What Makes Them Tick

A passionate edupreneur discusses the value of a holistic view of student learning.

GUEST COLUMN | by Jack Macleod

CREDIT AlmaIf you are tracking trends in education, then you have probably heard the terms “whole-child approach” and “360-view of student performance.” Sounds catchy, but what the heck does it mean? Teachers are with students 180 days a year, so tracking behaviors and patterns has been happening all along, right? Well, the answer isn’t yes…or no. A holistic view of the student is more nuanced than that.

The old way of assessing students and tracking their growth was all about quick and dirty. This dropped students into seemingly arbitrary buckets. Back then, no one person could be expected to review every single piece of student data and identify emerging patterns and trends. And they most certainly couldn’t do it fast enough to shift instruction to accommodate each student.

There is huge potential for improving learning outcomes. Here’s to hoping the technology can make the grade.

The problem with that old school way of classifying students is that it doesn’t take into account that students are more than the sum of their parts (cliché, I know). There are a multitude of factors affecting student outcomes, and one isn’t most important; rather, it is the particular combination of each within a given student that informs success. And that unique mix is like each student’s DNA—unlocking it should tell us about what motivates and drives engagement and learning. And this is huge, given that researchers have found that motivation, not intelligence, is a better predictor of student success.

So if I had to define a “holistic view of a student,” I would say it is being able to articulate what makes them tick, and then leveraging that knowledge to really target instruction.

How do we get there?

The types of information we are talking about tracking here have always existed, and teachers were always able to use the data. The challenge has and always will be that teachers just don’t have the time to analyze complex information and identify emerging trends. Fortunately, technology can do most of the heavy lifting.

But much like student success factors, the technology that promises a way to automate these processes is not all created equal. Oftentimes when we think about tracking student information, we look for technology that has the ability to zoom way in on data, detecting granular changes at the microscopic level. In reality, the best information management systems will have the ability to zoom back out, and track where that data point (and the student is it attached to) is going, like sliding down the scale in Google maps. So how do you identify the right information management system? Ask yourself these three questions:

  • Is it intuitive? Analyzing data can be challenging. And sometimes, small mistakes have big consequences. An information management system should be easy-to-navigate, so teachers can quickly—and correctly—find and use the data they need.
  • Do all systems play nice? You can’t have a holistic view of anything if you there are missing pieces of information. If it makes sense to have one system that manages everything, great. If you prefer the patchwork approach, that’s fine, too. But if one system within the ecosystem doesn’t talk to another, then it won’t work. Period.
  • Can you extract actionable information? So you’ve identified a skills deficiency, now what? The system should point you toward next steps.

So where do we go from here? One thing the technology can’t do is determine what information to capture and analyze. Educators must identify what needs to be put in to make sure what comes out is meaningful. It’s likely that educators will need some guidance to make this happen, as complex data analysis hasn’t found its way into the curriculum of most education degree programs. I think this is a real opportunity for vendors to set themselves apart by providing training not only on the technical aspects of their systems, but also on the practical, “how to use this to improve performance” side of things.

I also predict that we will see even more companies—old and new—come to market with integrated platforms that manage student information, school information, learning management and learning resources within one system. These new “holistic student engagement” platforms will be able to analyze all factors that affect teaching and learning within a school and better help synthesize that data so we can move more toward the ultimate goal of personalized learning that is scalable and effective. There is huge potential for improving learning outcomes. Here’s to hoping the technology can make the grade.

Jack Macleod is president of Alma, a modern school management system offering a better experience for K-12 administrators, teachers, parents and students. Write to: info@getalma.com

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