The data jigsaw

. . .  and why triangles matter in education

According to Matthew Savage, current forms of assessment do not get us anywhere near a full picture of a child and everything that makes them unique.Think ‘triangles’ for a better perspective!

Triangles are my favourite shape (‘Tesselate’ by Alt J)

Getting real perspective

In terms of what we see, or think we see, perspective is everything. The same image, captured from a different direction or even with different magnification, can tell an entirely different story.

This is the reason why research should be peer reviewed, why experiments should be conducted numerous times, and, for the purposes of this post, why one single piece of data means absolutely nothing.

And yet for the majority of my teaching career I have been expected to bow to the throne of attainment data alone. Sure, at times, different governments have temporarily conceded that progress data, or data showing value ‘added’, sometimes even in consideration also of ‘context’, might matter, but sooner or later those suns are eclipsed again by the red giant of attainment.

The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be. (Douglas Adams)

The problem with attainment data

This is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, said attainment is invariably measured only against what is deemed to be the level (of knowledge, skill or understanding) ‘expected’ of that particular age, as if, as the late great Sir Ken argued, we were goods at the end of a production line.

Secondly, when there is comparison, it is still typically against the level attained, often not even in the same subject or discipline, at another arbitrarily selected number of years since our date of production.

Thirdly, attainment in or at what? With the terms of reference always set by the oppressor and never by the oppressed, this metric has already been limited by the arbitrary priorities of a curriculum whose brokenness has become increasingly obvious.

For me, the purpose of assessment is to ensure that every single student can “be seen”, “be heard”, “be known” and “belong”; it is to empower and enfranchise them to grow, to blossom and to thrive. For this to be possible, we need to look from more than one direction, and at more than one thing.

The full picture

I speak and write often of the jigsaw puzzle which is that struggle of ours to “see” and to “know” – a puzzle every piece of which, big or small, is a piece of data for us to discover – and the metaphor works: it does not matter if we have those big corner pieces, or if we have filled that tricky homogenous section to the left of centre, the picture is not complete until we have found everything.

In fact, given how gloriously messy and plastic each child is, the sooner we realise that we will never complete the puzzle at all, the sooner it becomes more of a grail, and the sooner we get meaning from the struggle, the journey – because it is oriented authentically, towards the child themselves.

The data triangle

So if not only attainment, what else? This is where I invite us to “tesselate”, to look to the other two vertices on the data triangle which exists for every single child: aptitude and abilities, and attitudes and wellbeing.

To draw any meaningful conclusion from attainment data alone is impossible; for, alone, it means nothing.

As soon as we can see it alongside a rich array of data helping us to understand of what the student might be capable in that utopia where there are no odds or obstacles stacked against them, we can finally see their attainment measured, solely and simply, against not others but them, alone, themselves.

And with that we can move from talk of a child’s attainment – narrow, exclusive, devoid of context – to talk of their achievement – open, inclusive, iterative.

The importance of teacher empathy

Closer now, nonetheless our field of vision remains still too narrow unless we can also populate the vertex of attitudes and wellbeing with an authentic and diverse pool of warm data that can help us develop that most underrated of teaching skills: empathy.

Once we can imagine what the world actually looks like through their eyes – once we can admit that the story we had already written of them in our own minds might be, or most likely is, a rough guess at best – then can we help them shape their unwritten futures with their own hands.

So there we have it. Our data triangle becomes one fed by authentic, current and rich data on aptitude and abilities; on attainment, achievement and progress; and on attitudes and wellbeing.

International triangles

To my delight, international schools are increasingly data-rich places, and an increasing number of them have already decided that “triangles are [their] favourite shape” too, all of which brings with it essential, new challenges.

How do we distil all of this data such that it can easily translate to positive impact in the hands of every teacher? Although we still have a way to go, efforts to visualise student-level data are moving apace. And, once we are able to visualise it for every teacher, how do we ensure they retain, at all times, that triangulated viewpoint?

This is what schools have long been crying out for, or trying to create themselves, efficient, authentic, accessible dashboards, on which that triangle can be clearly presented. I have even experimented with “numberless data” here, using radial charts to represent a student’s data story through shape alone. Many schools are looking to PowerBI for such functions, or even fashioning apps of their own. And so, too, are commercial providers seeking to fill this void.

As we step into a new year burgeoning with possibility and opportunity, I am excited to watch how the international schools sector will rise to this challenge. I hope that we retain the right perspective, and keep looking for all the jigsaw pieces.


 Matthew Savage

Matthew is an experienced international school Principal, sought-after consultant and trainer, working with premium schools worldwide. He is also an Associate Consultant with LSC Education



FEATURE IMAGE: by Keisha on Unsplash   RAC Arena, Wellington Street, Perth WA, Australia

Support Images: by Victor on Unsplash    Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, Singapore


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