Episode 51: Heather Welch from Edx Education will be in Conversation with Dr. Matthew Courtney, Educator, Researcher, and Policy Maker.
Matthew specializes in using data and research to support schools and teachers as they work to improve teaching and learning. His vision is to provide high quality, evidence-informed education for every child in every classroom. He will explain this in more detail for our listeners.
Today we are chatting with Matthew about the importance of data in education, trends and what’s his next adventure.
Here are the highlights:
(04:45) A shift towards data-driven decision-making
(08:15) Identifying and responding to societal barriers
(11:28) Helping teachers to make meaningful changes
(14:28) Front-loading the work
(18:35) Data hesitant teachers
(23:06) A step-by-step guide for teachers
You’re listening to education experts with Edx Education. Education is evolving. Join Heather Welch from Edx Education, chatting with teachers, psychologists, parents, authors, creatives, and other tons of experts to keep up with the trends and what’s happening around the world. This podcast, series edx education, discusses home learning, school readiness, being creatives, changes in education, and discussing what’s next in hands-on learning.
Or as we like to say, learning through play.
Welcome, everyone. I’m Heather weld from Edx education today. Being in conversation with Dr Matthew Cortney educator, researcher and policymaker. Matthew specializes in using data and research to support schools and teachers as they work to improve teaching and learning his vision is to provide high-quality evidence-informed education for every child in every classroom, and he will explain this in more detail for our listeners.
Today, we are chatting with Matthew about the importance of data and education trends, and what’s his next big adventure. Welcome, Matthew. Thank you for joining us today.
Thank you so much.
Having me. It’s wonderful. I know it’s early in the morning for you, so I hope you’ve got a coffee or a tea and are ready to have a chat.
I’m ready. Fantastic.
Can I ask you to introduce yourself to our listeners and tell them about your adventures to being so passionate about education?
Sure, Heather, so good morning to all of our listeners, as Heather said, my name is Matthew Courtney, and I am a passionate educator.
I’m dedicated to using data and research to really inform decisions and drive school improvement efforts.
I started my career as an elementary music teacher in Richmond, Kentucky at a small school called Mayfield elementary. And that was a school full of heart and full of children who were excited to learn.
Um, and as their music teacher, I was blessed to be able to work with all of the kids in our area. And through that work, I really learned and, and saw the way that we can make really intentional decisions for our learners and how intentional thoughtful, and that had research based decisions can expedite their learning.
And so when my school closed in 2014, I decided rather than find a job in a new school to dedicate the rest of my career to that cause fantastic.
Were you always going to be a teacher, is teaching something that you have always done from a young age?
Yeah. I actually started out on a path to become a musicologist. Um, when I was in school and in college, I studied music and thought that I would go to grad school and be a music researcher.
And so research has always been a major part of my life and my career goals. But when I was in college, I majored in education. I student taught and spent a lot of time in the schools.
And those experiences were really formative for me and really showed me that the. Vital importance that education has. And so, um, I changed gears and took that research passion with me to the education.
Okay, fantastic. And now you’re making leaps and bounds. I hear one thing I’d say is that music in maths is one of those things that we all music, sorry about.
That I have to. Okay. In digital technology, we’re connected with everything. It doesn’t matter if you’ve turned everything else off
Itself comes through
What I was saying. Sorry about that. What I was saying is music. I’m always told that when. Music that you’ve got to be a good mathematician for the patterns and the beats and stuff for music. Is this true?
Oh, certainly there is so much math in music and literature as well. Um, when I taught music, we always worked in some of our math standards and our literature standards into the texts that we were reading and singing about and the notes and the patterns and the beats and the rhythms that we were performing.
Um, music is a great way to engage children in the learning process and expose them to new ideas and new ways of thinking.
Absolutely. We love music. Children always loved the music. We always had used it in the earliest, but listen, you’re talking about data and research-informed decision decisions to drive here, realistically, to drive education.
I mean, in businesses, we do this all the time. You look at the data and you decide actually that product is not selling, so we’re not going to do that anymore. It’s not getting the traction. So isn’t it interesting now that it’s one of those things that I suppose we haven’t put into it? We do put into education.
Creating the curriculums, but then we don’t update it for quite a while. Would you say that’s probably true?
Yes. I think that the shift towards data-driven decision making is a really important one and really time for us now, as we are recovering from the global COVID-19 pandemic, you know, you think about, if you pause to think about just the volume of data that there is in the world, Algorithms and data drive, almost every decision that we make, big companies like Google and Amazon, they know where you’re going to go on vacation.
They know what product you’re going to buy. They know what songs are gonna download hours and weeks before you do. And so I always think, you know, what, if we could do that in education, what if we could figure out how to really meaningfully channel the volume of data that teachers and parents.
Societies are collecting on our learners and use that to inform decisions. It’s one of the biggest things is actually getting access to that data.
Is that one of the biggest, challenges that you would have?
Access to the data is a huge barrier and there are a lot of privacy concerns with data.
Of course, we talk about that with Google, especially, or Twitter or Facebook and how they choose to handle our data. And as adults, we have some, some say in that. Um, but for our students, data, privacy is a huge issue and we have to find ways to increase access for educators to the data while also protecting the privacy of our students with their dads.
Really also connects data systems. A lot of times in education, the assessment data lives in an assessment system. The teacher’s local data lives in a separate system and maybe the household income and familial data live in another system and getting those systems to talk to each other can be a challenge.
High stakes there that you’re dealing with. When you suppose it as you know, you’ve come as a teacher now, you know, education, doing management and researching.
You’re a policymaker and have been through all the different rankings. Now, if you were to walk into a classroom, can you tell if the teacher has used evidence or evidence or data to inform their instruction?
I think you can tell one of the ways that we can spot that is how a teacher is differentiating instruction or changing instruction to meet the needs of each learner in their classroom.
If every student in the classroom is doing this sort of activity in the same way, That’s probably not a very data-informed classroom. If we can see that groups of students are working on similar problems and tasks, but maybe approaching from a different starting point, maybe from a different level or a different sort of technical angle, we can tell that that teacher has really used data to inform how they are reaching those learners.
Another key point, I like to just ask teachers, why are you doing what you’re doing? Why are you taking this step? Why are you using this curriculum? Why are you using this technique? Teachers who are wealth steeped in the research side of teaching and learning will be able to tell you exactly why they’ve chosen each strategy that they’re using in their classes.
It becomes from experience from research, and then you, you’re talking about providing different mediums, providing different levels. for example, if you’ve got one child in the early years, that really can’t recognize their numbers or letters and another one that can put them together and actually understand values.
So you’d be doing different activities for each one. It’s really easy to spot that as you said in the early years because children come into the school system from, a variety of backgrounds. We know that all of the things that parents do at home, really to prepare a child for a school that is not a monolithic effort and that families approach those, early developmental years, very differently.
We know that societal barriers such as race and income can also, Impact the level with which a student enters into the public school system. In those very early years, those grades one, two and three, we can really see teachers using data to see where a student is at and meet them where they’re at to try to bring them up to a more standardized.
Who’s the one at another big of the barrier for the teacher would be. I’m not sure of the class sizes there in the government systems, but you know, in the UK and Australia, it could be anything from, you know, 25 to 30 that’s in your government based schools. And your sort of private, we call the private independent schools would be between 15 and 20.
There’s a really big difference there as well. Yes. And we see that in the United States as well. And I think that you know, the school classroom size can also be a barrier to data use when you’ve gotten more students, you have more data and more need to respond to.
So, how do you, how do you actually put, how are you using this data as a policymaker at the moment?
Where are you clicking and what are you actually doing with it, for the evidence-based to provide. I’d say it’s the higher content, the more enriched content really for curriculum, is that correct?
So one of the things that I am working on lately, and I’m very passionate about is this idea of what we call exploratory data analysis or EDA.
And EDA is something that has existed for a long time, was really popularized in the 1970s, and exist primarily now in, sort of the industry, big business uses it and, higher ed and full-time researchers use this to.
To look at that. But I’ve been teaching teachers how to do this. And the idea is basically we’re going to pull all the data that we have together into one spot.
We’re going to download all the reports from all the different systems. Going to merge them together, where we can. And we’re just going to look at the data with an open mind, rather than sort of interrogating the data and asking specific questions. We’re just kind of seeing what it says and what’s telling us, I like to say that EDA is like having a conversation with the data.
And it’s, it’s a great way for teachers to really understand where their different students are to understand complex concepts like intersectionality or the way that, you know, we are all whole people in different parts of our identity. It changes our experience along the way. It’s been a really fascinating experience experiment I’ve been doing for a couple of years.
So what are you hoping to do with this at the end? You’re hoping to provide a policy with it or hoping that the teachers have, they, they actually, I suppose it’s one of those things as a company, you’d get a whole lot of data about sales and you use some of it. You don’t use all of it, but actually, it’s using it as a holistic approach to actually build the curriculums or build, their classrooms, I suppose, for mastery.
Yeah. That’s exactly right. So I think that as a teaching profession, classroom teachers really do, Have the opportunity here to tap into that data and make better decisions on their own. A lot of times we sort of wait for policymakers to make decisions and set directions and that’s policymakers play an important role in that.
But at the end of the day, when the teacher is in the classroom with their 25 to 30 students, that door is closed. It’s up to that classroom teacher to really implement these strategies in a meaningful way to make great decisions and create a great education for their learners. And I think that one of the tools that they can use this as exploratory data analysis, we’ve seen some teachers make great leaps through the.
This process or this technique? One of my great COVID examples was working with a school district and they had a group of, um, Latin X students who were not logging in to their learning management platform during COVID during virtual distance learning. And. I assumed that it was a language barrier, but really that was sort of a cultural bias that they had, um, that they hadn’t checked in with.
And we use the exploratory data analysis process. And what we found was that this group of students all lived in the same couple of blocks. They had the same zip code, and the same address codes. And so. We use their address as one of the data points. What we found is that they didn’t have internet access in this little pocket and it’s.
And so the school was able to very quickly respond to the needs of those learners. And they were able to more accurately respond to the needs of those learners to set their biases aside and provide internet to those learners so that they could log in during COVID. So things like that, those sort of unexpected outcomes. And we’re seeing more and more of that as I work with schools and teachers on this EDA.
That’s amazing. That’s actually, it’s a really nice thing to hear. Have you found that through COVID? I mean, through the pandemic that there has been a lot of, you know, I suppose, sort of positive wins like that, that we’ve ever been able to accumulate the data, being able to look at, you know, what’s happening in different, as you said, it’s different.
Zipcodes just don’t have access. You just assume these days everyone has access to wifi to the internet, to be connected because the whole world seems to be connected to something the whole time.
I do think that we’ve seen some good changes come out of the COVID-19 pandemic and education. I think that as you’ve mentioned, access to the internet has been really exposed.
It’s been very transparent and localities have made great strides in increasing access to internet access technology. Being able to provide computers, hotspots or various devices to students who didn’t have them. We see a lot more of that.
I think also digital learning management systems and more wide-scale adoption of those digital tools that schools have traditionally been only in person, especially in rural areas where internet access has been a long-term systemic problem. They’ve really started to conquer those and make a positive.
That’s amazing. Do you find teachers? Sometimes I know after the pandemic, we’re all a little bit burnt out and especially teaching kind of like in this contract, frontline workers because they’re keeping people together. Do you find that they look at the EDA? EDA thinking, this is going to create more paperwork is shifting.
It’s there to help them, but do you sort of have this challenge that first we look at and think, oh, I’m going to pay for work and then how can I do it? But it will benefit in the long run.
Absolutely, teachers are certainly superheroes. We’ve seen that over the last couple of years, as they have continually adapted to the changing conditions produced by the pandemic.
I often hear from teachers, why do I have to learn this new technique? This is creating more work. Pieces that really sort of front load, the work, but save you time on the backend. Because one of the things that I love about EDA is that it’s really a replicable process. Once you’ve learned it, you can kind of almost go on autopilot with it.
It can really speed up your processes. One of the things that I’ve done to help teachers with that on my website is an area called the repository. Your listeners can access that. There I have six auto analysis tools where a teacher can upload a spreadsheet and it will automatically populate various statistics and graphs and charts so that they don’t have to create those things.
They can just look at the numbers and interpret them. I think the adoption of tools, helped you expedite the EDA process. Are going to be really vital to help our teachers as they deal with this burnout in this overload to really embrace data, use more meaning.
So if I had in this, in, the UK, we have these like 11+ or 13+ tests, or even in the early years, tall sorts of say milestones that you can put in what they’re hitting or not.
And just say, we could put in all of those milestones in this proposal repository, you could tell me that 50% of my class only meeting this and 20% are only meeting this, you know, for example. So it takes all the data. Make a breaks it down much easier for me. Is that what you’re saying?
Yes, that’s correct. You can upload a spreadsheet and I’ve different ones that do different things. I have a tool that creates a correlation matrix is and helps you to see relationships between various values and outcomes. I have one that does summaries as you’ve just described where it will say this is your average performer or your highest performer, your lowest performer.
They make charts and graphs. One that’s really popular. I have one that’s really designed. People in special education that allows you to put in just one student’s data and see how interventions are impacting them and what we call an ABA research methodology. Um, so those are all free resources, um, to your listeners and to teachers across the globe.
Anyone can use it. It’s not just USA, UK, anywhere, wherever you’d like.
Wherever you are, you can use it. I have users all, over the globe already. Feel free to log in.
Do you run courses to show people the benefits or do you have something that they can watch? You know, that explains this in more detail, say, for example, I don’t know YouTube channel, or do you do courses over a period of time?
Yes. All of the above I do have a YouTube channel. A series of self-paced online courses right now. Um, I’ve recently put out a book called exploratory data analysis in the classroom, and that is available on Amazon. It’s also available through, through my website that really breaks, this technique down and presents it to a teacher in a step by step, uh, kind of way.
Then I do visit schools, speaking arrangements and really intensive workshops where we take teachers own data and show them how to apply this to. You had to give the advice to teach her.
That was a little bit sort of standoff about maybe a wise teacher has been in the industry for a long time and just looks at the accumulation of paperwork and things.
What would you say to them in order to bring them over the line?
I like to call those teachers data hesitant teachers, and we certainly have those because teaching is a. Heartfelt and intuitive profession. So what I say to those teachers is that this is not something that should feel like a barrier, everything feels like a barrier when it’s new.
But over time, this is a tool in your toolbox to help you sort of check your intuition. A lot of times what we know. The education profession is very steeped in things like intrinsic bias and teachers receive lots of training and sort of monitoring and checking their own biases and ideas about their learners.
This is another tool in your toolbox to help you sort of check and validate your intuition to make it stronger. Let’s say that your curriculum isn’t working the way you think that it should. If you have some good, strong data behind that, you can convince your administration to change direction and allow you to try something new.
Always say that an evidence-informed educator is an empowered educator and that if you can relate. Articulate clearly through the data and through the research, that a change that needs to be made in your advocacy work is going to be more successful for your kid.
Matthew, you had me at, you can make changes, you’ll actually get through with data. You do need to have the evidence to show. The difference. What is working that’s with reading programs, writing, whatever play-based, anything you do needs the data to come behind it. I know that you’ve worked as a policymaker.
What advice would you give to other policymakers seeking to use research to inform their decisions?
I think one of the most important things policymakers can do is to be more transparent in the way that they use research to make decisions, in the United States, for example, our every student succeeds act, which is our national law, includes some provisions that require evidence-based practice use in decision-making.
I think part of the problem that we see in that is really. To the research and evidence. If policymakers could be more transparent let’s say annotated, bibliographies or white papers that explain this is the decision we’re making. Here’s what the research said to help us make that decision.
I think that would lend policymakers more credibility it models really effective research use for those in the field. I think that’s a really important step. Also think. Part of policy-making is always politics, right?
That’s they have the same root word for a reason. I’m really trying to intentionally break away from the political side of education policy-making and focus really on what we know works and what we know is best for kids. That’s where the policymakers can really embrace evidence in nature.
That’s exactly right. So that can be communication and transparency sound like one of the main things and showing them why it works and how it works. Absolutely. Why should teachers learn data analysis and research techniques? Like in business, I could hire a big company and they could do it for me, you know, are consultants rather than doing it themselves in their own time.
Like I said earlier, I think that evidence-informed educators and empowered educators, and we certainly have consultants and software’s and platforms all throughout the field that can help expedite these processes for teachers. If a teacher truly understands how to interpret that data on their own or how to find an interpretation that piece of research on their own, they’re always at the will of someone else.
Unfortunately, bad actors don’t always tell the whole story, um, and teachers need to safeguard their children in their classrooms from, from those instances. The other piece I’ve mentioned before is bias. And, and we know that every consultant and every advisor, every group has their own biases and their own lens with which they interpret the data and research.
And if a teacher can’t do that work on their own, they are always going to be reflecting someone else’s lens.
That’s true, they know what happens in their classroom. They know what the results are. I’m very conscious of time. What I want to know is. I just want, could you tell me what’s in the book that you’ve just published is called exploratory data analysis in the classroom?
That’s correct. And could you give us a little sneak peek of what it’s about?
Sure. So it is, really a step-by-step guide for teachers on how to access exploratory data analysis, and how to actually do it. I like to say, it’s not theoretical. It’s only about 120 pages, I kept it short for a reason because teachers don’t have time to read a 500 pages.
The theoretical manual I’ve instead, it’s going to go, take teachers through step-by-step literally first you access the data. It’s also supported with downloadable resources. Teachers can download sample data sets, and follow along to check their work.
There are also videos on my website that go along with the book that teachers can use to follow. Throughout the whole book, we follow a teacher as she implements this process and makes realizations for her own classroom. Um, so it really is designed to be a very practical hands-on guide for teachers who are looking to try something new with her.
In an early years classroom, we do a lot of play-based look at play-based learning. I might be looking at them, we’re doing a lot of say our direct instructional play rather than free play. And I do a couple of months of each, or I could do two groups in a and B groups and then see which ones work better type thing.
Yes, exactly. And the book will tell you exactly how to do that step.
That’s really good. Now, what’s the next adventure? Where are you? Where are you off to now and what you’re going to do next?
I think the next big challenge for me is I really want to start working with teachers on what we call action research or, or local research design to promote a change in a classroom or a school building.
I’m really focusing now on it. Once we’ve got teachers up to speed on using and interpreting the data. How can they really experiment in a meaningful way post-COVID? I’ve been thinking a lot about this because we saw the medical profession do this in real time. They discovered a new disease. Captured the genome.
They shared that they iterated and they did all of that in real-time. We got to watch that on the news and I just keep thinking, well, what if we could do that as a teaching profession? What if our teachers who we already know are experimenting and iterating every day, because that’s what good teaching really is.
What if we could find a way to really capture and share that with other teachers across the globe. We know that teachers often feel isolated. There’s a lot of research to that effect because they do close that classroom door and, and work with those 30 kids in front of them. But the problems that they’re facing are not unique teachers across the globe are facing the same problems of practice.
And if we could capture through the action research methodology, What they’re doing and what they’re experimenting with, we can build a network where teachers are sharing ideas and improving education together just as we’ve seen our medical profession do during COVID.
That would be amazing. That would be amazing if we do it as if you do it as a global entity, that would be amazing if you could get everyone on the same page, but there is a lot of research, I don’t know, in America, what does this come yet?
They’re saying that we will be in a global skills crisis in the next 20 years with how we’re currently running our schools. Have you looked into this as well? That we’re not doing enough soft skills as too academic children shouldn’t be taught how they should be taught content, I suppose, interpret the contact.
Is it real? Is it fake? What’s this? How does it work and things like that? Cause we have, I mean, I don’t know about you Matthew, but when. We didn’t have the internet didn’t exist then, but it didn’t exist. It didn’t actually come out really until after I was, I think I might’ve been at university. No, it wasn’t actually something that was, we didn’t have as much content at our fingertips.
So we do now it was going back to the library and finding those books.
Yeah. I do think that, um, we are going to be facing. Skills challenges in the future. Um, and we’re having those same conversations here in the United States around how we can change education to elevate more real-world activities, to help students not only acquire content but apply content in their daily life.
You know, one common conversation is cell phones in schools often struggle with student-owned cell phones from a sort of classroom and school management standpoint. And. Cause a lot of trouble. They elevate bullying and isolate children a little bit more, but also I look around my office and every adult has a cell phone in their hand all day, every day.
If you took my cell phone away from me, I couldn’t do my job because I rely so heavily on internet access. I have to do my cell phone in order to do my job effectively and expeditiously. So I think, you know, how can we do things like. Leverage that cell phone in that child’s hand, instead of fighting against the cell phone, what if we taught them how to use that?
The way they’re going to have to use that in a competitive global market in the future? I think that post COVID, we have a great opportunity to really reform our schools, change teaching and learning for the better and increase opportunities like that. For.
I think that’s probably, I think he wrote about post-COVID.
That would be one of, that’d be some of, some of the positives that come and we do have a lot more data about how children are learning as well. It’s just sort of fast-tracked digital the digital world for the younger year. So that’s, I’m kind of slightly disappointed. I’ve got small children. He’s sort of disappointed that it’s fast-tracked them into.
The digital world, is so young, the communication processes. You know, it’s one of those things that is amazing. Fantastic, but it’s all those things as a parent, you know, and as a teacher, you sort of fighting all the time as a cake, but so it’s just, yeah, totally seeing the digital world is one of those amazing ones, but also you’re right.
We just need to learn how to embrace it in a certain way. And I think balance, we have to model balance for our kids and we know that healthy adults don’t spend all day on the internet that they take breaks and they have hobbies and outside real world tangible interests. We need to encourage that in our youth.
That’s very true. I think as a teacher I’d want one of those blocking agents that none of them, none of the cell phones could work. That wouldn’t be the most positive way to think about it, but it to be a good way just to stop them for about half an hour.
Sure, sure. Your occasional breaks are definitely necessary.
Well, you could send them all on WhatsApp saying, could you please look up now?
One of the social media, I don’t know. What’s the main one they use over there for children. Well, it would be WhatsApp line. There’s so many there’s, Snapchat.
Instagram is very popular here as well.
Or it could do a little dance at the front saying, are you watching now to see Matthew? Thank you so much for your time today now.
Let everyone know how to contact you. If they’re interested in speaking if they’re interested in courses, is there an interest in the repository? I know you also do a blog beyond the mean main us would say, so it’d be really good. If you could just let them know the best way to contact you. Would it be through our social networks or your website?
I guess the best way to contact me is through my website.
Thank you again. It’s been amazing and you’re making your message. You’re making, it’s making a massive difference to teachers around the globe, hopefully, especially in the USA and keep it up.
Well, thank you Heather out to talk to you again soon.
Thank you so much. There are so many exciting developments happening right now in education would love to hear from you. So do get in touch or subscribe to our podcast, which is available on Apple or Spotify tune in and so many others. This podcast series is brought to you by Heather welds for media edX education.
She’d like to say let’s create lifelong learners.