‘Weighing a pig doesn’t make it grow faster’

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As a classroom teacher, and an English teacher at that, numbers are not my friends. Therefore I didn’t ever have a great attitude towards data or data-driven practices. My feeling about ‘data’ (which strictly equated to quantitative assessment scores in my mind) was that data entry was a bureaucratic process strongly associated with compliance and accountability.

Being good with ‘paperwork’ and a bit of a girly swot, I would dutifully enter assessment data as directed – usually around report writing time. If I accessed data, I would use it to group students (particularly for reading and spelling purposes). As a Head of Department, I would use data to reflect on which Achievement Standards to focus our teaching efforts on for the following year. And that was about my sum total of interaction with, and thinking about, data.

So it follows quite logically that I had a limited understanding of the school’s SMS (Student Management System). I could plug in assessment results and access behaviour and attendance records as needed. I rarely linked these three concepts: assessment, wellbeing, pastoral needs, in my head, let alone to consider how an SMS might help me to do this. So the SMS was rarely used in any meaningful way by me.

Fast-forward a year or so, and in my new role as an advisor for the Connected Learning Advisory I was asked to contribute to a Ministry of Education SMS initiative which ultimately saw us develop an online resource and deliver workshops for school leaders throughout New Zealand. This project was definitely going to challenge my personal knowledge and, frankly, my attitude towards using an SMS, but I’m always up for a challenge – especially when I get to collaborate with my brainy fellow CLA colleagues!

During the course of my reading and research, I discovered this quote by Timperley:

“…evidence related to students is something that informs teaching and learning, rather than being seen as a reflection of the capability of individual students that is most useful for sorting, labelling and credentialing.” Timperley (2010), p.2

Cue lightbulb moment.

You can use data to reflect on your own practice! Data not only shows me what my students have learned (or not) but how I have taught!

Oh. I had seriously missed the boat for about 15 years as a classroom teacher.

You approach data with an inquiry mindset. You seek to put a ‘face on the data’ (Sharratt and Fullan, 2012): to use data holistically to help tell the story of the learner who sits behind the numbers. These are ideas I can connect with: building empathy; immersing yourself in quantitative and qualitative data to understand the classroom context more. After all, these are design thinking attributes.

And this works strategically too – broader than the classroom, this data inquiry mindset can be used at a whole-school or even Community of Learning level. If we see data as the ‘canary in the coalmine’ we can recognise strengths and weaknesses which inform future initiatives and how to resource them (including professional learning). Data-driven practices are learner-focused for improved outcomes. Now that’s an equation I can get on board with!

So, no, weighing a pig won’t make it grow faster, but it might suggest how the farmer can improve their techniques to make fatter, happier pigs.


To be continued…

So, thanks to a spot of laser surgery to rectify a small tear in the retina of my right eye, this weekend this keen reader isn’t really up to doing much reading. No problem. I have a bank of podcasts I often complain I can’t find the time to listen to. Case in point, this Serial podcast I’ve heard so many people go on about.

And never being one for half measures where text is concerned, I managed to listen to the entire first season in one day.

This is what struck me: nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Everything is complicated. Like, everything. My recollection of an event is not the same as yours. It gets filtered through my experiences, my bias, my senses, my brain. What strikes you is inconsequential to me. And vice versa. This reminds me very much of why Memento is one of my all-time favourite films, with this as one of my all-time favourite quotes from it: “Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation…” 

Before I go too far off track here, let me just say that I am profoundly interested in the intersection between stories and identity. The way we interpret and understand the world around us is through stories. Stories are our identity. And stories are multifaceted, they are layered. They are complex.

Image Sources: Change Management, Complexity

Which is why something like ‘change management’ structures irritate me so badly. Change is multifaceted, layered and complex. It cannot be stuck into boxes to follow a set pattern which will magically get everyone working together with the same goal in mind.

A good comeback at this point might be to say, okay, sure Philippa, you don’t like change management processes, but you’re a bit of a raver for design thinking…what’s the difference, really? And fair enough. The way design thinking is often portrayed is as a linear process: first this, then that, and then the other.


The first thing? Immersion: empathy building. Sitting with the complex, the multifaceted, the layered. And seeking to understand it from another’s point of view. When you do this, you honour the stories of another. You honour who and what they are, and who and what is important to them.

I’m still grappling with these ideas (one of the reasons why it’s been so long between blogposts), and you can hear my grappling as well as some more of my thoughts here in a podcast I did with Pete Hall of Network for Learning. But there’s something about language, stories, identity and empathy and what these might offer us in education to invite others into agentic practices that has gripped me and is occupying a lot of my thinking. I guess this is an episode that for me is to be continued…