This week I’ve been thinking about the relationship between soft and hard data, how we value these as educators and how we manage and even measure both.
Soft data (descriptive information rather than numerical) is what we swim through every day as we go about school; this is in the outlook and behaviour of the pupils and staff: how they feel, how they work together, the feel of the people and the place. This is highly valuable information, it’s the kind of information you can sniff the minute you walk into a classroom or a school. When all of this is running smoothly, then the ground for learning is ready, waiting to be planted.
Then again, if relationships are poor; if attitudes to learning are poor and pupils are unsettled, then the foundations for learning are unstable. This is why working on improving soft data is so important and really underpins school improvement, which is then defined and measured using ‘hard’ numerical data that measures learning, whether it be in levels, points or percentage of achievement (in fact what you call it doesn’t matter that much). And whether we like it or not, schools are judged on quantitative performance data and so are school leavers, so unless the system changes, we have to work within the structure we find ourselves and ensure both the quality school life and quantity of successful learning are driven along.
It is unlikely we can ever avoid having to measure learning numerically because we need to ensure children are progressing and progress is more easily shown to others and understood if it is quantified. These hard numbers should equate with how much children have learned, and this, as we know in the end, profoundly defines their life chances. No educator can ignore the fact that pupils who get left behind at primary school get left behind at secondary school and then get left behind in adult life. And it goes further: adults with poor numeracy and literacy skills are overall less healthy and live shorter lives. Quality of life is directly related to the quantity of successful learning. So this is why all that progress in soft data needs to lead to progress in hard data. It is all very well having smiling happy children, creative lessons and displays and bubbly staff – of course we need these and we should have these, but if this has no impact in raising achievement and attainment then school leaders are not serving the children properly.
Improvement in attitudes, behaviour and relationships in schools need to lead to improvements in learning and they will do if leaders support teachers in understanding where pupils need to go next in their learning. Next steps are the key to all that hard data. This sounds simple, but so often it turns out not to be. All too often, it is assumed that calling a learning task ‘a challenge’ is enough to make it a challenging next step when this can only be ensured if the task causes new learning. What challenge can then sometimes mean is more of the same or ‘same learning different activity,’ which then results in slow progress in schools rather than the rapid progress some schools need in order to ensure those life chances for pupils are within reach. Like this, teachers need support in being forensic about those next steps for pupils. This cannot be left to chance, or the idea that if you teach more, pupils just learn more. Teachers need help with this because they are overworked and spinning every plate you can imagine.
The best teachers know they need to know what the next steps for pupils are. They understand they need to know this. They understand they need to know the next steps in general, over the course of a topic or strand, but also they know this within each lesson and then individually for each child. However, teachers do not know every small next step in learning all of the time. How could we? We’re humans, we’re not walking computers.
Strangely, it is thought that the second a teacher qualifies they will naturally know the curriculum inside out and understand each little step to success in learning it all. Teachers know they don’t know this, (or worse kid themselves they do). Teachers feel guilty about this and worry about this; teachers worry about whether anyone will ever find out that we don’t know it all.
Many teachers go about carrying this heavy burden and many leaders go about in the mistaken belief that teachers know all this and indeed should know all this when all anyone needs to do is provide teachers with direct access to the progressive small steps in learning that pupils need in order to progress.
This is where clear and concise systems in school to support teachers are crucial and they cannot be left to chance, or pure assumption. At the same time, teachers needs to be invested in and feel happy with these systems too, rather than overloaded with ridiculously long tick lists or deadlines to summit wordy planning to faceless inboxes, or folders where none of it will ever be read. I don’t know a single teacher who wouldn’t want to teach the right thing at the right time to a child and move them on. Hard work and willingness are not the issue at all.
What teachers need is a simple system to help guide them, where learning intentions are broken down into small steps. They need more than a curriculum roadmap; they need steps along each street too. This is what they need to support their use of assessment for learning and allow them to fly as teachers. Seemingly talented teachers can produce engaging, pacy lessons which leave people in awe, but if these next steps are stifled by ‘performance’ or ‘activity’ it’s really just hot air. On the other hand, you can get quite dull, didactic teachers, but who have a clear focus on what’s next for each pupil and provide for that – really they are doing a better job for the kids.
The truth is, that good teachers, those who really click with the kids and really improve all that soft data, still need support in knowing what to do and it should not surprise, worry or humiliate anyone that this is the case. It’s a bit like an athlete who works on his fitness and diet, but when the running comes, he needs the route mapped out so he can just focus on what he does best. Teachers need systems to support where they’re going otherwise they might just keep running and never get to the finish line.
So, after all this rambling, what I’m really trying to say is that leaders need to check up on the relationship between the soft descriptive data and the numbers on the tracker. The numbers on the tracker need to relate to real steps in learning for pupils in class. Teachers need simple, easy to use systems in place to know what comes next for each child. And finally, soft data has to translate into hard data about learning because in the end that’s what schools are here to do.