The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – the “why” of student-level data

Matthew Savage, former Principal and creator of ‘The Mona Lisa Effect’ takes a look at how schools use data.

“The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” (T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral)

I love data; I really do. I believe that data is beautiful and exciting and can change lives. But I can guarantee that many an educator reading this, surrounded by a dizzying storm of student-level data on a daily basis, may struggle to agree with me. So why is this? How did data become so toxic for so many teachers today?

I would argue that it all begins with another dirtied word: accountability. Many a government, and therefore many a school group or board, and therefore many a leadership team (you get the picture) has looked to data as the silver bullet to improve our schools. As a consequence, data has been weaponised, and the unhappy target, ultimately, is always the individual student, with our talented teachers caught in the crossfire.

However, there is another way. I have worked with thousands of educators in hundreds of schools across over 50 countries, gifting them a metaphorical shovel with which to dig beneath the flags of data to find the treasure that lies beneath. I call it #themonalisaeffect, but more on that later. And those educators begin to love data too. Because they are using it for the right reason: they can see how it can change children’s lives. (More on that later too.)

So, with privileged and unprecedented access to an ocean of personal data on each individual student, why is it that some of us still end up using it for the wrong reasons?

Wrong Reason #1: Marketing

Every September, my heart sinks when I see schools around the world sell their product through the results of their highest-attaining students, doubtless oblivious to the unfortunate subtext of this for every student who is not fortunate to inhabit the exclusive echelons of that performative curve.

Wrong Reason #2 – Comparing

My eldest child just graduated from Oxford university, and, along with her result, was also given her university ranking. In schools, too, we waste our energy comparing student with student, year group with year group, school with school, when every school, every year group, and every student are completely unique.

Wrong Reason #3 – Labelling

From an early age, students are labelled by their teachers, be those labels spoken or silent. In our reporting, our marking, our grouping, we tell a student what they are. Whilst a signpost would give us direction, and a flag challenge us to dig, a label is limiting, soil in which a Growth Mindset will never take root.

Wrong Reason #4 – Blaming

Be we student or teacher, if the data leaves us feeling defective or incomplete, we will worry that, somehow, it is our fault. And when that happens, the data is contaminated. Data should lift us up, clear our path, give us wings – but too often it robs us of agency, dignity and power.

So what are the right reasons? Thankfully, that much is splendidly simple. Here I return to #themonalisaeffect, a data-led, data-fed approach to personalisation, through which our learning and wellbeing experience looks, like Lisa Gherardini, at each unique individual. To quote my brand new slogan, if we are not using student-level data to ensure that every single student can “Be seen”, “Be known” and “Belong”, then the treason, ultimately, is ours.

Matthew Savage (he/him)
Formerly Principal of an award-winning international school in the Middle East, Matthew is now in high demand as an educational consultant, trainer, coach, speaker, writer and content creator; founder of #themonalisaeffect and host of #thedataconversation podcast; and advocate for individual students worldwide.

Matthew Savage

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