What Do Cat Herding and Data Conversations Have in Common?

A principal who I REALLY admire reached out to me recently with an interesting question.

She’s working with a group of teachers who are working to earn a degree in school administration.  In an upcoming class, she wants to get her students to think about the role that data can play in driving decision-making in schools.

“How would YOU start that conversation?” she asked.

That’s an easy one:  Regardless of audience, early conversations about using data to inform practice in schools should start with a careful study of cat herding:

(You DID watch the video, right?  If not, go back and do that now!  The rest of this post is pointless until you watch the video!)

Now at the risk of boring you with the obvious, here are three of my favorite reasons that cat herding is the perfect starting point for conversations about using data to inform practice in schools:  

Teachers — like unpredictable cats running from the herd — can take off in a thousand directions whenever we start conversations about using data to inform instruction.  Seeing dozens of cats running in dozens of directions can be a reminder that we need to slow down, focus our efforts and move as one if we are ever going to succeed.

There are literally a million different data sources that can inform our practices in schools.  If we try to chase them all, we are bound to fail — and to exhaust ourselves in the process.  That’s a lesson that is easy to learn from cat herders.

Inevitably, someone gets “scratched” when we use data to inform practice in schools.  It might be a struggling teacher who is intimidated by sharing results with their peers.  It might be the poor soul charged with facilitating a data conversation on an explosive learning team.  But scratches ARE going to happen.

It’s a great metaphor, right?

And my guess is that if you turn any room full of educators loose, they can probably come up with a ton of other similarities between data conversations and cat herding.  Better yet, my guess is that if you turn your audience loose with that metaphor, they will have a lot of fun with each other.

And THAT’s the lesson worth learning:  Using data in schools can feel pretty darn intimidating to teachers — particularly in a world where data is used to shame teachers and label schools.

Cat herding, on the other hand, is just plain funny.  Using cat herding as a starting point for data-informed decision-making in schools can get people to let their guard down and relax.





Related Radical Reads:

Numbers Never Tell the Whole Story

Is Standardized Testing Changing Me for the Worse?

Your Data Dream.  My Data Nightmare.

5 thoughts on “What Do Cat Herding and Data Conversations Have in Common?

  1. Greg Geeer

    I have been a long time lurker of your blog. I often use this advertisement in my classes. It is such a great metaphor for much of the work educational leaders, no matter the hat they are wearing, are doing.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      I’m with you, Greg!

      I use the Cat Herders to talk about everything. It’s a good metaphor for technology integration efforts too.

      And thanks for lurking — always jazzed to know that there are people out there who actually read what I write!

      Rock on,

  2. Josh Curnett (@joshcurnett)

    It’s funny, but I think the word itself–data–puts a lot of educators off the trail, as it were. (Hilarious video, by the way.) I think that the educator above is accurate, too: it’s the way we discuss data, not the data itself, that’s important. I also think it’s important (like a cowboy who herds cats, perhaps) to be intentional about the conversation. In other words, we teachers will dodge, duck, dip, dive . . . and dodge to avoid discussing exactly how, what, and when our kids are learning. However . . . if the facilitator can have the data ready and the questions prepared, then we have a shot. Those fundamental questions which lie down deep in the foundation of teacher collaboration, student learning, and equity . . . those are the ones which should be the gears to turn the data discussions. “What did you want your kids to learn?” and “How did you know they learned?” and “What standards are you working towards?” and “How are you closing the achievement gap?” are the questions which drive data discussions; it’s not the other way around, right?

    As always, Bill, thanks for getting me thinking.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Josh,

      What’s so awesome about the questions at the bottom of your comment is that they are so flippin’ rippin’ easy to ask. There should be NOTHING intimidating about conversations — or actions or collaborations — centered around those questions.

      That’s what I push PLCs to remember always: This work isn’t complicated. It might be hard, but it ain’t complicated.

      Hope you are well, by the way!

  3. alimcollins

    I have done a lot of work sharing data with both educators AND parents. I think the key is the CONVERSATION and not the data.

    It’s a lot like what you say about technology. Tech alone is worthless–you have to think about what you want students to learn. Data is the same–it’s great for grounding conversations if you think first about the conversations you want to have and then limit the amount of data to allow real dialogue to develop. People need to feel like there is space to explore what the data means to them, how changes over time, breaks down by subgroup.

    Most important, there needs to be space to ask questions about how the data confirms what we already know or refutes it. Also, what data is missing? If you don’t allow folks to explore it and wrestle with analyzing it you loose the opportunity to use data to educate and inform. In fact, you can end up alienating teachers and making them think only “experts” are allowed to analyze it.

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