Smelly stickers 2.0: data innovation in the classroom

To this point, the education data revolution in the United States has been a top-down movement that state and federal governments have driven. These are good and necessary efforts, but we will not unlock the full educational potential of data without the ability of teachers, principals, and other actors on the ground to use data techniques to address the problems they see every day.

That's why a little nugget buried in Wire's recent feature story on California's Kahn Lab School got me so excited.

"The students of Khan Lab School are back from lunch, standing in a circle, trading public accolades. “I have a shout-out for Mary, because when no one would take me to the bathroom, Mary did,” one student announces. “It showed conscientiousness and social intelligence.” Another student adds, “I have a shout-out for Mishal for being a really good sport about going inside and about not eating with everyone else. It showed social intelligence, self-regulation, self-awareness, and conscientiousness.” After each compliment, the entire student body waves their fingers and chants “faaaantastic!”

It’s the kind of Kumbaya moment that could easily occur in squishy-minded, confidence-boosting schoolrooms across the country, with one difference: Orly Friedman, the school’s director, asks the students to add every remark to a Google form that tracks who delivered the praise, who received it, and which specific traits they called out. Over time, she says, she will have a detailed analysis of her students’ character development."

YES! This whole program uses students' natural competitive urges to establish good habits. The students clearly know which words the teachers track, and they want to hit the buzzwords so they get written down. Incentivizing students to look for self-awareness and conscientiousness? Yes, please!

And the educators on the ground are driving it. Khan and his teachers came up with a common goal and brilliantly used data tracking as a way to pursue it. This program should sound pretty familiar to any teacher who has ever mounted a chart with students' names on the wall and put a sticker or a star next to a child's name every time they do something good. The electronic component is a natural extension that allows teachers to track and reward student progress over time.

Data doesn't have to be unfamiliar, and data use doesn't have to driven from on high. Data can just be good, established educational practice taken to the next level with simple technology and individual teachers. In my opinion, that's the data use that can truly revolutionize education.

Addendum: I probably should mention that I am skeptical of the ability  of tech-led efforts like Khan to improve the way most US students are educated for reasons the article mentions. The problem with too many tech types who get involved in education is that they do not enlist parents, educators, and the local community as full equal partners in the design and implementation of innovative techniques, then act surprised when everyone else doesn't leap to do their bidding. That's not how real social change works, but we can learn from and use good practices that come from these environments. Over at EdSurge, Robert Dillon describes how tech education in St. Louis is a good example of meaningful, collaborative reform.

Elizabeth Sobka