Gut Feelings Versus Data

I was struck by the feedback that one participant gave Pooja Patel and I on our workshop last week:

Please do another workshop on that is on data. A lot of teachers around me reacted negatively when you talk about data. They said they “just know” what their students need and don’t need the data. I think a lot of teachers don’t understand why it is important.

I would love to do another workshop about data–both qualitative and quantitative–and how we really use it in the classroom. Not because I’m into” big data”, and not because I think we need to quantify everything a student does. In fact, I generally find qualitative data to be a much more powerful tool–Matt Renwick did a great post on that here. I want to do a workshop because data-driven instruction is a really powerful method that we as teachers have in our teaching toolbox, and I get annoyed that this has become synonymous with quantifying everything (although–full disclosure: I work at an international school, so many of the the testing and quantitative data pressures faced by my public school colleagues aren’t things that I have to deal with). Formative assessment, on-going diagnostic assessment, little tiny observations we make during the day and put together to create a big picture of a student’s progress–they all help teachers to make informed decisions about instruction. Also I’ve heard from a lot of teachers, both at school, in my graduate course, and at the workshop that they rely on “gut feelings” to decide on a groupings, next steps, and interventions. But are our guts the best way to make decisions like these?

Let’s deconstruct this idea of a “gut feeling”. Sometimes when I’m first articulating ideas about what a student needs or how she should be grouped in the classroom, I’ve made all sorts of informal observations here and there, I’ve looked at some work samples, but I haven’t really fully analyzed anything yet. I might have a “gut feeling” about what’s going on with that student–probably because I’m an experienced teacher and diagnostician and I’m already starting to make sense of the qualitative data that I’ve gathered, but I can’t really put it into a coherent statement with specific examples or data to support my “feeling”. And, in my experience, this is what a lot of experienced teachers mean when they say that they “just know” or that their “gut tells” them. But here’s the thing about my gut feeling–it’s not a fully articulated plan or idea. It’s not fleshed out, and, generally, as I begin to explore that feeling it starts to become more nuanced, and sometimes it ends up being the complete opposite of what my feeling was initially. And sometimes I was completely on target. Which is awesome. But it’s certainly not all the time. I’m probably right just as much as I’m wrong.

That said, sometimes my feeling is much less about the bits and pieces of qualitative data that I’m beginning to make sense of, and more about my preconceived notions about a student. Sometimes it’s the Halo Effect and sometimes it’s something else. It’s not really right, and it’s not really good practice, but it happens. It’s happened to me and sometimes it still happens (and, no, I’m not proud of it, just trying to be honest), and it’s probably happened to you too. We’re human. And that’s OK. But we do need to acknowledge that sometimes these other things that aren’t data about student performance to influence these feelings, and that those other things might not bring us to what’s best for a student. That is why we can’t just stop at a gut feeling. We need to really look at all of the sources of that feeling and turn it into a strong idea that’s supported with evidence.

So how do we coach teachers into moving from “feeling” to “thinking”? I’m really not sure. I think some of it is becoming more educated–especially at the middle level–about qualitative data (more on that next week). What is it? How do we analyze it? And remembering that teaching is a craft and a skill. As teachers, we don’t need to immediately know what’s going on with kids from some sort of magical intuition. If it comes down to our gut feelings versus data, we need to look at both. Sometimes that feeling means something else needs to be explored, but it shouldn’t be the only way we make decisions.

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