Teachers for Teachers | Data Walls – The Power is in the Process
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Data Walls – The Power is in the Process

When we read Matt Renwick’s piece on data walls, Why I Struggle with Data Walls, it caused us to pause and really reflect on our experience with data walls.  We can’t stop thinking, talking and reflecting on his post.  We have seen data walls be incredibly powerful, we have seen them simply be decorative and we have seen them be insulting and judgmental.  How can we have such varied experiences with the same tool?  We think it is all about how we use them!  Here are some things that we think help them move towards powerful:

 A Constructivist Approach

We find the most powerful aspect of data walls is the process of actually deciding how to construct the wall.  When teams of teachers and administrators come together and decide how to design the wall the conversation behind those decisions are critical.

How will we organize the data – by teacher or by grade level or both?

Where will the data wall be located?

Can we find a way to have it be mobile?

How will we determine if a student is at risk?

What information do we think is important to highlight on the wall?

How will we use the data wall to help our students and improve our instruction?

How will we use the data wall to help us improve our communication?

How will we show progress or regression?

How can we show multiple data points?

These questions inspire dialogue about really important topics.  They get schools and teams problem solving and thinking through was is essential for them as educators.

Formative Data is Key

We encourage the use of formative assessment in data walls.  Schools often only have common formal data 2-3 times per year.  We want our data walls to be used more often than that to monitor the progress of the instructional plans we have in place for our students.  We use conferring notes, reading responses, notebooks, student goals, benchmark assessments and team created assessments to monitor the progress of our students on a data wall.  Even during our common formal assessment windows we triangulate these results with our formative data.  The formative data helps us think about why a student may have performed in a particular way on a formal assessment.  The formative data either confirms or disputes what a number on a more formal test may be suggesting about a student.

We also find that it is the formative data that gets us talking about instructional practices and how we can get our students to engage in the process of learning.

We can typically dig deeper and see more opportunities to help our students and understand the “why” behind the number.


The Why Behind the Decisions

Data walls are only as useful as the conversations we have to maintain them.  We find that monthly meetings need to take place around students of concern.   We need to review the goals we set, reflect on the instructional plan we have in place, and make adjustments for the next month.  Once we have done all of that for our students of concern we aren’t overly concerned where they end up on the data wall.  What matters is the reflection and the changes we make to the instructional plan.  When it is time to place a child in either exceeds/meets/approaches/or does not meet we discuss not only where we think the child should be, but also why we think the child should be there.  These conversations help us clarify our thinking and bring consistency to how we assess our students.  If we have a difficult time deciding we may note it on the child’s record.  We have even represented a child in more than one category – the next month we discussed what happened, reflected, planned, and decided how to assess the student.  Again, the final decision is not nearly as important as the conversation that goes into making the decision.

Ultimately for us the data walls are only helpful if they have authentic purpose, meaning and ownership.  They are a tool to promote conversation, collaboration, and problem solving.  Through using them we have seen faculties become more cohesive, consistent, and coordinated in our instructional language and practices.  We have also found a greater shared ownership for students of concern.  All teachers are aware of what is happening for these students and can check in with them and even find time to provide additional support.  When used for authentic purposes we have seen them truly create a community of professional learners.

Incorporating Student Feedback in the Data Wall Process

We need to make sure our students’ voices are represented in this process.  When we are discussing formative data we often include student reflection and feedback.  We want to discuss if our students believe they have met their goals and if they think the instructional plan in place is helpful to them.  We often make personal data walls for our students so they can monitor their progress and set new goals.  We cannot get better at something if we are not aware that we need to get better at it so including students as part of this process so that they understand why they are getting additional instruction is key.


All that being said…we are not saying that data walls are magical.  What is truly magical is when teams of teachers are talking about students together.  We think there are lots of ways to achieve that dialogue – data walls can be one way if they are used in an authentic, purposeful way.  We completely agree that, “What has changed practices in my school is having a strong set of learning beliefs that everyone owns –systems in place (i.e. instructional walks) that hold ourselves accountable for implementing teaching strategies that work.” (Matt Renwick)  Now… digital data walls!  That is something we have not tried ….yet!  You have inspired us to give it a go!

What’s your perspective on data walls?

  • Avatar
    Matt Renwick
    Posted at 03:18h, 17 October Reply

    Hi Tammy and Clare. Thank you for expanding on this topic. I always enjoy reading your smart posts.

    Digital data walls…the next frontier? In my limited experience with software that houses student information, I have found a number of benefits. The first is access. I can pull up a student’s data from anywhere. This can be really helpful for teachers preparing for instruction on the weekend for the following week. Second, the data is up to date. If teachers are inputing information during instruction or short thereafter, they can act upon it much sooner. They are looking at March data in March. In addition, the data mining capabilities of some of the student information systems available are impressive. For example, the PALS assessments (http://pals.virginia.edu/) allows the teacher to flexibly group students based on specific skills and strategies. Interventions and literacy centers can be differentiated to meet their specific needs.

    The other reality is all of our assessments, both formative and summative, seem to be migrating toward digital, if they are not there already. In fact, most of my school’s student data is already housed online. When asking staff to also post their data on a physical data wall, we need to consider these inefficiencies.

    I think these are really important questions and discussions to have. Thank you for continuing this dialogue. The more I ask “Why am I doing what I am doing?”, the more that opportunities present themselves for innovating and making improvements in our practice. And the great thing about education is, it is always a practice!


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