Controversial Data: Are Data Walls right for the classroom?

data wall with black background facing front

Data Walls in Educational Systems

IMG_1267The data wall is a relatively new classroom concept that strives to make student success benchmarks more concrete and accessible. It involves dedicating a wall to large, colourful displays of student information, such as test scores and achievement levels.

This wall may be visible to the students themselves or may be kept in separate staff rooms where the students cannot access it – which option is chosen depends on the philosophy and desired outcomes of the school using it, but either can drive results.

As these tools show up in more and more schools, legitimate concerns about this paradigm shift in the way that personal scholastic data is used are being voiced by parents, students and teachers. However, if a data wall is implemented and maintained with the appropriate level of care, it can be an excellent addition to any educational space.

As these tools show up in more and more schools, legitimate concerns about this paradigm shift in the way that personal scholastic data is used are being voiced by parents, students and teachers. However, if a data wall is implemented and maintained with the appropriate level of care, it can be an excellent addition to any educational space.

The Benefits

Data wall showing student progress
A data wall provides a snapshot of student progress. Photo Megan Wheler

The actual information which is posted on a data wall is often not revolutionary; the true value is in the bold visual way in which this information is presented. Similar data is stored by most schools in computerized databases, but these require an instructor to set aside time to make the proper inquiries and comparisons before any struggling students can be identified.

A data wall, on the other hand, is a constant presence in a room, has the necessary information already laid out for the observer, and cannot be forgotten about or ignored. If placed in the classroom, it also serves to remind the students themselves of the importance of putting focused and earnest effort into their schooling, and gives them a concrete way to see themselves improve as a result of those efforts. Both of these things make academic improvement much more likely.

For instance, when data walls were first implemented at Medina Primary School, 34% of the school’s students were reading at only the expected level of a five-year-old. After nine months with the data walls in place, half of those students had improved significantly, a feat which is credited to the increased ability to manage short-term goals that the walls gave to teachers and students.

A data wall can also make clear when a student is repeatedly failing to make progress through typical classroom activity, indicating that a more intensive approach might be necessary. The teacher may then act to resolve the issue in any of the following ways, depending on the severity of the educational deficit:

  • giving extra one-on-one help
  • recommending that the student work with a tutor
  • providing extra resources like worksheets or books on the subject to help the student become more familiar with the material
  • recommending that the student be placed in a special education program with students closer to their scholastic level (this could apply to both low-achieving and exceptionally high-achieving students)

Many data walls are also made to track information for multiple subjects, and these varieties can be particularly illuminating. Because they give a complete educational profile of each student, they open up opportunities for unique sorts of targeted instruction.

For example, a student whose profile on the data wall shows a high proficiency in reading and a low one in math might find math more accessible with more problems presented to them in narrative word problems rather than as mere equations. It may also reveal issues like autism or learning disabilities which, if diagnosed and accommodated for, will cease to hinder the student as much as they would have had they gone unnoticed.

Again, this kind of cross-dimensional analysis is certainly possible through other methods, but it is the visibility of the data wall that truly helps get these problems identified and resolved.

The Controversy

In spite of all of these benefits, negative outcomes are certainly possible if the implementation of a data wall is poorly handled. Teachers are well aware that children can be cruel, and publicly posting sensitive information such as class rankings can encourage bullying and exclusion.

Some students also experience a deep sense of shame when they fail to meet the expectations they set for themselves and then have that failure posted for all their peers to see. The emotional damage that this can cause is a significant concern that has even sparked protests by alarmed parents against the use of data walls in their child’s classroom.

Further, data walls can threaten the security of the students’ academic information. While they do not run afoul of any specific Australian privacy laws, it can be argued that this is only a technicality; given that the stated intention of the Privacy Act 1988 is to allow individuals to have “greater control over the way that [their] personal information is handled,” data walls may be in accordance with the letter of the law and in breach of the spirit of it at the same time.

Academic information can undoubtedly qualify as personal information, and the students (and their parents) may have a moral claim to exclusive access to that information regardless of what the law dictates.

Create the Optimum Learning Environment Portable Partitions Australia

How To Effectively Implement a Data Wall

data wallIn order to minimize the possible harm of a data wall (and thus maximize its benefits as well) care must be taken to address both of the main controversy points: the potential to create shame in students and the security of confidential information.

Both of these issues are largely solved by relegating the data wall to a teachers’ lounge or some other restricted place, but given that there is evidence (discussed above) that students can benefit from having access to the data wall, this is not an optimal solution and it is best to seek alternatives if possible.

The first problem has a relatively simple solution: cultivating a positive, sportsmanlike classroom attitude. It is crucial to make sure that all students understand that the data wall is to be used on an individual basis only, and that the only person who should be concerned about posted results that are not their own is the teacher.

It is the instructor’s responsibility to ensure that the data wall is not used to put undue pressure on the student, as well as to emphasize that what truly matters is putting one’s best efforts toward learning and growth, regardless of the actual result.

As stated in this report on the success of intervention techniques guided by the use of data walls at Force Elementary, “the idea is not to introduce competition and stress, but rather, to work as a class to . . . encourage lower performing students.” This should be the guiding principle of anyone interacting with a data wall, school staff included.

The second problem is more technical in nature, but can certainly still be solved if every effort is made to obscure the actual identities of the students on the wall. The United States Department of Education recommends that markers be used instead of students’ names, and that these not be possible to trace back to any individual student. That way, while the students will be able to observe classroom trends and learn how their academic ranking compares to their peers, it will be impossible for anyone else to say with certainty that they can discern that student’s academic record merely by looking at the data wall.

It is also advised that teachers be exceptionally careful in how they use the data wall, even with this safeguard in place. Data walls and the information on them should not be discussed in conferences or meetings unless consent forms have been distributed to and signed by every student whose information is on the wall.

Regardless of the security measures taken by the school, information that is found on a static wall is sure to be seen by unauthorized eyes at some point. Things like tours and school events can potentially bring visitors all over the school, even in the otherwise-restricted teachers’ lounge.

For this reason, using a portable partition (a fully mobile wall segment that can be used as a pinboard, such as the 360 Room Divider) for a data wall can be particularly effective, as it allows the wall to be temporarily removed. Access restrictions should be maintained as much as possible in all circumstances, and using portable partitions greatly increases an instructor’s ability to do this.

Charting the Way to Success

Learning to read in primary school with data walls

Despite concerns that data walls make public what should be kept private, they can also be a highly beneficial tool for both students and teachers to track each student’s progress and ensure that that student achieves some degree of personal academic growth over the course of the year.

While complications are certainly possible, they are easily avoided with careful action and do not pose enough of a problem to mitigate the positive effects. So long as all involved retain the correct perspective (that a student need only compete with their own previous efforts, not with those of the other students on the wall) and follow good security measures, data walls can be excellent tools to promote continual improvement in students.

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