You may not think of teaching as a scientific profession, but today’s teachers are engaging in the scientific process on a daily basis. Scientists, defined broadly, study problems and find solutions. They seek answers and are naturally curious about why and how things occur. More and more, teachers are using data from formative and summative assessments in their classrooms to identify student needs and adjust instruction to match those needs. Classrooms are morphing from places where students “sit and get” content delivered in a lockstep manner to places where student assessment data is driving the choices teachers make from day to day—and even moment to moment.
Educational research points to the importance of teachers adopting a scientific approach in their classrooms. Expert teachers are those who consistently reflect on their practice; they “seek feedback about their teaching, and then evaluate and adjust their teaching methods based on these findings.” Assessments of student learning are the most powerful when they are used as assessments for learning. Assessment for learning sounds very much like scientific work: “Assessment for Learning is the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there.” When teachers reflect on assessment data and how it can be used to adjust teaching, they become scientists, and student achievement increases.
In today’s world of high-stakes summative tests, it is no wonder that some teachers are leery of data. Summative assessment data is often used to pass judgment on teachers and students, with labels such as “failing” or “needs improvement” given to schools, teachers, and students based on data.
While using data in this way may be advantageous in politics, it does little to impact student learning. Even parents recognize this fact, as many are “opting out” of high-stakes assessments. But, if we adopt a scientific mindset in education, summative assessments become less ominous.
Assessments are not the end-game—a final score of how the students and teacher did for the year. Assessments are just part of many different pieces of data that tell the teacher and students how effective the process of teaching and learning was. Did students learn? How do you know? There are no judgments in those two questions—they are basic and scientific. Data becomes a tool that teachers use to hone instructional practice in ways that make a difference for students.
So, how are today’s teachers putting on their scientific hats and using assessment data as a tool to improve teaching and learning? Three key, research-based principles summarize what today’s teachers are doing differently.
As teachers design instruction, they reflect on how student learning will be assessed. Expert teachers think about what they want students to know and be able to do, and they also think about how students will demonstrate their new knowledge. They carefully plan the activities that will move students toward the learning objectives. In addition, students are made aware of the learning objectives and the criteria for mastery. Teachers have a clear sense of where they are going in the classroom, how they will know when they have arrived, and they share that clear vision with the students.
Think of a scientist who goes to his lab daily to collect data on an experiment in progress. Perhaps he is taking the temperature of soil samples in a greenhouse. Perhaps she is recording observation notes as bacteria grow. Scientists do not wait until the end of an experiment to collect data. They collect data frequently to measure the impact of conditions during the experiment.
Expert teachers do the same.
They do not wait until the end of a unit of learning to assess students. They are constantly observing student progress—through quizzes, discussions, and assignments. Expert teachers also ensure that students receive feedback on their learning. One of the highest leverage strategies a teacher can use is to teach students to self-assess and use teacher feedback to adjust performance.
It is not data that will impact teaching and learning. It is how teachers choose to use the data that will improve student achievement.
The antibiotic penicillin was discovered by Dr. Alexander Fleming, who returned from a vacation to find a mold (penicillin) had invaded some Petri dishes of bacteria in his lab. Imagine how differently things would have turned out if Dr. Fleming had looked at the Petri dishes and thrown out the results of his experiment because it was a “bad test.”
Instead, he began to use the “data” from his Petri dishes and discovered that the mold had slowed the growth of the bacteria.
Expert teachers adopt the same scientific habits of mind. Instead of looking at lackluster results of assessments and concluding that the assessment was “bad,” teachers are using the data to reflect on their practice and the results of the teaching and learning process.
So, are teachers scientists? Definitely. Teachers are becoming more adept at making data-informed instructional decisions. The result is that no two classrooms or lessons are the same. Data-informed teaching ensures that instruction meets students where they are and takes them to where they need to go.
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