Matthew Savage Educational Consultant and Trainer (Previously: School Principal), Savage Education (Previously: International Community School: Amman)

Matthew Savage explains why a compassionate and holistic use of student-level data is essential if we are to know each individual student and enable them to belong, thrive and succeed.

“The mask was a thing on its own, behind which Jack hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness.”

- Lord of the Flies, by William Golding

“We're working every dread day that is given us

Feeling like the person people meet

Really isn't us

Like we're going to buckle underneath the trouble

Like any minute now

The struggle's going to finish us”

- ‘People’s Faces’, by Kae Tempest

Children and young people wear manifold masks, daily, and they wear them thickly, and well. This should come as no surprise to us: beneath the many and muddled messages they receive, there is little incentive to set them aside, sleeves, understandably, no place for a heart. I described this generation recently as being “oppressed by their present and depressed by their future”, and it is not hard to see why things could seem so bleak: beset by a dozen prevailing winds, it must be difficult, sometimes, to stay standing. 

So what are we, as teachers, if not a windbreaker? And what is our role, if not to protect our students from the gale, thereby enabling them still to flourish and bloom? Our mission should be to enable a generation to thrive. However, how can our students hope to thrive if they do not, first, belong? And how can they belong if they cannot be both seen and known, for who they are, their authentic selves, beneath those many masks? This is where #themonalisaeffect® comes into its own.

In our schools, we are expected to chase better outcomes, always; and, after all, why would we not want this too? Which teacher would want things to get worse! However, those very outcomes are shaped by so many things, over so many of which we have such little control. Even before the tyranny of algorithms, there was little equity in how those grades transpired. Too many factors are at play here – the ‘winds’ to which I referred earlier – and, try as we might, we cannot influence them all. What we can, and must, do is know each individual child, and see them too.

This is not easy. For me, each child is a jigsaw puzzle, and my job is to put as many of the pieces in place as possible. Some of these pieces I will find in the relationships I forge with them, and others I will come across when speaking to their parents. Some pieces will appear through observation, and others will be forged in the fires of the learning process. We might glimpse some pieces in the school theatre or on the running track, and others in the acts of compassion or activism on which their future will depend. But many a pivotal piece lies in the data, or, to put it more precisely, in the earth we must dig beneath the flags that data can plant.

I have worked with thousands of educators across hundreds of schools in more than 60 countries, helping them to find those flags, and to dig that soil. We find flags presented by data on a student’s cognitive abilities, and the complex, shifting sands of their different cognitive batteries; flags presented by data on their attainment and progress, seen at different levels and through different lenses, and the gaps and deficits that have developed therein; flags presented by data on their attitudes and behaviours, and how they feel towards self, study and school, behind those masks. Increasingly, and rightly, I am also asked to help find the flags of wellbeing, so we can dig in that richest of soil, and make sure we keep #wellbeingfirst, and put Maslow before Bloom. 

Over two decades, I have seen data in schools poisoned and weaponised, that metaphorical stick by which an entire profession, and generations of students, feared they would be beaten. However, it does not have to be like this. After all, used wisely and well, data is a flag and not a fact, a signpost and not a label, a question and not an answer, another jigsaw piece to help us see the big picture, the beginning of a conversation. It is an alternative to the inherited paradigm, a windbreaker against the prevailing winds, and an antidote to the mask. 

I love data.