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Data in education: curse or blessing? Inaugural lecture Kim Schildkamp

'I didn't become a teacher to work with data, or: 'students are not a number'. These are common statements when the topic of data in education arises. "But, if we use data well, we can make a difference to the quality of education," argues Kim Schildkamp, who delivered her inaugural speech as professor of data-informed decision-making for learning and development at the University of Twente on Friday, 11 November. "That doesn't happen automatically. It is a complex interplay of people and data: combining data with the knowledge, creativity and experience of people."

Special guests

It is not an everyday scene at a university: a group of schoolchildren on stage during an inaugural lecture. Kim Schildkamp invited the children from her son Dylan's class for the occasion. She asked the children some simple questions, such as "What is your name?", "How old are you?", and "Count to ten". Based on these simple questions, she explained that there are many different ways to collect data. But also that what matters then is for what purpose you have collected these data and how you are going to use these data to improve education. The children not only came to UT for their brief appearance at the inauguration, but they also participated in an activity organised by Pre-U to further introduce them to the fascinating world of science and technology.

Improving education by using data

School leaders, teachers and students can make better decisions based on data, with a greater chance that they will lead to improvements in education, both in teaching and learning, Kim argues.

But, data for improving teaching is complex, she observes. "We do not yet always have the right data, or of sufficient quality, for some of the goals in schools. The data (algorithms) we do have, then, do not give a complete picture of the daily reality in the school and classroom. If these are accepted, without the critical eye of a teacher looking at it with their experience and knowledge, it can lead to narrow outcomes. It may even have a negative effect on quality."

There are several ways we can support schools in the use of data for school improvement. It may start with the definition of data: many people associate data with assessments and grades. "But data is about all the information you have about education," Kim explains. So it can also include, for example, classroom observations and interviews with students. Using these data requires a broad approach: more attention to both group and personal professional development in the use of data, a better understanding of how technology can be used to support its use, and whether school organisations are ready to use data.

Role of teachers

Explicitly, Kim mentions the role of teachers in the approach. "They need to be data-literate to be able to use data. That means setting goals, collecting, analysing, interpreting, and taking action based on the data."

Besides data literacy, motivation also plays a significant role. "We have to be careful not to overload teachers with data. There are so many sources they can draw from that it is not easy to decide where to start. That does not motivate teachers," Schildkamp said. "One of the lessons we learned in one of our EU projects is that teachers don't get excited when we start talking about data. The idea of the project was to start with making a data inventory. That led to a lot of resistance. The reaction was that I became a teacher to work with children, not with data. Only when we turned it around, and started asking questions like "what are important goals for the school or the classroom?", or "what problems are you running into now in daily practice?", interesting, engaging and relevant conversations emerged. Then we could talk about what data could help teachers to achieve their goals and solve the problems they were running into."

Data literacy for students

In her inaugural lecture, Kim also made a plea for more attention to data literacy for students. With the digitisation of our society, think personalised health and fitness apps on mobile phones, data on social media, smart home applications and the abundance of available data as a result, data literacy has become crucial.

Kim Schildkamp: "Young people need to be aware of their relationship to data, their role as a data source, and how it can affect them. They need to understand how their own data is used so they can also make conscious decisions about what data they do and do not make available, taking into account how posting personal data on social media platforms, such as TikTok, YouTube and Instagram, affects their privacy. Also, they must be seen not only as passive data sources, but also as active data users when it comes to their own learning, how education can be shaped at school, and in the wider society."

L.P.W. van der Velde MSc (Laurens)
Spokesperson Executive Board (EB)