Data Dashboards

In a district meeting I’m a participant in, we’re reading the book The 4 Disciplines of Execution.  It’s an interesting book, and the main thesis is that change isn’t about doing everything, it’s about breaking the essential stuff you want to get done into bites that people can handle, then building structures and cultures around those bite-sized pieces, helping the folks you work with understand how to measure and take score of their efforts and how they contribute to a larger goal.  It’s not a radical idea, but it does make sense, and the execution is the hardest part.  I like the book and am looking forward to our continuing conversations (and hopefully action) about the text.

One of the biggest and most interesting elements of the book, to me at least, is the idea that you must trust the people in your organization to be able to track their own progress in what they do.  Specifically, the authors suggest that while leadership should set the large goal (the “wildly important goal” in the language of the book), the participants in the work should be tracking and measuring their own small pieces of that goal.  And, I’m sorry, but let’s dig into the weeds of how the book says to do that, because it’s going to be helpful.

The authors argue that there are two types of measures that folks can use to assess their progress.  They call them “lag measures” and “lead measures.”  Lag measures are the ones that we often think about when we’re talking about goals:

A lag measure is the measurement of a result you are trying to achieve.  We call them lag measures because by the time you get the data the result has already happened, they are always lagging. . . . Lead measures are different; they foretell the result.  They have two primary characteristics.  First, a lead measure is predictive, meaning that if the lead measure changes, you can predict that the lag measure will also change.  Second, a lead measure is influenceable; it can be directly influenced by the team.  That is, the team can make a lead measure happen without a significant dependence on another team. (pp. 64-65)

In school terms, a lag measure is a state test score, or an end of year report card.  But a lead measure might be a habit or practice that you implement or work on throughout the year, taking score every now and again.  More on this in a minute.  The book specifically mentions schools and schooling, and I thought this was a good way to say it:

For example, it’s easy for schoolteachers to measure the reading levels of students with a standardized test.  Often, they obsess over these lag measures.  However, it’s harder to come up with lead measures that predict how students will do on the text.  The school might hire tutors or reserve more time for uninterrupted reading.  In any case, the school is likely to do better if it tracks data on time spent reading or in tutoring (lead measures) rather than hope and pray that the reading scores (lag measures) will rise of their own accord. (p. 66)

The tracking of lead measures is so important, the authors argue, because they’re how you move in a new direction.  Figure out what to observe, and the observation and tracking of it can change a course, or improve a result down the road.  That’s, again, pretty basic thinking, but it’s right, and the hard part is building the habits and the follow through to do that.  In fact, it’s so hard, that the authors argue that one of the four disciplines is to “keep a compelling scoreboard” of those lead measures so that folks can pay attention to their change process.  They phrase it this way:

The third discipline is to make sure everyone knows the score at all times, so that they can tell whether or not they are winning. (p. 80)

The scoreboard is a tool for engagement:

Simply put, people disengage when they don’t know the score.  When they can see at a glance whether or not they are winning they become profoundly engaged. (p. 80)

More important than having the scoreboard, though, is that the people playing the game1 need to be in charge of that scoreboard.  They need to be trusted to use it.  And the trust is sometimes hard to build from manager to employee, or teacher to student.  Or district person to school person:

“So, how can I tell if they’re doing these things?” the manager asked.

“You won’t.  Your people will track themselves.” 

“How do I know it’s accurate?” the manager asked. “What if they lie?”

We bet he could trust them.  (p.71-72)

As I read about these measures, and started to think about what lead measures we might want to focus on, which is tricky, because we’re still, as a team, trying to determine our wildly important goal2, I realized that we don’t, in general, give our students much trust when it comes to how we ask them to pay attention to their learning.

We collect an awful lot of data about our students.  The third party tools that we buy for them to use as intervention, remediation, and sometimes textbook, collect lots of information about them, too.  But when do they get that information back in a way that could help them to manage their own learning better?

Could we build some tools that would help to foster metacognition and habits of attention that would help our students learn better?  Could we build them some compelling scoreboards and tools that they might use to get better at learning?  Can we help them build their own?

That’s a powerful idea for me right now.  And there are certainly others thinking about this.  Audrey Watters has written multiple thoughtful posts about the intersection of the Quantified Self movement and learning, and I’d encourage you to read her work.  And, as I asked in a post a short while back, I’d encourage you to be thinking about how your students interact with the data you collect with and about them.

Maybe, too, you should be helping them to determine their own data dashboards to help them reach their own “wildly important goals.”


  1. A metaphor that might be a bit stressed here, but stay with me []
  2. “Do learning better,” isn’t terribly specific. Nor is my current favorite: “Learn more better.”  Teacher version: “Teach more better.” []

6 thoughts on “Data Dashboards

      1. Yeah, it would be fun. I asked about it on Twitter a few weeks back, and one person (Eric Matthes – ) was doing some work in this area.

        But, re: “Could we build some tools that would help to foster metacognition and habits of attention that would help our students learn better? Could we build them some compelling scoreboards and tools that they might use to get better at learning?”

        LibreOffice Calc (an open source Excel replacement) would be a good place to start. The visualizations could be built off that, and it would be a good precursor to building a web app that could support more complex queries and visualizations.

        The tools already exist. The only thing missing is students and teachers being given their data. I wrote about this a little while ago – the lack of a student voice describing what student data “shows” and the lack of a teacher voice reflecting on teacher data is a serious omission.
        Bill Fitzgerald´s last blog post ..Six Strikes Is The Best Phishing Opportunity Ever

  1. Thanks for this post! Love the idea of getting students involved in keeping track of their own progress toward a few, high quality measures that might lead toward better learning. Your post also made me think how much more meaningful it would be for teachers to work toward goals they believed would build better learners, rather than toward raising test scores an abstract amount for an abstract number of kids. I can imagine conversation around goal setting and leading indicators being a really cool iterative process, resulting in growing sophistication about learning from the teacher POV, too. Thanks, again.
    Steve Peterson´s last blog post ..On meaningful goals, and the paths that might lead us there


  • On meaningful goals, and the paths that might lead us there | inside the dog…

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