The eyes have it!

Learning, data and the Mona Lisa

 Inspired by the most famous eyes in the world of art, Matthew Savage explores how data, when used effectively, can have a transformative effect on every child.


Twenty years ago, I began a relationship with two extraordinary women. To one, I remain married, and share equally extraordinary children and two decades of amazing memories. However, the other, and the focus of this article, has never let me out of her sight, ever since she saw me from her canvas in the Denon Wing of the Louvre in the summer of 1997, just weeks before I began my very first teaching post.

Little did Lisa Gherardini know, when she posed for Leonardo in 1503, that her eyes would provide the inspiration for a data-driven model of personalised learning . . . .

Wherever you are in that room, she is looking at you. I have tested her; I can guarantee it. Whoever you are, and whatever your learning style preferences or your mother tongue, your aptitudes or attitudes . . . she is looking right at you.

It seems to me that this is nothing more than what we should be aiming to achieve in every classroom around the world. Every single student should experience a learning journey which feels like it is looking right at them, like it has been designed specifically for them.

This is truly personalised learning. And this can only be achieved if we truly know each and every student. I call it the Mona Lisa Effect. 

The quest

The modern school is a complicated place: the risk of the individual child falling through the nets of anonymity and becoming the very ‘disappointed, disaffected and disappeared,’ of whose proliferation Michael Barber warned a young Tony Blair when he first took office, are all too real. All the more reason, therefore, to find ways of seeing every child as an individual, and that is what Leonardo’s image has done for me.

At the International Community School Amman, we are in pursuit of #themonalisaeffect in all that we do. Framed by the ‘data triangle’ of attainment, aptitude and attitude which informs all learning and teaching at the school, we want our entire pedagogy to be rooted in personalisation – not the cliché which lurks in many educational websites. We are after a critical, authentic, living mechanism which ensures that not one of our students falls through the net.

Our steps down this data road are in their infancy; we only began to explore the full potential of student-level data in June 2016, but, with the support of the enthusiasm, optimism and energy of youth, there is nothing that we will not do to enable the data to have a transformative effect on every single child. 

Understanding every student

As with many international schools. student mobility at ICS is consistently high, and so we do not have any time to waste in seeking to understand each student’s individual strengths and needs. Every new student is tested instantly with the Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT4), affording us a comprehensive picture of their cognitive profile – where they are likely to shine and where they may need further polish.

A cognitive CAT-scan, it enables us to ensure that each child’s learning journey can be fashioned such that it is, like the Mona Lisa, looking directly at them. Coupled with the standardised attainment analyses that come from the CAT4’s sister product, the Progress Test Series, we are able to measure not just attainment, but achievement and progress; we are able to identify and intervene with underachievement, almost before it begins to happen; and we are able to celebrate when a child, against all expectations, achieves a Grade C with a fervour most schools reserve for that seemingly elusive and exclusive A*. 

Digging deeper

Amid the myriad and contradictory pressures under which today’s children creak and bend, they will don multiple masks in order to cope, masks through which a teacher may struggle to see. We want to dig deeper, and to unearth what lies beneath – the attitudinal baggage each student carries to school each day.

We therefore use GL’s PASS (Pupil Attitudes to Self and School) survey to identify which students are nursing deficits in terms of their self-esteem, confidence, work ethic and six other attitudinal measures, so that we are able to design and deliver our interventions accordingly. This data informs the school’s Student Support Services’ team, consisting of a full time School Counsellor and a team of Learning Mentors, all dedicated to catching our students when they fall and empowering them to fall more softly next time.

Data can be a threat to the teaching profession, but used well it orbits around the individual child, helping to tell their story and, like a life-changing RPG in which both teacher and student can affect the outcome, changes that story too. Our team are always digging deeper to understand their students better, to tailor their learning and to maximise their wellbeing. We are not there yet, but it is invigorating to know we are on the right road, and it is all thanks to that extraordinary woman who caught my eye twenty years ago. 

Matthew Savage

 Matthew is Acting Principal at the International Community School Amman, and formerly Adjunct Lecturer in School Leadership at the University Brunei Darussalam. Matthew has previously led international schools in Asia and Europe and has thirteen years of middle and senior leadership experience in the UK comprehensive sector.

He is both the founder of Polio Points, a unique student reward programme which incentivises student achievement through humanitarian aid, and a fierce advocate for Student Voice. Matthew has written and presented across the world on The Mona Lisa Effect™, and continues to offer training and consultancy, online and face-to-face.

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