How data literacy helped boost teacher development

By targeting school data, educators in Qatar were able to design personalised development programmes with a measurable impact
Data Literacy & Teacher Development

Data in schools is everywhere. Teachers have data on students' characteristics, their progress in individual subjects and their attendance, to name just a few areas. With the increased use of technology, this wealth of statistical information will only become richer.

But how much does the profession really utilise the mass of data at its fingertips? Without proper analysis and actions, are we missing an opportunity to drive forward long-lasting and impactful change in teaching, learning and leadership? 

Three years ago, Joanna Moe and her team asked themselves the above question - and concluded that there was plenty of room for improvement.

"We saw this need in our organisation to increase our data literacy," explains Moe, who is assistant director of professional learning at the Qatar Foundation's Education Development Institute (EDI). 

"We wanted our educators to be able to understand how to support students by looking at data at classroom level as well as leadership level. We wanted data to drive the decisions and engage people into the inquiry around that: if we make this decision, what's the impact, and what do we need to change?"

To bring about a fundamental shift in how the schools within the Qatar Foundation use data in the day-to-day development of teaching and learning, the EDI set about designing and implementing a personalised professional learning programme for its educators, with data at the heart of it. 

"We wanted to make sure there was actually a change in teacher behaviour - and we knew that needed to come through professional learning. But so often, professional learning is a one-off. People get excited and then they go into their contexts, and that learning dissipates over time," says Moe. "We wanted to make sure this learning had a real, sustainable impact."

Data-based teacher development

The EDI considered a range of professional development programmes and ended up designing two: Petal (Programme for Effective Teaching and Learning), and Palme (Programme for Aspirational Leaders and Management in Education). As the names suggest, Petal is classroom focused, using data to bring about pedagogical changes for students, while Palme looks at the whole system, using data to bring about whole-school changes for teachers and students. 

Both programmes have key sessions throughout the academic year, with personalised coaching in between to keep educators on track. Teachers choose an individual "problem of practice" - an area in which they'd like to bring about change - and undertake a research-type project to implement a new strategy to realise this.

Throughout the programme, they keep a portfolio of their work and present their findings in a presentation to senior leaders within the foundation at the end of the year. 

Fiza Abbas, a speech language pathologist at Renad Academy, a school for children with autism, has recently completed the Palme programme. Keen to develop her leadership skills, while keeping the area of exploration aligned with her professional interests, she looked at how staff could improve the oral language of children with autism.

She implemented a specific initiative, Colourful Semantics, working - to begin with - with the students herself and then moving on to teach the staff to deliver it in their own lessons. Throughout, she conducted interviews with teachers to assess how effective they thought it was.

Most importantly, she looked at quantitative data around the children's improvement every day, as Colourful Semantics was used. The initiative proved successful and, as a result, is now being implemented throughout the school. 

Abbas admits that it was challenging: she was completing the programme during the Covid-19 pandemic. But she is now not only more confident and resilient in her own abilities but in her use of data. 

"As a practitioner, it became really obvious to me how important data is," she says. "Sometimes, when you're practising, you can think that you're doing the right thing without the data to back it up. Your data gives you information: if it looks OK, you go this way. If not, you go another way." 

Her leadership skills have developed, too: managing a team, collecting data, inspiring staff to see the bigger picture and encouraging them to move the work forward have all been new skills that Abbas has mastered. Today, she is confident in her leadership ability and is utilising those skills in her everyday practice. 

Clearly, the desire for this kind of learning is there from the educators at the foundation: as of 2020, 123 educators had completed the programme. Other examples of projects include one teacher who wanted to engage teenagers in music classes, one who was looking to introduce paperless maths lessons, and another who was examining a new curriculum that had been introduced across the school and how it was sequenced between the year groups. 

A shift in culture 

There has definitely been a shift in the culture at the foundation as a result of the introduction of these programmes, says Moe. More staff are stepping up to present at conferences, and are engaging in graduate and other research work beyond their current responsibilities. Leaders, too, are more engaged in teaching and learning overall.

"Our leaders are seeing, hearing and acknowledging that this is good work and then trying to encourage other teachers to do it," she says. "Sometime after the presentations, leaders say to me, 'I had no idea that teachers were thinking about it this way', and they start to think about how they can incorporate more educators into this way of thinking, which drives up teaching and learning across the foundation as a result." 

Vanessa Miller has coached dozens of practitioners like Abbas through the Petal and Palme programmes. For her, it's the personalisation of the professional learning that makes the programmes so successful and worthwhile. 

"If we have a one-size-fits-all model, then we're definitely not accounting for the difference in individual practitioners, teachers or the individual context that they're working within," she says. 

"Context within individual schools can be extremely different, and if we do not personalise for that, then we are not accounting for those individual practitioner means or the individual learner needs. We need to give teachers agency and trust in their ability to increase their own capacity."

The impact the personalised learning programmes have had on the teachers and students within the Qatar Foundation is set to be evaluated by the American Institute of Research this year.

While those findings won't be published for a while, if they tally up with the anecdotes of Moe, Abbas and Miller, the programmes will be found to have increased teacher confidence and leadership ability, as well as greater outcomes for students - and, of course, how deeply data has become embedded in this foundation's practice.