that without a reliable baseline measure of our students is little more than guesswork and is at the mercy of persuasion by Heads of Department and others with vested interests.

An objective measure of how our students perform compared to students of similar ability often tells me what I need to know about the past, providing insight that helps with future planning.

Cambridge CEM’s new Professional Development courses have been designed to empower teachers and school leaders to use assessment data to put their students on the best possible route to success.

I have enjoyed working on these new CEM courses, because they’ve been written by a team committed to insight, rather than data. Not only is there over a century of school leadership between us, but it is authentic, ethical and student-centered leadership.

All the advice we will be giving will be focused on how CEM data can be used to provide better insight into students, departments and schools as a whole. You can then use that insight to influence classroom teaching, pastoral care and whole-school policy in a way that best suits your school and your circumstances.

We will also be discussing how to work with colleagues to move the narrative from being about data to being about insight, and together we can create a clear vision for why we use data in schools.

It is not about data for the sake of data. It is not about the numbers and tracking. It's about the lives we change by knowing our students and our schools better. Surely, this is something we can all agree is a good thing?

About the author:

Tony is the Senior Deputy Head at the English College in Prague, an academically successful HMC school and member of the COBIS Training Schools network. He completed his NPQH with the Institute of Education, but still enjoys living in Central Europe where he recently founded "Teaching Together in Europe" - a scheme to provide EU-based placements for UK-based trainee teachers. He is currently working with Cambridge CEM to develop a new suite of training courses and has spoken at Apogee Academia, CEM, NASBTT, and HMC conferences in-person and online. When not working he enjoys travel, watching cricket and Dylanology.


Find out more about Cambridge CEM’s Professional Development courses

Professional Development