The Joys and Perils of Learning with #Literacy and #Numeracy Data Walls

The concept of using data walls to track student progress has been around for almost a decade. Various blog posts and articles written by various school leaders are available on the internet, including this post by the Principal of a school in Ontario. Much of the literature out there emphasizes a few key points:
1. there must be shared beliefs and understanding (“common language”) amongst staff;
2. data walls must be used to improve student learning, not to evaluate teachers;
3. continued, ongoing interventions are effective if the data walls are used regularly and effectively.

Michael Fullan and Lyn Sharratt have actually outlined fourteen key areas to improving literacy and numeracy in schools, districts in their book “Putting Faces on the Data”. Here’s a great post on Greg Whitby’s blog that summarizes the book’s exploration of the 14 parameters and how they help with data walls.

But the language in the literature is wrong. Here’s what I mean: the phrases “literacy data wall” and “numeracy data wall” are actually misnomers. They imply that the wall of data is actually tracking the literacy and numeracy levels of students in a particular school. In reality, literacy data walls that I have seen and read about tend to focus on reading levels – thus they should be labeled “reading level data walls”. Similarly, numeracy data walls I have seen and read about tend to focus on one particular area or strand of mathematics (typically, I have seen walls focusing on basic maths facts or “number” strand, with a few examples of data walls focusing on problem solving). Again, the label for these numeracy data walls should change to reflect the topic or strand that is being represented. If the data wall focuses on problem solving, call it a Problem Solving Data Wall. If it’s about basic facts, call it a Maths Facts Data Wall. Whatever it is, “call it what it is”.

Now here is what’s crucial for school leaders to model: precise language around data walls sends a clear message to staff about what is being tracked. If a data wall is tracking reading levels, call it a Reading Level Data Wall. But then also ensure the rich and regular conversations school staff have regarding how students and classes are doing should also include a discussion of the literacy skills that are *not* represented on the data wall (what about comprehension? critical thinking? writing? communicating?). Indeed, my own school district (Pembina Trails School Division in Manitoba) is emphasizing 21st Century Literacy skills, encompassing not only the ability to read, understand, and communicate both orally and in writing, but including 21st Century skills of utilizing critical thinking skills and collaboration in virtual teams to analyze and create meanings. For an example of an Ontario district’s categories used for their numeracy wall, see the Peel County Success Story.

Ontario's Peel County uses a Multiple Category Data Wall for Mathematics

Ontario’s Peel County uses a Multiple Category Data Wall for Mathematics

Data walls have been shown to be an effective tool for educators to use to improve student learning. It is one tool to use in the repertoire of school leaders, and as such it is important to ensure that the language used around it is precise, as well as ensuring that conversations continue about what is *not* represented on the data wall.

Does your school or district use data walls for literacy? for numeracy? What do they look like? How often are they referred to in staff meetings? How is information kept private and secure? What area(s) of literacy and/or numeracy are focused on? Let’s talk!


About tjthiessen

explorer, administrator, consultant, student, leader
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One Response to The Joys and Perils of Learning with #Literacy and #Numeracy Data Walls

  1. Your thoughts around the language of data wall management are really interesting. You might be interested in checking out this app: It really helps teachers facilitate conversations around using data to drive instructional decisions in the classroom.

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