Sunday / May 26

Three Remarkable System and School Improvement Practices, Part I: Prevention


In this three-part series, I write a lot about three of my favorite educational words and concepts: PREVENTION, INTERVENTION, and INTENTION. Each represents power-packed strategies that are a result of my research, evidence, and experience; they are the ‘how tos’ that finish incomplete, well-meaning educational advice telling us ‘what’ to do. In this series, Part 1 is PREVENTION: Data Walls Reveal ‘the Real Story’ of System, School and Student Performance; Part 2 is INTERVENTION: Case Management Meetings Provide System and School Knowledge-Building Forums; and Part 3 is INTENTION: System and School Learning Walks and Talks Answer: ‘How Do You Know All Students Are Achieving?”

Part 1: Prevention

Data Walls Reveal ‘the Real Story’ of System, School, and Student Performance

No students should ever ‘fall through the cracks’ having been missed, forgotten, or left behind because their teachers and leaders didn’t have avenues to collegial support. PREVENTION of not knowing how all students are doing is accomplished by ‘seeing’ students’ or schools’ FACES positioned on Data Walls and being able to take intentional action, urgently, whether students are underachieving, stuck or needing extending.

Parameter 1- Shared Belief and Understandings – projects the thinking that all students can learn given the right support; all teachers can teach given the right support; high expectations are critical and early and on-going intervention essential; and, teachers, students and leaders must articulate why they teach, learn, or lead the way they do. Given that we believe these things, it is a moral imperative to track and inquire about our progress right from the beginning of each term so that neither students nor teachers ever feel left behind. But what data sets to use and how should they be displayed? The answers to those questions come from examining what factors deliver the greatest impact for the teachers and leaders who create Data Walls of students’ and schools’ FACES (Sharratt & Fullan, 2009, 2012).


The impact of Data Walls comes from the notion that, when co-constructed, they become Questioning Walls, or Wondering Walls. They may present a stark reality, but very quickly begin to generate thinking and wondering about students; for example, “Why a student I taught last year seems to be falling behind this year?” Data Walls include two elements:

  1. Co-construction: building the data wall together is an opportunity for collaborative inquiry; and
  2. Conversations: talking about and questioning what is noticed on the Data Wall are intertwined.

Data Walls are living evidence that display students’ growth AND achievement – both are essential. They provide visual reminders that teachers and leaders must be reflective practitioners and pose questions about student learning and about impactful practice. And, because teaching is a practice, there is no one ‘right way’ to visually display the data. When Data Walls are co-constructed, teachers and leaders own the data and conversations about instruction result. That becomes a demonstration of equity and excellence in action. The most effective Data Walls are in discreet locations away from student and parent eyes – in places where teachers and leaders gather or pass by often and can stop to leave ‘sticky notes’ about their observations and questions. I have experienced many ingenious ways to keep the Data Walls and conversations private and focused on instructional needed for students that everyone is wondering about.

Capturing assessment data in a visual format marks an impressive leap of faith into uncharted territory for many educators; however, visual Data Walls raise questions about what can be done to assist teachers with their own instructional concerns about how to bring all students to the expected level and beyond.

Brave or courageous conversations are necessary and even braver commitments are needed to deal with many underlying issues in data that informs instruction. Sometimes getting to these conversations is a matter of putting the data on the wall; sometimes it takes courage to initiate intentional actions to mitigate concerns. Consistent, insistent, and persistent courage is required to move beyond guilt to discuss the next best ‘learning moves’ needed. The very early introduction of Operating Norms around creating and sustaining a Data Wall ensures that leaders and staff are intentional about mutual respect and that the Data Wall is seen as a valuable working tool, not a reporting tool.

Knowledgeable Others

Having a Knowledgeable Other as a conversation leader can reinforce the established operating norms and protocol; elicit conversations that otherwise might be lost or suppressed; and begin to move queries into formal Collaborative Inquiry processes using data as evidence. In Figure 1, Master Teacher, Penny Dewaele, is leading Professional Learning in front of her staff members’ co-constructed Data Wall. Dewaele begins every staff meeting with conversations at the Data Wall.

Figure 1: Using the Data Wall to Begin Every Professional Learning Meeting

Source: Principal Mona Anau, DDSWR, 2017 in CLARITY, Sharratt, L. Corwin 2019.

As Sue Walsh, pictured below says, the power of the Data Wall lies in the co-construction. It’s the whole system or school staff working together to determine:

  • how best to represent the data on the Data Wall;
  • what data should be included; and,
  • consistently naming and testing assumptions that any may have been making about aspects of the schools’ data.

Figure 2: Using the System Data Wall to Promote Rich Discussion About Improvement

Source: Sue Walsh, System Leader, 2018, in CLARITY, Sharratt, L. Corwin 2019.

Lessons Learned

  1. Location, Location, Location. In more than one case, the initial Data Wall has been located in the Principal’s office and established with no staff input. As a result, staff have little or no vested interest in the Data Wall, and when ‘done’, updating the data is predominately compliance-driven. Being in the principal’s office also means that parents and students are privy to the posted information. Three key considerations: 1. Privacy; 2. Con-construction; and, 3. Planned times when data sources as evidence are used to move students along the “wall of improvement”.
  2. Tracking, Monitoring, and Celebrating Growth. Leadership teams and teachers need to track students’ progress over time; add relevant descriptive information on student cards to know each FACE; develop collaborative professional inquiries about trends and patterns determined in the data; and share and celebrate ongoing learning about practice and small wins!
  3. Growth AND Achievement. If you just capture ‘achievement data’, then the Data Wall will quickly become ‘wallpaper’; if you capture growth AND achievement data, then the Wall will become a ‘living document’ of where students have been, where students are now, and where you expect them to be in a defined period of time – using agreed-upon high-impact instructional practices.
  4. It’s Not About the Size. Data Walls can capture all the students or be limited to the students you are most concerned about. Those students noted as being ‘of concern’ may have an additional stickie or QR Code attached where teachers record what they have collectively agreed to work on with these students.
  5. It’s Not Written in Stone. Just because staff make a decision to represent data in one way initially, doesn’t mean it has to stay that way forever. In order to track growth and achievement, whatever the format, the student information cards should move with the class to the next grade level, so that no information or time is lost at year-end.

In every region, system and school leaders and staffs are not only familiar with the students and schools represented on their Walls, but also actively monitor the personalization of their responses to ensure 100% of schools and students grow and achieve. They do this by identifying differentiated support, resourcing, and Professional Learning needed. My thinking about putting FACES on our data, through co-constructing Data Walls, and personalizing our responses to match the Data Wall information, leads me to think about Intervention. If Data Walls represent Prevention, Case Management Meetings represent Intervention, which will be discussed in Part 2 of this series on Remarkable System and School Improvement Practices.

For more information about Data Walls, see Lyn Sharratt’s website, or contact her on Twitter.


Sharratt, L. (2019). CLARITY: What Matters MOST in Learning, Teaching, and Leading. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Sharratt, L. (2008–2018). Learning walks and talks [Training materials]. Australia, Canada, Chile.

Sharratt, L., & Fullan, M. (2009). Realization: The change imperative for deepening district-wide reform. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Sharratt, L., & Fullan, M. (2012). Putting FACES on the data: What great leaders do! Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Sharratt, L., & Harild, G. (2015). Good to great to innovate: Recalculating the route to career readiness, K–12. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Sharratt, L., & Planche, B. (2016) Leading collaborative learning: Empowering excellence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Written by

Dr. Lyn Sharratt is a highly accomplished practitioner, researcher, author, and presenter. She holds a Doctorate from the University of Toronto and coordinates the doctoral internship program in the Leadership, Higher and Adult Education department at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Toronto, Canada. Lyn has worked in four school districts across Ontario as a school superintendent, superintendent of curriculum and instruction, administrator, curriculum leader, and teacher. Lyn has taught all elementary grades and secondary-aged students in inner-city and rural settings. She is lead author, with Michael Fullan, of Realization: The Change Imperative for Increasing District-Wide Reform (Corwin, 2009) and Putting FACES on the Data: What Great Leaders Do! (Corwin, 2012, published in English, Spanish, and Arabic). Lyn is lead author of Good to Great to Innovate: Recalculating the Route K–12, (Corwin, 2015) with Gale Harild, and of Leading Collaborative Learning: Empowering Excellence (Corwin, 2016) with Beate Planche. Lyn’s fifth book: CLARITY: What Matters MOST in Learning, Teaching, and Leading (Corwin, 2019) is currently ‘in press’. As well as an author and practitioner working in remote and urban settings worldwide, Lyn consults internationally, working with system, school, and teacher leaders at all levels in Australia, Canada, Chile, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Latest comments

  • Lyn – I agree entirely with you about the value of teachers being able to share, in a recurring, ongoing way, information with each other that will help to IDENTIFY student learning needs, about teachers being able to work collaboratively to ADDRESS those needs and about teachers working collaboratively to EVALUATE consequential student outcomes. And I can see the value of putting faces to data with regard to the students in focus. But I am very uneasy about using data walls as a means of displaying, contributing to or accessing sensitive student information. As a parent, I would insist that my children and I had the right to access any files that recorded information about my children as we too ‘own’ such information and I would demand that the confidential nature of such information was protected by the highest levels of security. I fear too that maintaining the currency, and hence the relevance, of such data walls would be impossibly time-consuming, not least for those involved in a multi-agency approach to supporting children, unless the processes involved were confined to those children who are most at risk. Every child is special, but sadly there is nothing like the amount of time available to ensure that every child is given special support – and there never will be.

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