School data tutorials

Educators today are expected to integrate the collection and analysis of student learning data into their ongoing instructional and organizational practice. Yet if you walked into almost any school in this country and asked how many teachers knew how to make a basic graph using spreadsheet software, you'd be lucky if a fourth of them raised their hands (and don't even bother asking the administrators!). So what can we do to help educators learn some basic technology skills that can help them track and monitor student learning progress over time?


CASTLE's School Data Tutorials web site was created to assist school districts and educational leadership preparation programs with the task of training K-12 educators to work with raw student and school data. The web site contains over 100 short Flash screencasts that walk educators through some Excel skills that are extremely helpful when working with classroom-, building-, or district-level data. Popular tutorials that are immediately useful to teachers and principals include

  • sorting
  • filtering
  • conditional formatting
  • pivot tables and charts
  • Most of the screencasts are only a minute or two long and can be watched a thousand times if necessary. This is extremely useful for educators who are not that tech-savvy and may not be able to keep up with the group during face-to-face training. The online availability also allows educators to return to the site later to review something if they forget what they learned previously.

    We have been getting tremendously positive feedback about this resource. Educators who previously saw no intersection of spreadsheets with their professional lives are contacting us, indignant that no one has ever showed them these skills previously. Comments like "I could have saved myself a lot of time" or "Now I have a way to do this easily" are extremely common. One of the reasons I think the tutorials are so well-received is because they're grounded in the important, real-life, data-driven decision-making needs of teachers and administrators (as opposed to the generic, context-less Excel training that occurs in many school systems).

    This summer we added a section to the site that walks educators through the steps of creating their own data collection templates. This section, which is not quite as polished as the rest of the site (e.g., I think you can hear my in-laws' computer's aquarium screensaver in the background!), contains examples for principals, teachers, and grade-level teams. In the coming months, we will upload additional examples of templates that are being used in schools across the country.

    The tutorials currently are being used in schools, districts, and university preparation programs across the nation. I encourage you to check out the site (maybe you'll learn something helpful!) and to spread the word about this resource. We created it to help build some capacity in school systems. Right now data analysis expertise resides primarily in central office research and assessment departments - we need more knowledge in our buildings and classrooms.

    More information is available at the web site if you'd like to know more about this resource or our critical partners. Any feedback or suggestions that you have are extremely welcome - simply comment on this post!

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    New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

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    • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
    • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
    • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

    Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

    A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

    Rethinking humanity's origin story

    The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

    David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

    The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

    Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

    He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

    It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

    "Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

    Migrating out of Africa

    In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

    Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

    The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

    The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

    Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

    Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

    Did we head east or south of Eden?

    Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

    Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.