Parallel Parking: Using Data to Drive Classroom Instruction

Imagine driving on a narrow one-way street. Ahead is a car whose driver is attempting, unsuccessfully, to parallel park. You watch, helplessly, impatiently, as they inch closer to the curb. Still you cannot get by them until they are successful.

Our classrooms are designed like this one-way street. Students who have already mastered the concept on the blackboard are forced to watch as their peers inch closer to the answer. They cannot move forward until everyone else get it right. In this scenario, the teacher would be better off providing a lesson to only the students who need it.

The idea of targeted, data-driven instruction is not new. It’s how we learn to dribble a basketball and parallel park. But it is often overlooked by Gen-Ed classroom teachers.

Below, I propose a Teach-By-Numbers system, which allows educators to hold small-group instruction for those students who need it, and allows students who don’t need that instruction to move ahead on their own. (1)


1. Give Students a Complex Assessment

I define the word ‘complex’ as any assignment—formative or summative—that measures many concepts at once. An essay, for example, measures a student’s ability to write a thesis, create a compelling introduction, use correct grammar, utilize textual evidence, explain their line of reasoning, etc.

For the purpose of this example, I used the Advanced Placement Language Composition Exam Question 3 from 2007. Use an assessment that is right for your subject and grade level.

2. Grade Assessment to Find Data

Like many teachers, I find myself jotting the same comments on students’ papers, over and over. But in this system, instead of marking papers in the traditional sense, I make a list of common mistakes in my notebook. Then, when I grade their work, I write numbers in the margin, which correspond to the list of common mistakes I identified. See the two examples below. (2)

Imagine when I hand back the paper on the left. The student is overwhelmed. They don’t know where to start. In addition, they may only correct the areas which I have identified. They are not compelled to explore their writing.

Now imagine when I hand back the paper on the right. They ask questions. They investigate. They look closely. And in doing so, I’m prompting them to find mistakes on their own. Becoming a good writer involves becoming a good editor.

3. Use Data to Drive Instruction

Once I have a list of common mistakes, I create mini-lessons—no more than 15 minutes from start to finish—that focus on one topic and one topic only. In this example, here are the concepts that correspond to the numbers on the page

  1. Thesis Statement
  2. Passive Voice
  3. Analysis/Commentary

On the day I hand their papers back, I begin class by providing an independent activity to everyone – perhaps a silent reading session or a note-taking activity. Nothing too involved. Then, once the whole class is settled, I ask those who have a number “1” on their paper to come to the front of the room. I deliver small group instruction to those students, and check for understanding. (3) When I’m finished, I move on to “2” and “3”.

4. Use Instruction to Build a Digital Library

One exposure to a new concept is never enough. Sometimes it will take students months to master a new skill. We should not assume that because we created instruction based on data and delivered it in a small group, the process is done. We learn through practice and repetition.

With this in mind, I want my students to return back to these mini lessons again and again whenever they need to. To do this, I create videos of my slides and post them on YouTube. (This is easier than it sounds. You can use a Google Slides or PowerPoint and free video capture software.) Watch a video of my most recent mini lesson on Passive Voice for an example.

In the future, when students make the same mistakes (which they will), instead of teaching another small group instruction, I direct them to the appropriate video. Usually this is enough to jog their memory. If it isn’t, no big deal. I’ll reteach it to those who need more help.


(1) I make no claim to have ‘invented’ this process. It was developed from other, well-known pedagogies.

(2) I print my students’ papers and give them handwritten feedback. You can use Google Drive, Kami, or another digital platform to save paper.

(3) If you think calling students out by number might embarrass them, skip the in-class mini-lessons and make your videos first. Then, discreetly guide your students to the videos they need to watch.

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