Thursday, February 25, 2016

Making Sense

Earlier this week, I had an opportunity to share three sets of data with building administrators. You've had a preview of some of the visuals: a new way to represent the achievement gap, cluster charts, and small multiples. The administrators had not, although I have shared lots of data in lots of other ways with them. This was our opportunity for some in-depth work.

With each round of data presented, I did a little bit of instruction so that they understood how to read the charts. Each table had some paper copies and a few focusing questions to get the conversation rolling. And then the real fun began.

I have never had a chance to watch people learn with new-to-them data representations. Bar charts, line charts, and scatter plots are commonplace. When you share these types of visuals, everyone already knows the drill. But hand people sheets with small multiples and a few of them will overlay the pages and hold them up to the light. Give them a set of line plots showing gaps among student groups, and they will spread them across the table to organize the pieces in different patterns. Hand over some cluster charts and watch and people fold the paper along various lines to build new learning.

It was absolutely fascinating.

As a way to gauge their engagement with the new charts, I tried the Talking Mats which were recently shared by Andy Kirk.

I provided three different colors of sticky dots, one with each round of data, and asked the administrators to place their dot when we transitioned to the next part of the workshop. In addition to watching them interact with the data---which was very powerful learning for me---the Talking Mats provided valuable feedback at the end. These are visuals for me, created by the audience, which have told me a lot about which charts gave the biggest bang for the buck. I'll know where to focus my time and work in the future.

A few people struggled with looking at the forest of data represented by small multiples, instead of the trees. Some made connections across the data sets. Still others wanted to argue with data because they were unnerved by what they were seeing for the first time. By the end, though, there was a very rich conversation about the meaning we'd been able to make from all of the data.

For the first time since I started this job, I had many public compliments about the work I shared. My favourite has been "Thanks for presenting data in a way that helps me learn." Here's to more opportunities to use Excel to support us in making sense of things.

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