Of all the benefits that technology has brought to the world over the past several decades, the ability to gather, organize, research, and analyze data is one of the most important. Our improved understanding and manipulation of data has revolutionized almost every industry, from government to health care to marketing to education and beyond.

The world of education has been touched by the data revolution as much as any other aspect of society. With education reform picking up steam over the past decade or so, administrators, teachers, and even students have begun to use data–and the lessons learned from it–to completely change the way education is viewed.

Applying data in the classroom

Unlike many other industries in which data is heavily used, the education field relies on it to make a direct positive difference in the lives of people. The ultimate goal of data-driven education reform and instituting effective teaching strategies in the classroom is to improve student outcomes, as opposed to building a better product or creating a more accurate marketing model.

However, since data is often associated with understanding large populations or groups of objects, it can be hard to scale it down to specific improvements in the way individual students are taught in specific classrooms. That’s the true challenge of using data in today’s education world–taking huge numbers and applying them with tangible results on a personal level.

Data-driven instructional strategies

One of the most popular ways of using data in the classroom over the past few years has been to design tests that measure specific, objectively defined outcomes in subjects like reading and math. Those tests are in turn used as an important tool in accountability, whether it be for students, teachers, schools, or entire districts.

Data is only useful, though, when it can be combined with meaningful action in the classroom, as Ben Fenton and Mark Murphy point out in their paper, “New Leaders for New Schools: Data Driven Instruction.” The paper offers an analysis of how data can be used more effectively in the classroom.

The authors suggest using data to determine which subjects a majority of students are struggling with, then working with teachers to help them focus on those areas with their students. This method makes designing a curriculum slightly less of a burden for teachers, because they don’t have to reteach lesson plans to multiple small groups and individual students.

When students lag behind, even after they have been re-taught a lesson that was identified as deficient by data,  this method will also help teachers have a clearer understanding of exactly who is struggling, how, and why.

Melding culture with data

One complaint that administrators, teachers, and parents have had about the move to a more data-centric education model is their fear that it will take the nuance out of learning. After all, much of what we learn as humans is based on intuition, personal experience, and problem solving, and those are areas where the technology we use to assess data comes up notably short.

While there is no simple solution to bridging the gap between objective data and a personalized understanding of each student’s needs, building a culture of cooperative learning can go a long way toward reaching the desired outcome.

In order to be truly effective educators, teachers, and administrators need to work to build a culture in which things like accountability and curiosity are considered ends in and of themselves. That way, once the data is combined with a healthy educational culture, ideally the result would be a fusion of the best of both worlds–data-driven strategies and an environment that is conducive to student learning.