Use Observation Data to Reflect in Humble Inquiry

This is the final post in a five-post series. Read the first four posts at these links:

  1. Four Verbs to Hone Your Observation Superpowers
  2. EXPECT – Expectations Define What We See
  3. ENGAGE –Observation Begins with Active Engagement
  4. OBSERVE – Observe with an Asset Orientation

When Students Struggle, What Do We Do?

We set high expectations. We engaged our students. We observed for assets. We also gathered observation data about where students struggle and what they need next to learn to excel with our goals.

Our data shows some students are struggling in our lessons.

Now what?

This is the pivotal moment.  

Do we focus on providing supports to the students who demonstrate struggle? Or do we also focus on how to evolve our teaching?

Are we using data only to sort students for services, or also to challenge our assumptions and change our approach?

Some professional learning protocols put the focus 100% on analyzing data to organize students for different tiers of support. These practices have value, and, by themselves, are not going to change core Tier I teaching. When these practices lead to disproportionately grouping ELs, Black, Latinx, Indigenous or students from any historically-marginalized group into isolating or watered-down instructional pathways, they are detrimental for equity.

A Call for Humble Inquiry

All general educational leaders and Tier I teachers need to use our data (observation and all data) together with a culture of humble inquiry about impact. Inquiry means we are always asking: what is the impact of our teaching and scaffolds on student learning and engagement? Humility means we are willing to look honestly at data with the courage to let it change our perceptions and our practice.

This is not easy.

When a student struggles, humble inquiry makes or breaks my interpretation of that data.  Humble inquiry is the difference between me interpreting student struggle as evidence the student needs fixing vs. an indication I may need to change my instructional approach. Both are likely possible.

With a humble inquiry stance, I’m open to seeing both possibilities. With a humble inquiry stance, our teams collaborate to seek evidence of impact. With a humble inquiry for equity stance, we do not see data of inequities as an indication that students need fixing.  Rather we see data of inequities as a challenge for us to reflect and evolve our practices until all students succeed.

When we ask tough questions, sometimes the data we get challenges us to rethink our favorite strategies. If we have the humility to see that data of students struggling is an indication our instruction isn’t working, then we have the potential to evolve together to better serve our kids.

Some Questions for Humble Reflection

  • When we observe students struggling, do we use that data to re-teach in the same way, or do we change our approach?
  • When our team analyzes data, do we use it to sort students for services or also to reflect and refine our core policies and practices?
  • When an EL struggles, does my cultural lens lead me to focus only on the struggle while overlooking the student’s assets?
  • Do our team and our school use inequitable EL data only to sort students for Tier II and Tier III interventions, or also to courageously change “business as usual” in every Tier I classroom to better serve multilingual kids?
  • Despite our best intentions, is it possible we use the data we gather about ELs, Black students, Latinx students, Indigenous students, or Title I students to perpetuate false assumptions about racial difference or language or class hierarchies?
  • What specific actions can we take to see beyond our biases when observing students in our own classrooms?
  • In coaching and professional learning communities, what protocols help us help one another to see beyond—and collectively remove—our own blinders to recognize and move beyond our assumptions?
  • How do we collaborate courageously to use observation data in ways that challenge us to evolve our mindsets, our policies, and our practices until our schools deliver on the promise of equal opportunity for all?

These questions are essential to teaching and leading for equity. And yet they are often missing from general education conversations about formative data and school improvement science.

Using data to inform instruction is only as effective as the questions we ask, and the data we see and don’t see. It is only as powerful as our humble willingness to use data to reflect and refine our practices (instead of blaming students).

Take Action: Make these questions part of local conversations about data-driven professional learning. Choose a question from the list above and self-reflect. Is it true or relevant to your work? Is it important to ask? What additional questions does it generate for continuous inquiry about your impact on students? Discuss the question with colleagues, post a comment below, and/or share your thoughts on Twitter.

Courageous Learning Together

To truly benefit from the power of observation in our classrooms and learning communities, we must understand our brains, our biases, and our assumptions. We need courageous professional learning designs like Observation Inquiry that help us collectively collaborate with a focus on impact—and the humility to seek and use data that helps us transform our teaching to better serve all kids.

This is the work I love to lead and help educators lead in K-12 schools. It is more deeply transformative than training in strategies alone. Stay tuned for the next posts in this biweekly series, as I focus more deeply on the power and promise of using asset-oriented observation to courageously reshape how we, as teachers and leaders, collectively transform ourselves to better serve all kids.

Related Readings and Resources

I am a keynote speaker, author and educational leader helping educators teach and lead for equitable schools. My books include EL Excellence Every Day, Breaking Down the Wall & Opening Doors to Equity. I'm a descendant of colonizers and enslavers deeply committed to transforming my family legacy for healing.

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