Shoot Your Data: 5 Kinds of Photos That Reveal More Than Numbers

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Via Flickr creative commons
Via Flickr creative commons

It took just one relentless bout of the flu to remind me of the power of empirical evidence and the importance of shooting data. More than numbers, it was the evidence gleaned from my experiences and the images that I gathered along the way that helped my doctor solve the riddle that was delaying my recovery.

My kids thought I was crazy, but I took some photos to save the evidence, and my doctor appreciated this. Gross? Absolutely. Helpful? Definitely! The doctor said that the pictures inspired him to take a different approach in my treatment.

“Good data gathering,” he joked, and I smiled, recalling one of my greatest pet peeves: educators and parents who rant about their disdain for this very important work.

To listen to some, you’d think data are only numbers that shady reformers crunch in order to cash in on imaginary problems created by incompetent teachers. This is a dangerous assumption. The fact is that data are information that matter, and if they don’t matter or if the conclusions we reach aren’t helping us solve important problems, then we need to change the data we’re collecting and the way we approach analysis. After all, isn’t it a bit silly to blame data for our own faulty decision making?

It appeared that I was having some kind of allergic reaction. We still couldn’t be certain, though. So, the doctor tinkered a bit with my treatment plan, asked me to gather some other kinds of data, and I practiced patience while he developed some new hunches.

I’m feeling a lot better now, and one must wonder just how large a role shooting the data played in my recovery.

In fact, some of the best data that we collect are also empirical in nature. In the past, these data came in the form of anecdotal records, written reflections, and notes from observation. Powerful stuff to be sure, but these data are often overwhelming to wade through. Sadly, this is one of the reasons why we rely on numbers far too often–they’re easier to deal with and give us quick (and all too often false) confidence.

This is why I encourage teachers to take pictures–lots of them. The types of pictures we take matter, and we refine our approach as we go, depending on what we want to learn.

See for yourself. Keep your cell phone handy the next time you lead a lesson, and try shooting your data. Here are a few kinds of photos that might uncover what numbers cannot.

5 Kinds of Photos That Reveal More Than Numbers

Shots that reveal what learners are thinking
Shots that capture knowledge of content and also reveal what learners are thinking
Shots that illustrate how learners choose to create and produce things.
Shots that illustrate how learners create and produce things
Shots that capture unexpected approaches
Shots that capture unexpected approaches
Shots that show what learners are proud of
Shots that show what learners are proud of
Shots that illuminate moments of connection, collaboration, or engagement
Shots that demonstrate connection, collaboration, or engagement

Photos like these are data too, and so much can be learned by analyzing them, particularly when you capture multiple shots relevant to a particular question or curiosity. Shooting your data will bring what works about your instruction into sharp relief fast. It will also help you notice what must be changed–immediately.

The teachers I work with will tell you that capturing this kind of data is incredibly efficient. They don’t need to disrupt learning with testing in order to gather important evidence, and somehow, photos evoke memories and stories upon review, deepening the details we glean upon analysis. Pictures are perfect catalysts for reflection, too. Ask your students to write about what they notice as they review the photos you take. Invite them to take their own. Let your students gather their own data and lead your analyses.

As you begin shooting your data, consider housing them in a photo sharing space, where others can analyze them. I use flickr and Instagram for these purposes, but I wonder how Pinterest could work as well. Apps like these top my list of productivity tools and ruined my love affair with spreadsheets.

If you try this, let me know. I’d be happy to take a peek at your pictures and share what I’m noticing with you. Inviting an outside reviewer into the process can be very powerful. I’d love to talk shop with those who are doing similar work and share some of my photo sets with you as well.

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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at

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