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Guest Article: Learning Growth Teams and the Use of Data Walls to Guide Improvement

By Michael Borgfjord, Seine River School Division

School systems are inundated with data, evidence, and information that can be used to create a strong picture of strengths, opportunities, challenges, and areas of sur- prise and wonder. Seldom is this large amount of information concisely used in a manner which guides deep reflection, deliberation, and as a means to build a culture of inquiry. Seine River School Division is a largely rural school division with 15 schools and approximately 4,500 students in south eastern Manitoba that has embarked on a journey to utilize various data sets to stimulate professional inquiry, build collaborative networks, and to reinforce a system of continuous improvement.

We believe that effective analysis of data can steer teams to a more focused approach to learning challenges and opportunities. We are striving to create a non-judgmental environment where staff feel safe to take risks and openly discuss challenges.

“If you never have that vulnerable moment, on the other hand, then people will try to cover up their weaknesses and every microtask becomes a place where insecurities manifest themselves” (Coyle, 2018).

This is why it has been imperative for leadership to inspire trust, is humble, non-judgmental, and demonstrates a strong vulnerability towards the learning process. “The lack of opportunities for honest dialogue and creative give-and-take lies at the root of today’s dysfunction” (Muller, 2018). This has been the basis of our work with our school leaders and staff as we build a strong learning organization that centers on relationships, shared goals, and shared accomplishments.

Where did we begin?

In 2010-11 our division used individual student reading data, from Fountas and Pinnel, report cards, and numeracy data sets to identify learning moves for teachers, school teams, and the division. School leaders were provided with grade reading profiles and were able to identify patterns of growth over time using the information to develop literacy/numeracy plans. Prior to our use of data walls, anecdotal comments from schools, teacher reflections on different strategies used, and the list of professional development opportunities for teachers were the primary tools for system evaluation.

In time, we recognized that the mere collection of data alone was not a driver of system improvement. We asked ourselves: How can we use data to be the focal point of teacher inquiry, professional collaboration, innovation, and system improvement? Simply put, rudimentary use of data sets supported confirmation of personal biases in practice and planning.

In the fall of 2015, educational expert Dr. Lyn Sharratt facilitated our school leadership teams to develop a clearly articulated plan of data utilization as a means of inquiry and growth. We understood that data was being utilized to identify gaps in learning, monitor impact of programming over time, and to create a catalyst for professional learning identifying targeted professional teaching practices that supported student learning. It was also challenging for school teams to dig deep into specific focus areas and develop strong theories of action based upon careful analysis of student evidence. Too often, focal points were broad, hard to identify, and the evaluation of impact of practices was too difficult to determine. Reflection of improvement focused more on how students responded to learning strategies rather than the specific learning improvement that occurred. School leaders needed opportunities to use data in a concise manner to co-identify their next learning moves.

At our leadership retreat, Dr. Sharratt divided school leaders into 10 teams and provided each with the same data sets from three different grade levels. Teams were asked to create a data wall that represented each and every student’s literacy achievement. Through this process, teams identified the following key elements of an effective data wall that captured every student by:

  • Grade level;

  • Literacy growth;

  • Gender;

  • EAL (English as an Additional Lan- guage);

  • Students with IEPs; (Individualized Learning Plans);

  • Students from different groups;

  • Indigenous students; and

  • Must reflect the school learning needs.

The educational discourse from this process provided leaders with the key ingredients to co-construct their own data walls with their respective school staffs. One thing we learned is that this process needed to “put faces” on the data to ensure that we know which students were stuck and not moving, who were below level, or who were accelerating at rates faster than others.

Our teams and our teachers needed to be curious about the learning of all their students and the skills needed to examine the conditions that caused these occurrences. We wanted them to ask questions building off the strengths of individual students, which allowed them to examine their own practices in a safe and supportive environment. Teams needed to be able to identify and articulate learning patterns that were occurring in their schools. We wanted to provide structures for our principals to be knowledgeable about high-impact practices and to be the lead learners modelling continuous learning, curiosity, and the use collaborative inquiry to improve. The data wall needed to be a place where everyone could see the challenges, develop plans, and be a specific place for staff to celebrate accomplishments.

Where did we go from here?

Data walls are not new; many schools have utilized various forms of data methods to create learning plans. For us, we wanted it to become a central part of our learning culture that had meaning for every staff member.

“Every school leader and every classroom teacher must be able to define the data that represent their students’ growth and achievement in multiple ways” (Sharratt, 2016).

Our purpose was to create spaces where leaders and teachers could efficiently dialogue about learning moves that mattered and become a central component of the learning culture.

The senior leadership team also developed and constructed three data walls at the division office to identify literacy levels of all the students in Grades 2, 5, and 8. This allowed the senior team to see divisional trends and made us aware of the individual students in each school who needed more attention. It allowed us to ask questions about specific students when we visited schools as we divisionally “put faces” on the data modelling that we too were interested and curious about. Dialogue with school teams at their data wall provided us with more efficient learning walks and talks, and impacted resource allocation to individual schools.

Deep collaboration

The data walls have become an impetus for professional dialogue and conversation both in the schools and within the division. Professional learning teams start their meetings at the data wall and track student growth, identify areas of curiosity, and develop learning plans. This process continues to evolve as staff co-construct what is meaningful for them and as they ask more questions, this solidifies their learning and sense of inquiry. School teams are making stronger connections between the reciprocity of writing and reading and the impact on critical thinking.

They notice patterns and identify characteristics of students needing intervention and target their next learning moves based on evidence. Teams are going beyond mere data scores and are digging deeper into learning behaviours, needs, and strengths of individual students. It is assisting schools in re-writing their learning story and allowing all teachers to own all of the students in their schools.

School leaders have been provided opportunities to model and develop their skills in:

1. Case management meetings:

A systemic, scheduled forum to discuss and debate internal intervention. Teachers or teams identify a student from the data wall and identify student interests, strengths, identifications, observations, and other important learning information. Through a short learning team meeting student work samples are discussed using a learning conversation protocol and a short-term learning plan is developed and followed up upon.

2. Learning walks and talks:

School leaders have been provided opportunities to conduct systematic learning walks and talks. These are non-evaluative approaches to knowing what is happening in every classroom in each school. They start at the data wall with conversations about school plans and areas of strength and challenge. They are meant to be “growth promoting and collaborative” and give us insights into what students and teachers are learning.

3. Learning fair:

Our division hosted our second annual learning fair where every school presented their year-long action research project based upon data and inquiry. Learning teams are learning from each other and the focus and precision is getting stronger.

As a senior leader it is quite humbling to visit a school and to have a focused conversation with a school leader on the learning moves that are occurring in their school. We still have a lot of work to do to continue to foster a learning culture that allows leadership to expand

and challenging learning goals to become more focused. The data wall has become an accelerator of focus and precision and has created larger networks within and between schools. (Sharratt, 2012, 2019)

Teachers are talking the same language and see themselves as part of the bigger picture. It has allowed leaders to become more open with their non-evaluative challenges to thinking and practice and has created a greater connection to central office. School teams have indicated that they know all of their students better and feel a greater sense of urgency. Ironically, while the work gets harder and the conversations more difficult there is an overwhelming satisfaction from markedly seeing growth and successes that were hard earned. The data helps chart an improvement story with the greatest connection being every staff member working towards improvement for all students.

Michael Borgfjord is Superintendent of the Seine River School Division.


Borgfjord, M. (Spring, 2020).Learning Growth Teams and the Use of Data Walls to Guide Improvement. Manitoba Association of Senior Superintendents.

Coyle, Daniel (2018). The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Success- ful Groups. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Sharratt, Lyn & Fullan, Michael (2012). Putting Faces on Data: What Great Leaders Do? Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press.

Muller, Jerry Z. (2018). The Tyr- anny of Metrics. Princeton, New Jer- sey: Princeton University Press.

Sharratt, Lyn & Planche, Beate (2016). Leading Collaborative Learn- ing: Empowering Excellence. Thou- sand Oaks, California: Corwin Press.

Manitoba Association of School Superintendents

1,521 views1 comment


Thank you for sharing your journey. I love the concept of the Learning fair and how, as you said allows learning teams to learn from each other and how the focus and precision is getting stronger. I would love to read more about how you run these and the year-long action research projects that were presented.

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