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Reflections on Visible Learning

Yesterday I was pleased to join nearly 300 area teachers and school leaders for a GRREC-sponsored, day-long session with Professor John Hattie and his colleagues from Corwin Press to explore concepts laid out his book Visible Learning and other publications.  The day was extremely informative and thought provoking, and I wanted to quickly note some of the key points I'm taking away for reflection.

You can follow the Twitter chatter from session participants using the hashtag #GRRECVL.

I was familiar with the essence of Hattie's work, but this was my first time to hear it directly from him.  According to Hattie, visible learning is "when teachers see learning through the eyes of their students and help students become their own teachers."  The strategies that make up visible learning emerge from Hattie's decades-long research analyzing the effect sizes of a wide variety of educational interventions. 

The challenge of educational research, according to Hattie, is that nearly everything "works."  In other words, research shows positive effects from practically every single instructional intervention that is attempted with intentionality.  But just because a research study reveals that a strategy made a statistically significant improvement in student achievement does not mean that all strategies are equally effective.  Thus, we sh0uld focus on the "effect size" revealed in all the collected research on a strategy, which is a measure of how powerful the impact of an intervention is on student learning.

To cite one of the easiest examples (because it gets so much attention), reducing class size does, in fact, help student learning, but in a list of 150 possible influences on student achievement ranked by effect size, class size comes in at 113.  It's not that class size isn't important; rather, we can get far bigger improvements in student learning by focusing on some of the more powerful interventions at the top of the list.

These include strategies like the effective use of response to intervention (RtI), formative assessment, classroom discussion, and providing students rich, descriptive, actionable feedback on their progress, among others

I don't want to say too much about the list of strategies, since readers can (and should) explore visible learning for themselves, other than to say it is gratifying to see affirmation for a lot of the work I've personally pursued and promoted with teachers and school leaders over the last 10 years.

Instead, I want to note a couple of ideas that struck me while listening to and reflecting on what Hattie and his colleagues shared.

First, I see Hattie's work as an invitation for teachers and school leaders to engage deeply and thoughtfully with educational research and to reflectively apply it to their own school situations

If schools simply took the list of interventions, crossed off the bottom 100 strategies that have the lowest effect sizes, and blindly threw themselves into implementing the highest-ranked strategies with little thought for their own context, I believe it would be a gross misuse of this work.  In fact, I think this is the antithesis of what Hattie himself wants, because he has repeatedly lamented the tendency of educational research to de-professionalize the work of teaching.

An example: in his presentation Hattie noted that problem-based learning has a relatively low effect size when all the existing literature on the strategy is considered (.15, ranked 128 out of 150).  But this is explained, in part, when we consider that many teachers attempt to use problem-based learning as a mechanism for introducing new concepts.  Hattie went on to note that when students already have a fairly solid foundation in the content being studied, problem-based learning becomes a much more powerful tool for engaging them in higher-ordered thinking and reflection.

So how a strategy is used can make all the difference in its impact.  In this way, I would just suggest that if you are interested in pursuing a particular intervention in your school or your classroom, even if it is relatively low on Hattie's list of effect sizes, that's okay.  Just immerse yourself in the existing research literature on the topic (recruit a pinhead academic from the university - like yours truly and his colleagues - if you need help interpreting the studies) and figure out what pitfalls to avoid, when to use the strategy, and what other variables you need to consider in order to make it most effective.

Which leads me to my second, troubling observation: Hattie's own estimation that 95% of existing education research examines surface-level student learning.  In other words, the thousands of research studies that make up the body of literature reviewed in Hattie's work examined student learning experiences that only required surface-level thinking.  Because that's the vast bulk of what is happening in our classrooms most days.

This is a pretty terrible indictment of our work as educators, and I think there is probably great truth in his observation, but beyond that sad judgment, what is the practical significance of that truth?

Is it possible that the visible learning research just points us toward how to become more effective at getting students to learn and regurgitate more surface-level information?  Looking at Hattie's high-impact strategies, it's hard to imagine that student learning wouldn't be at least marginally deeper as a result of engaging in rich classroom discussions, self-reflecting on their learning, receiving descriptive feedback they can use to improve, using meta-cognitive techniques, etc.

But even if visible learning improves student achievement, the question still lingers: does all  this simply prop up a learning system that leaves students basically lacking key skills in creativity, critical thinking, and especially independence and self-motivation?

Many readers know I've recently become intensely interested in various models of personalized learning.  Yet, "Student control over learning" was one of the lowest-impact strategies on Hattie's list, with an effect size of .04, which is virtually meaningless.  When I asked Hattie about this, he said that this is because the popular notion that the teacher should become "a guide on the side" is "rubbish."  Kids need teachers to instruct, he said, and provide lots of direction on what to learn and how to learn it.

And yet, I think in that moment Professor Hattie may have forgotten what he said moments before about the vast majority of the research being focused on surface level learning.  (To be fair, if you haven't heard Hattie speak before, he is prone to making somewhat exaggerated generalizations in order to make a larger point. Having the tendency toward hyperbolic rhetoric in my own speaking and writing, I sympathize with Hattie - and with the confusion and frustration this can cause in his readers/listeners).

I haven't yet delved into the studies on giving students control of their own learning that Hattie examined in his book, but I have a strong suspicion that within a traditional school context where students have no control over any significant portion of their learning, conducting limited experiments in giving them little dabs of autonomy probably does yield meager results (and contradicts other - admittedly limited - evidence that students can actually learn a great deal when given far more control over the process).

What we need - and Hattie acknowledged this in response to a question in his opening keynote yesterday - is a lot more research on what works to shape certain "non-academic" student dispositions like self-reliance, self-motivation, creativity, and teamwork around solving complex, real-world problems.  And we need educators who are willing to challenge the conventional ways that we structure schools, experiment with alternatives, and give researchers a place to study what deep learning really looks like, whether directed by teachers or students themselves.

Traditional schooling rests on the question, "What do we want students to learn?"  And then we design schools (and curricula) in response. 

What if instead we began with the question, "What kinds of people do we want students to become?" and then design the curriculum - and the school - around that much larger question?  (Which, I admit, is actually complementary to the first question; but where you begin the thought process makes a huge difference).

If we did, we might find that very different learning strategies work far more effectively than in the current context.

At any rate, John Hattie and his colleagues have given us a feast for thought, and educators would do well to carefully study their work - and the research upon which it rests.  But do so thoughtfully, critically, and with an eye toward how we make school work for kids - emotionally, psychologically, and socially, and not just academically.


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