Teaching the quantified student

 “I am a bad teacher” wrote Sujata G. Bhatt in Valerie Strauss’ Washington Post blog in the school test-taking season of 2011.  Education reformers want to use data to drive instruction, reform and accountability, wrote Bhatt. “At what cost? Does this data really represent learning and knowledge?”

Since then, she’s embraced data, Bhatt writes in The Quantified Student.

She teaches in a high-poverty Los Angeles school. Many of her students aren’t fluent in English. In the fall of 2010, her fourth graders were particularly unprepared.

Since California’s standardized test for fourth graders measured skills almost all my students needed, I analyzed its requirements, broke them down into core concepts, and then worked and reworked these concepts with the students until they felt a sense of mastery over them. My daily job consisted of finding different, creative ways of approaching, teaching, and reteaching the same core skills so that most all students could incorporate them into their cognitive toolkits.

It worked. The students succeeded wildly. They returned to me for fifth grade with heightened confidence. They saw something new in themselves: the reward of effort and the joy of success.

They also came back with questions about “how many more points it would take to get to the next level, how many more problems they’d need to get right to get those points.”  They saw the test as a game they wanted to win.

Teaching the same cohort in fifth grade, she looked for ways for her students to explore their interest in data. 

We used math websites like TenMarks that enable students to learn about their own learning even as they practice new skills. We analyzed information graphics and dove into ways of presenting numerical information. We explored how numbers shape our understanding of ourselves and the world. And much of their enthusiasm and curiosity for these tasks came out of their interest in numbers from standardized testing.

She now believes standardized testing can help teachers understand how well they’ve taught and help students become “agents in their own learning.”

Testing — and evaluation systems built on test scores — need to get a lot better, Bhatt writes. But it makes more sense “to work to create better data than to fight data.”

Data analysis is an increasingly significant and empowering way of making sense of the world. All sorts of professions use data to interpret their work and decide upon courses of action. Why shouldn’t we in education?

In the high tech world there’s a growing movement called “The Quantified Self.” With quantified self models, adults use data to change habits and behaviors–to lose weight, exercise more, to calm themselves.

“Why not help our students become makers and masters of their own data, and help them use it to propel their own learning forward?” Bhatt asks.

The Measured Man is a fascinating — and somewhat alarming — Atlantic profile of Larry Smarr, an astrophysicist, computer scientist and highly quantified human.