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Making the most of education's data revolution

Government attempts to ease teacher workload will only succeed if staff are properly trained in the technology at their disposal, says Kathryn Taylor

Posted by Julian Owen | January 10, 2019 | Technology

It’s a perennial issue: teachers are overworked. Staff are leaving at a faster rate than new hires can be made, with a June report from the Department for Education finding overall teacher numbers at their lowest since 2013. 

The Government is concerned. New measures mean the DfE will tell local authorities not to ask for regular data updates from their schools, in order to reduce the burden on staff. At first glance this is welcome, but it’s worth asking just how much of an impact on workload the move will actually have for teachers. 

The data genie is out of the bottle

In my view, any impact will be slight. Based on my work at Chesham Grammar School, data in education isn’t going away. Even if it is not going to local authorities, efficient use of data is still important; for one thing, parents still want information on how their children are doing. 

Many teachers would also agree that data is useful for us, too. I collect ongoing data - both on actual grading of work and effort that’s gone into work - through Canvas, our virtual learning environment (VLE). It’s not anything extra when I’m marking - it goes into my digital grade book and ends up in reports.

The reality is, teachers have animosity towards data because, too often, they end up repeating work. Whether it's interoperability issues between programmes, or having to manually write out the same information you’ve been collecting through SIMS or VLE for observations, busy teachers end up wasting huge amounts of time duplicating data. 

Once again, it’s a case of education being left behind. The economy would collapse if businesses suddenly couldn’t analyse data in an efficient way. If there was more flexibility on how data was submitted, and money available to to ensure cross-compatibility and avoid fragmentation with edtech, there would be less resistance. 

The reality is, teachers have animosity towards data because, too often, they end up repeating work

Training needed to tackle the data bogeyman

In order to make using data more worthwhile, better training is needed on using it in the right way. There is a teaching standard in place that lessons should be informed by data, yet myths persist and its potential is too often underutilised. 

As part of my doctorate, I have been experimenting in using data to create learning mastery paths. This helps teachers to differentiate the next piece of work a student is given, based on the results they got for a previous piece. Where needed, students can be given more support or more ambitious learning objectives if they’re doing well. 

What this does, aside from differentiation, is push students towards engaging with their progress. You can show them their grade and, if they don’t like the look of it, they can resubmit and help push up their marks for reports and their own satisfaction. The problem is, teachers tend not to consistently use these tools as they haven’t had sufficient training to make them time-effective. 

Where next to reduce workload?

There are concrete steps that the DfE can take to significantly reduce teacher workload. We know digital transformation is not going away, and data can underpin effective decision making from teachers, so disregarding its use risks hampering our progress in favour of a short-term fix. 

Instead, we need: more funding for pedagogical leaders in digital learning to help teachers in setting up to use data; more CPD in digital learning; more admin assistants in schools to produce reports that teachers can easily analyse; and more thought and investment in cross compatibility to reduce duplication of work. 

Until that happens, Government and policy makers might well see their own workload increase as they scramble to work out why their pledges haven’t freed up teacher time.

Kathryn Taylor is subject leader for philosophy, religion and ethics at Chesham Grammar School

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