The writing is on the (Data) Wall

If you want to get a quick sense of how teachers are engaging with data in a school then it is well worth looking at the ‘Data Wall’. Many schools have such a display – often prominently positioned somewhere near the staffroom where most teachers will be passing throughout the day. These are often brightly coloured displays of various print-outs – graphs, tables, and bullet-points – maintained by the schools’ (un)official data ‘leads’ in an effort to make data visible to the otherwise busy staff. These displays often resemble wall displays of student work, and can be very creatively assembled and presented (see examples: A, B, C).

The idea of the Data Wall was first popularised in US schools, as a relatively easy way of meeting the increased imperative of ‘data-driven decision-making’ in light of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. As is often the case with education innovations, the practice gradually spread to school systems with similar demands on teachers to be engaging in ‘data-driven’ and ‘evidence-based’ practice. Indeed, many schools in Australia and New Zealand seem to have adopted the practice through the work of North American educational consultants such as Michael Fullan and Lyn Sharrett who offer advice on the use of data as a part of evidence-based practice.

In terms of our own research study, current advice to schools from the Victorian Departments of Education & Training draws on Sharrett’s work to promote the use of Data Walls in primary and secondary schools. As the Victorian government puts it:

A data wall can become the place where teachers gather to tame the torrent of data coming at them and transform it into actionable classroom strategies”.

The popular take-up of the Data Wall concept in Australian schools reflects the fact that it is a quick, relatively easy and highly visible means of a school demonstrating that it is ‘doing’ data. As such, a number of questions can be asked of Data Walls that may help us make better sense of the ways in which a school is responding to the increased importance of data in contemporary education. For example:

  • How effective is this method of data presentation? While many staff may be passing by, how many stop to engage with the presentations? Does the Data Wall simply become ‘part of the furniture’ – an ignored part of the daily landscape?
  • What modes of data visualisation and analyses tend to be favoured on these walls? What forms of data are privileged, and what forms of data are marginalised (or silenced altogether)
  • How static are these displays? How regularly are the data analyses updated?
  • Who gets to post data on these walls? What capacity is there for responding, augmenting and/or challenging?
  • What forms of sense-making do these walls support? In short, what do teachers get from their school’s Data Wall?

There are a number of ways that we might light to investigate our schools’ Data Walls. Interviews with teachers, observations of staff engaging with their wall (or not), as well as multimodal techniques of analysing a Data Wall as text.