Sunday, 14 July 2019

The Law of Averages and Data Sponges

Recently, my school has joined a MAT and it has been brilliant for sharing ideas, resources and systems. One of those great things has been the use of data. In particular, the use of averages.

English teachers, on average, shy away from data. We’d rather focus on the words in a data report than comment on the strange things called numbers. Yes, I know there has been a drop in PP students, but ‘on target’ is an interesting phrase and has so many connotations. Let’s discuss each connotation in depth.

Nights before a meeting, I’d have sleepless nights and panic over not picking up something in the data soup. My biggest fear has always Ofsted or any other person asking me data questions. How many students in Year 8 are not on target? Panic sets in. I am impressed with the data sponges: people who can regurgitate figures off the top of their head. I look terrible in comparison. Umm…err…I think…let me just check this sheet… ummm…errr. I have it here. In fact, let me tell you about this book I have recently read.

I admit I will never be a data sponge, but over the last few years I am starting to ‘love’ data and help students to appreciate data surrounding English. And no, I don’t mean the number of nouns in a sentence or the number of compound sentences in a chapter of ‘Holes’ (a billion by the way).

We do lots of tests in English.

We test spellings, weekly.

We test vocabulary every term.

We test core knowledge at Christmas, Easter and in the summer.

We count the books students have read each term.

They are all low stakes tests, but we test them regularly. We have used this system for years and it all feeds into our system. Before this year, we tended to just fuel our data system with them. Here you go data monster. It is feeding time. Yummy data for you. An assessment point is just dinner time for the data monster.   

This year, I have started to use average scores and year averages.

At parents’ evening, we provided parents with the year average and the student’s average. I was able to tell a parent if their child was average in spelling, below average in reading and above average in knowledge and vocabulary. It was a really useful way for me to explain where a child was and for the parents where the child in relation to the year group.  

We live in the age of random numbers. Parents are confused with the SATs score. Is 104 good? Parents are confused with GCSE scores. Is 5 good? The national collective haven’t picked up on what these things in education mean. What, fundamentally, parents want is to know that their child is happy and performing well and that depends on the context? Using averages, I was able to tell a parent how their child did in our particular context.

Before people panic that I had reduced a child to a numbers, I did also speak to the parents of child number 2432 about their child’s natural flair for adjectives, explaining how he often uses an average of 7.8 in each paragraph, which is high for a student of his age.  Nah, only joking. I will talk about a child’s personality. How the child has personality trait 12386 and 4453!

An average score puts the data in context. We throw tests out like confetti.  However, there is a natural assumption that students have to get full marks all the time. Students think they need full marks. Parents think they need full marks. And this thought process is damaging. Success, in this case, is unrealistic. For the weak student who finds spelling difficult, he/she knows that he never will be successful. Especially, when success is 100%.  When you change the bar to averages, you change the success criteria for the weakest and for the majority of students.

Let’s say the average in spelling in Year 8 is 8 out of 10. A student who gets 7/10 knows that success is within his /her reach. Students with a score less than 8 are closer to success than they were before, when full marks is seen as the epitome of success.

When you factor in averages, you are ensuring more students feel successful or, importantly, feel like success is achievable. We’d all like 100%, but when you look at the GCSE exams you’ll see how rare it is that students get full marks. An emphasis on greatness and perfection is ideal, but we deal with young emotional people. The bar should be high, but within reach.

The GCSEs factor in averages. I couldn’t look at piece of work and tell you if it is a Grade 4, 5 or 6. I could do some marking and grade conversions, but could I tell you if it was average, above average or below average. And, with the grade boundaries fluctuating and varying, we need to think in averages. If you scored above average, then you are likely to get a Grade 4 or more. The exam boards work on national averages, so we should looking at averages.

I am now looking at the whole data for the year and I have a yearly average for each group. I have data from this year, which we can use with teachers next year. None of this getting to know you period. We can tell teachers what each students’ average for spelling, vocabulary, knowledge and reading is. Teachers can have that in mind when teaching the students in September. It is also the starting point for next year. For the teacher. For the student. For the parents. From year to year, we lose the impetus because students have different teachers. It takes teachers a good bit of time to understand a student fully. This way the teacher can know things about the student and work on building that relationship with them from the word go. Plus, if a student isn’t reading in Year 8, then I want that to be a priority in Year 9 and I want it to be a priority from the start.

I am still not a data sponge, but I have found the use of averages as head of department to be quite transformational. Averages have helped me make sense of the data and helped me to communicate it to staff and students. We are often led down the path of on target and not on target, but that doesn’t help to dig down into things. We need specifics. Now, I know that a certain year needs a stronger focus on spelling and some year groups need to work on reading. I can address the wider issues with clarity and precision.

An average helps us to understand the context.

Thanks for reading,


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