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When Schools Think More About Data Than Understanding



When Schools Seek Data Instead Of Understanding or The Time My School Focused On ‘Answering Strategies’

by Terry Heick, Director, TeachThought

Ed note: I wrote this post in 2013 and updated it again in 2020 for formatting, clarity, and updated links.

Two of education’s most powerful advocates–the late Grant Wiggins and the sage Diane Ravitch–have both recently (edit: in 2013) addressed an important and lingering issue in education: the mediocre state of learning in our nation’s schools.

Wiggins wrote a response to Ravitch you can see here. In short, Ravitch looks to poverty and socioeconomic concerns as what ails ‘schools,’ while Wiggins calls on teachers to refine their craft. Well, it’s more complicated than that really. You can see for yourself in the link above.

Either way, to some, Wiggins’ perspective sounds like he’s ‘judging teachers,’ while Ravitch comes to their defense, a seemingly binary condition.

So let’s start there, with the idea ‘judging teachers.’

As a teacher, it’s difficult not to ‘judge’ if you’re deeply involved with colleagues, in their rooms, and working with them on committees. I don’t mean outright finger-wagging and condemnation, but at least a passing curiosity in understanding the craft of your colleagues. Not judgment in the traditional terms, but certainly a kind of interdependence. An internal instinct about the levels of learning going on in the classrooms around you.

Even in this very humble and collegial form, this is not a popular idea. Asking about the learning models, instructional strategies, curriculum mapping, or assessment forms other teachers are using must be done with great care and tact. This is not a matter of one teacher judging another, but the reality that no one knows a teacher better than another teacher.

You notice what your colleagues leave on the copy machine.

That doesn’t mean that you know a thing about the actual learning that occurs in another classroom. And who has time to think any further beyond that passing curiosity? There’s always your own students and planning and instructional design to worry about. But those artifacts from the copy machine–they mean something.

As do the questions raised–or not raised–in staff meetings.

Or the student work you see hanging on the hallway walls and bulletin boards.

Or the school-wide focus that gives lip-service to rigor, personalized learning, and understanding, but in function stresses compliance, adherence to ‘non-negotiables,’ and uniformity.

‘Team players’ are favored over new thinking, innovation, or questioning of the status quo, and this seems to bother no one–likely because they’re too busy gathering data for data-team meetings, leading yet another committee, or charting literacy probe numbers in all of their free time.

You can guess the kind of learning performance and innovation this ecology leads to.

ORQ Strategies

The end result of this don’t-rock-the-boat approach mixed with the pressure of running this machine of a school is what seems to be very little widespread concern with understanding, powerful literacy skills, and the thinking habits of students. The concept of deep learning takes a back seat to blending in, meeting ‘expectations,’ and a relentless social etiquette.

I recall a meeting, where we, as a staff, were confronted with open-response data that didn’t jive with what multiple-choice questions suggested. The ORQ scores were low, while the MC data were a bit higher. So the meeting, of course, focused on ‘answering strategies’ to help the students form their responses more neatly. SRE–State, Reason, Explain, for example. Or SPAM. Or RAFT.

In the midst of the assistant principal surveying the crowd for which ‘strategy’ we should use and why I suggested that perhaps the data was lower for the ORQs because the students simply didn’t understand well enough. Writing, in general, allows for assessment of higher-level thinking skills compared to MC questions. They do well on MC questions because they kinda-sorta understand, but flounder on ORQs because they hit their ceiling. Plus writing is hard, painstaking work and is a skill and takes years and years to master.

The meeting got a bit quiet, no one responded, and the conversation quickly moved back to ‘ORQ strategies,’ which is like outlining a ‘plating strategy’ in a restaurant without concern for the food.

But even this isn’t ‘bad teaching’ as much as a system not designed for performance, but form. As teachers, we often reach for quick-fixes because of the intense pressure to move the needle. You’d think this would lead to closer attention to concepts like self-direction and transfer, and priority of ideas in curriculum, but it doesn’t.

Teachers learn very quickly to do what we’re told. To ‘innovate,’ as long as it’s an innovation endorsed by the district. To be ‘team players.’ Never to challenge one another or be professionally competitive because this all flies in the face of the fraternity of teachers who go to war together every day because it’s just such damn hard work and no matter what we do this year, they’ll change it all again next year anyway.


But shouldn’t we push each other as professionals to be better? Why is it arrogant if you think read-the-book-and-answer-the-same-questions-you’ve-used-for-years isn’t exactly progressive teaching? Especially when you’re asked to use a common assessment with this approach? Or worse, to ‘share units’?

Can’t we show our love and respect for one another by demanding more, not immunity? Through diversity, not uniformity? Is this ‘judging’?

So Wiggins, of course, has a point.

Teaching Matters. So Does Poverty

If we can agree that all of us, from top to bottom, need to step up our game, does that mean that socioeconomic concerns don’t matter?

This is an interesting debate because it suggests that either issues like poverty and early literacy matter or don’t. If you mention it, it sounds like you’re making excuses and saying those that are poor can’t learn. This empowers the ambitious among us to point to 80/80/80 schools and say anything is possible and why aren’t we doing what they’re doing and come on let’s meet the needs of these kids! All of which fails to honor the complexity and unique conditions of every student, school, and community. 

You can’t copy/paste school design.

My opinion is that factors like poverty matter, and greatly. It’s not an excuse or insurmountable, but it’s not as simple as a well-timed instructional strategy, a federal grant, backward mapping, or buying a program to make things right. 

At one point as a teacher, I went from one school where most students read at home, had literacy modeled for them since birth, and would do almost anything I asked to another school the next year where students–not one, but a half-dozen or more–were living out of their car. Many were also recent victims of sexual abuse, sold drugs on school property, and fought daily in the hallways. In groups. For fun.

Group fights for fun.

That’s not a curriculum or instructional design matter–not initially anyway. That is a culture–one owned by the community, not the school. And there are teachers that deal with that every single day and have for years, and then are told they’re just not working smart enough or hard enough. That if they choose the right ‘research-based strategy’ or taught a scripted curriculum with ‘fidelity,’ that the knot will become untangled, and that’s simply not true.

Scripted curriculum is the death knell of education, and it’s way, way more complicated than that. It’s true that as teachers we must improve. Many of our habits are bad, Our instructional models are dated. Our technology is old. Many of us show, at best, content or pedagogical expertise, but rarely both.

There are many of you that read the previous sentence shaking your head wondering who I think I am to judge other teachers. And that’s a big part of the problem.

The Data-Culture Disconnect

But it’s not the problem itself.

Poverty is a killer. Homelessness is a killer. Abuse is a killer. Drugs are as well. Alcohol, too (see the Definition of Alcoholism). And broken families. These things don’t just ‘sabotage your data’ or present themselves as problem-solving scenarios for education committees, but impact students more than anything you’ll ever teach them.

And to continue to teach ‘around them’ as if they are mere side-stories for you to pedagogically form a response to may do more harm than good.

Education suffers from a bit of blindness courtesy of its own ambition to fix everything on its own. But until we can talk about the larger–and more relevant–context that schools reside in, and see schools as parts of a larger whole, we will continue to burn through great teachers at alarming rates while soundlessly teaching to an increasingly disengaged generation of students who literally have access to all the information in the world on their phones.

Teaching is a complex soup of culture, pedagogy, and educational leadership at admin and teacher level. Not to mention almost entirely a matter of literacy at its core. If it was as simple as a program or instructional design matter, the Rubix cube would’ve been solved already.

There may indeed be schools that ‘are doing it’–moving the needle strongly in lieu of extraordinary social circumstances, but there is–or seems to be–a disconnect between what Wiggins and Hattie and Marzano say, and the reality of the students in front of a teacher in many schools, something Ravitch seems to recognize.

A data-culture disconnect.

Teaching is easy. Teaching well is very, very hard to do day in and day out, especially in the schools that need it most.

This suggests a far more collective and unified approach to education reform than we’ve ever had–one that absolutely demands extraordinary leadership, and that finally honors the true complexity of deep learning, as well the quickly changing logistics of educating a human being in a connected world.

Teaching Matters. So Does Poverty: The Data-Culture Disconnect That’s Crippling Education

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The Selflessness Of Pedagogy: What Every Teacher Gives




The Selflessness Of Pedagogy: What Every Teacher Gives

by Terry Heick

It’s better to give than to receive–something that holds true for gift-giving and education.

In fact, the act of giving isn’t just a matter of ultimately receiving more, or even an act of altruism and selflessness. It has more to do with seeing the big picture itself — a healthy, robust, functioning system of careful human performance — that becomes the goal. It’s in this simple paradigm shift that we, as teachers, can find a new level of performance as professionals, contentment in our craft, and changed lives in the communities we serve.

So how might we focus on that service not as a characteristic of my job, but as the goal itself–the most macro product of all? For teachers, this would obviously be built around the idea of service-oriented teaching, where we gain strength and perspective from serving others. It would lead to ‘other growth,’ including, on a broader level, the formation of a personal and professional ecology than can sustain us through the challenges of teaching.

What would this look like?

Other teachers who need us, and who we need

Parents who need us, and who we need

Students who need us for something other than clarifying instructions, providing credit, and letter grades

The community of our school, including grade levels above and below ours, that needs us for our performance, collaboration, and ideas, just as we need that community.

In a word, this looks like interdependence. So what can I give to begin?

They give themselves.

Teaching is martyrdom. So often, educators feel the need to give themselves up to be feasted upon until there’s nothing left. Giving yourself is a different kind of gift, though. Here, it means truly putting your self aside — your need to be the best, your insecurities, professional goals, need for affirmation, and so on — and instead give in to the act of teaching.

But more crucially, this giving of yourself implies that you give your whole self to the act of teaching — your creativity, affection, background knowledge, contacts, networks, dreams, hopes, and so on — in the whole merging of you and your work.

They give others the benefit of the doubt.

As a teacher, you’ll see a lot moving upstream and down — struggling readers that always seem to come from that school; that family that doesn’t seem to care; that co-worker who seems to challenge you at every chance; that administrator who always seems to find a way to poke holes in your teaching. That assessment. That law. That policy.

Never, ever stop questioning the things happening around you. Be a critical educator, ask tough questions, and ring the bell when you’re concerned. Just do so from a position of positivity — give others the benefit of the doubt. Use positive presuppositions, such as: “We’ve always been strong supporters of literacy here, so I’m confused why. . . ”




They give themselves the opportunity to learn new things continuously.

Okay, perspective change to first-person: I’m going to give myself the gift of learning. As a teacher, it makes sense to learn endlessly, not just to model it for students, but to keep my own curiosity and tendency for play stirring and alive.

I may learn a new set of literacy strategies. Maybe it’ll be a variation on the Socratic Seminar, or I’ll mash Fish Bowls with Agree/Disagree. I may bring new education technology into my classroom, or reach for new learning models such as project-based learning, sync teaching, or self-directed learning. I may throw out my desk and go paperless, mobile, or completely back to basics.

But I’m never going to stop learning. That is my gift to myself.

They give students a chance.

Maybe that’s a chance to surprise themselves. I want to give the gift of inspiration. Who doesn’t? And what better way can we inspire than by designing learning experiences that let students do things they didn’t think they were capable of? My gift would be giving students opportunities to surprise themselves through their own skills, critical thinking, creativity, and deep understanding of important ideas.

They give parents authentic opportunity to get involved.

It’s tempting to complain about parents that aren’t involved in their child’s schooling. Who on earth wants to be involved in schooling? Learning is a different matter — that’s something with a foothold allowing parents to engage meaningfully. This isn’t grades and homework, but rather understanding and the need to understand.

You may or may not get anything more from parents, but at least you’ve given them more tempting access than they’ve ever had in the past.

They give others chances to create new measures of success.

Teaching — properly done and measured as we do today — is impossible. It can’t be done. You cannot bring every single child to proficiency in every single standard while, at the same time, meeting their needs as human beings and helping them both see and reach their full potential. If this is your goal, you’re only going to disappoint yourself endlessly until you either burn out or realize that you’re lying to yourself.

Teaching, though, with new metrics of success — well, that’s suddenly a whole lot easier.

They give themselves a break.

The preceding represents a lot of giving, and also a lot of complexity, interdependence, opportunity, work, and chances to fail. So above all, I’m going to give myself a break.

I will give all of myself. I will give the benefit of the doubt. I’ll learn new things, promote self-discovery, connect with communities, and establish new measures of success. And when things go wrong, I’ll have a short memory. I’ll give myself a break and push on, excited about what tomorrow might bring.

Image attribution flickr user denisekrebs and cloudboard; What Every Good Teacher Gives
pay for an essay to be written

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How The Lesson Study Approach Can Improve Your Teaching



How The Lesson Study Approach Can Improve Your Teaching

contributed by Vicki Collet

Making teaching a shared and public practice supports improved instruction.

When teachers have opportunities for collaboration, reflection, and inquiry, they “can find better ways to answer the learning needs of students” (Lieberman & Wood, 2002, p. 42). Teacher inquiry makes us question practices that have become stale, generate innovation, and create dynamic learning for ourselves and our students.

Over the past decade, I’ve participated in teacher inquiry using a process called Lesson Study. I’ve seen scores of teachers engage with authentic professional learning through this work. Lesson Study is a structure for teacher inquiry that is as straightforward as it sounds: the study of a lesson. However, Catherine Lewis, who learned about Lesson Study in Japan and has been instrumental in spreading its use in the United States, points out that during Lesson Study,

(Teachers) improve the lessons not as an end in
itself, but as a way to deepen their own content knowledge, their knowledge of
student thinking, their understanding of teaching and learning, and their
commitment to improvement of their own practice and that of colleagues…Lesson
study is not about discovering the one right way to teach a lesson, but about
building knowledge of many teaching strategies and habits of observation,
inquiry, and analysis of practice (Lewis & Hurd, 2011, p. 24).

When participating in Lesson Study, you will collaboratively plan lessons that become the focus of inquiry on effective teaching practices. Then you’ll observe one another teach lessons and collaboratively revise and refine your instructional plans, as shown in the figure below.

How The Lesson Study Approach Can Improve Your Teaching

Inquiry is the essential element of Lesson Study, so the clear focus you identify for a Lesson Study cycle should propel your desire to investigate, to analyze and study together. Pursuing the questions your group has identified provides challenge and authentic purpose, which will increase your team’s motivation and engagement. Because you have identified the problem for yourself, the process will have immediate value. 

The goal of Lesson Study is not to create the ideal lesson that is universally useful. During teacher preparation and professional development, you have doubtless been taught and encouraged to use ‘best practices.’ Although it is true that some practices are more effective than others (and research has much to teach us), it is also true that there is no single, perfect lesson. This is true because you and I, and the students we teach, are diverse in so many ways. Lesson Study focuses on “the why of teaching: why teaching methods work in particular ways in particular settings” (Smagorinsky, as cited in Garcia & O’Donnell-Allen, 2015, p. 5). 

Grow your school with TeachThought PD Collaborative Lesson Study Workshops.

In our quest for better ways of doing things, Lesson Study can help us identify places where we are frozen in old practices and can help us warm to new ones. Lesson Study uncovers new approaches that are informed by the examination of evidence gained through our professional inquiry. Collaboration with colleagues who share similar contexts and concerns makes the insights gained especially helpful. By being the guides to our own professional learning, teachers resist stagnation and become mobile, active agents of change. With our colleagues, we take a learning stance by asking questions, taking risks, and reflecting on both successes and failures.

Study uses knowledge you gain from your own classroom to stimulate professional
conversations about teaching and learning. Shared experiences through joint
planning and observation support the conversation, helping you develop your own
understanding and share it with others.


If you are eager to investigate and improve instruction and increase your understanding about teaching, I invite you to learn more about Lesson Study. Lesson Study creates continuous learning cycles that put teachers in the driver’s seat of their own professional development.


Book: Collaborative Lesson Study: ReVisioning Teacher Professional


Request to join Collaborative Lesson Study Book Club on Facebook est (next book study begins January 13, 2020)

Vicki’s blog:

Vicki on Facebook:

Vicki on Twitter: @vscollet


A., & O’Donnell-Allen, C. (2015). Pose, wobble, flow: A culturally
proactive approach to literacy instruction. Teachers College Press.

C. & Hurd, J. (2011). Lesson study step by step: How teacher learning
communities improve instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

A., & Wood, D. R. (2002). From network learning to classroom
teaching. Journal of Educational Change, 3, 315-337.

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18 Inconvenient Truths About Assessment Of Learning



18 Inconvenient Truths About Assessment Of Learning

by Terry Heick

I. In terms of pedagogy, the primary purpose of an assessment is to provide data to revise planned instruction. It should provide an obvious answer to the question, “So? So what? What now?

II. It’s an extraordinary amount of work to design precise and personalized assessments that illuminate pathways forward for individual students–likely too much for one teacher to do so consistently for every student. This requires rethinking of learning models, or encourages corner-cutting. (Or worse, teacher burnout.)

III. Literacy (reading and writing ability) can obscure content knowledge. Further, language development, lexical knowledge (VL), and listening ability are all related to mathematical and reading ability (Flanagan 2006). This can mean that it’s often easier to assess something other than an academic standard than it is knowledge of the standard itself. It may not tell you what you want it to, but it’s telling you something.

IV. Student self-assessment is tricky but a key matter of understanding. According to Ross & Rolheiser, “Students who are taught self-evaluation skills are more likely to persist on difficult tasks, be more confident about their ability, and take greater responsibility for their work.” (Ross & Rolheiser 2001)

V. Assessments of learning can sometimes obscure more than they reveal. If the assessment is precisely aligned to a given standard, and that standard isn’t properly understood by both the teacher and assessment designer, and there isn’t a common language between students, teacher, assessment designer, and curriculum developers about content and its implications, there is significant “noise” in data that can mislead those wishing to use the data, and disrupt any effort towards data-based instruction.

VI. Teachers often see understanding or achievement or career and college-readiness; students often see grades and performance (e.g., a lack or abundance of failure) (Atkinson 1964).

VII. Self-evaluation and self-grading are different. ‘Self-evaluation’ does not mean that the students determine the grades for their assignments and courses instead of the teacher. Here, self-evaluation refers to the understanding and application of explicit criteria to one’s own work and behavior for the purpose of judging if one has met specified goals (Andrade 2006).

VIII. If the assessment is not married to curriculum and learning models, it’s just another assignment. That is, if the data gleaned from the assessment isn’t used immediately to substantively revise planned instruction, it’s at best practice, and at worst, extra work for the teacher and student. If assessment, curriculum, and learning models don’t ‘talk’ to one another, there is slack in the chain.

IX. As with rigor, ‘high’ is a relative term. High expectations–if personalized and attainable–can promote persistence in students (Brophy 2004). Overly simple assessments to boost ‘confidence’ are temporary. The psychology of assessment is as critical as the pedagogy and content implications.


X. Designing assessment that has diverse measures of success that ‘speak’ to the student is critical to meaningful assessment. Students are often motivated to avoid failure rather than achieve success (Atkinson 1964).

XI. In a perfect world, we’d ask not “How you do on the test,” but “How’d the test do on you?” That is, we’d ask how accurately the test illuminated exactly what we do and don’t understand rather than smile or frown at our ‘performance.’ Put another way, it can be argued that an equally important function of an assessment is to identify what a student does understand. If it doesn’t, the test failed, not the student.

XII. The classroom isn’t ‘the real world.’ It’s easy to say invoke ‘the real world’ when discussing grading and assessments (e.g., “If a law school student doesn’t study for the Bar and fail, they don’t get to become lawyers. The same applied to you in this classroom, as I am preparing you for the real world.”) Children (in part) practicing to become adults is different than the high-stakes game of actually being an adult. The classroom should be a place where students come to understand the ‘real world’ without feeling its sting.

When students fail at school, the lesson they learn may not be what we hope.

XIII. Most teachers worth their salt can already guess the range of student performance they can expect before they even give the assessment. Therefore, it makes sense to design curriculum and instruction to adjust to student performance on-the-fly without Herculean effort by the teacher. If you don’t have a plan for the assessment data before you give the assessment, you’re already behind.

XIV. Every assessment is flawed. (Nothing is perfect.) That means that the more frequent, student-centered, and ‘non-threatening’ the assessment is (here are some examples of non-threatening assessments) the better. It’s tempting to overvalue each assessment as some kind of measuring stick of human potential. At best, it’s an imperfect snapshot–and that’s okay. We just need to make sure teachers and students and parents are all aware and respond to results accordingly.

XV. As a teacher, it’s tempting to take assessment results personal; it’s not. The less personal you take the assessment, the more analytical you’ll allow yourself to be.

XVI. Confirmation bias within assessment is easy to fall for–looking for data to support what you already suspect. Force yourself to see it the other way. Consider what the data says about what you’re teaching and how students are learning rather than looking too broadly (e.g., saying ‘they’ are ‘doing well’) or looking for data to support ideas you already have.

XVII. Assessment doesn’t have to mean ‘test.’ All student work has a world of ‘data’ to offer. How much you gain depends on what you’re looking for. (Admittedly, this truth isn’t really inconvenient at all.)

XVIII. Technology can help make data collection simpler and more effective but that’s not automatically true. In fact, if not used properly, technology can even make things worse by providing too much data about the wrong things (making it almost unusable to teachers).

The Inconvenient Truth About Assessment

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