Shoot Your Data and Then, Zoom In: Five Questions to Focus Your Analysis

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A picture is worth a thousand words, and when it comes to collecting data, photos often reveal far more than numbers ever can. I’ve written about this previously. Shoot your data, and then, zoom in to discover things you may not have noticed about learners otherwise.

This work can begin with a simple commitment to keep your cell phone charged, powered on, and in your pocket as you teach. The pictures you snap may be relevant to a particular research question, but I don’t always have one. Interestingly enough, letting go of the need of for a question widens my vision a bit, and I think this is making me a better teacher. I simply dedicate myself to capturing a handful of photos during each session, and then, I throw them in a folder on my desktop or I upload them to Flickr. Here’s an example of how that can look.

Then, I start to zoom in, and when I do? Well, I learn things I didn’t expect to.

Over the last four years, I’ve taken thousands of data points using my cell phone camera without ever disrupting learning. These photos tell so many incredible stories. I cluster them according to the first themes that emerge. I shuffle them around and cluster them again as different ones rise to the surface.

My hunches are shaped by what I see, and what I see depends on how I approach looking.

Interested in trying this approach yourself?

Shoot some photos of your own, and study them beside one another. Look for emerging themes. For example, these photos share a few things in common, and at one point, they were clustered together in my files. What trends do you notice in these data?

Here’s what I noticed immediately:

  • The sticky notes
  • The diversity of tools that these writers were using
  • Movement: kids standing, moving sticky notes around, pointing, turning away from their drafts to do other things, working beside and with one another, sharing ideas or building off of those posted by others

I could share more of my thinking here, but I think you get the gist.

When you study these photos, you might notice something different. To some extent, what we choose to photograph and what we notice upon review is a reflection of who we are. Sure, the photos I take help me learn more about writers. They also help me understand more about myself as well, though. I shoot what matters to me. I see what I find most compelling.

Zooming in reveals even more.

Break a single photo into pieces, and study each piece in isolation. What does doing this help you notice? What does it make you wonder? Take a peek at this original photo:

DSCN3641 - Copy (3)

And now, break the photo into pieces and zoom in on the details. What more can be learned by studying an image one small bit at a time? What stories do photos like these tell? What questions do they raise? How do they inspire us to wonder more, look beyond grades, and study learning differently?

How can photos like these enrich “data-driven” dialogue:

Consider focusing your analysis with these six questions:

1. When I look at this image, what do I notice first?

2. What does this image suggest about the strengths of learners?

3. What does this image suggest about what learners are ready to do next?

4. What aspects of this image seem insignificant?

5. How does this image validate what other data suggest?

6. How does this image challenge what other data suggest?

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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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