Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Cutting through the Fog of Student Improvement

I recently had the opportunity to spend two days working with  and listening to John Hattie and his team at Visible Learning unpacking his research on what has the greatest impact on student achievement.

Hattie's research on "Visible Learning" has garnered world wide recognition and is being referenced as a vehicle for cutting through the fog of school improvement.

Before going any further, Hattie himself made a point of highlighting some of the "limitations" of his research. For example, Hattie's work strictly deals with student achievement in the academic domain.  His research does not deal with student well-being in the affective domain (social and emotional learning). Nor does it address the spiritual domain of student well-being.  Any educator, school or district looking to implement Hattie's work needs to understand the potential "limiting" context of this work.

So what DOES "work" in improving student achievement?

According to Hattie, the research demonstrates that 95% of what teachers do has some sort of positive impact on achievement. In other words almost everything "works".

Hattie suggests that we shouldn't ask what "works" in improving achievement but rather what is most effective in improving achievement.

The following are some of teacher interventions that have the greatest impact:

According to Hattie: "feedback works when a culture of error and mistakes are welcome." Feedback to students is most effective when the learning is appropriately challenging and raises expectations.
Feedback can have both a positive and negative impact on achievement. The best and most effective feedback needs to be "just in time, just for me and delivered when and where it can do most good" and must come from both teacher and student. 

In general, feedback falls into four categories: self praise, task orientated (how is the new task being performed), process orientated (feedback regarding process underlying the task) and self-regulation (feedback that supports learner to regulate and monitoring actions toward achieving goal)

During the workshop, we were given an opportunity to "give feedback" and to examine different types of feedback. My general observations is that as the person giving feedback you need to have a certain degree of expertise in the topic you are giving feedback on - it helps to have some sort experience with the material - for the feedback to be helpful. Also, "task" orientated feedback is usually given when introducing new material. As the learner becomes more familiar the different levels of feedback given do not fall in a linear sequential pattern. The various types of feedback vary according to the situation.

The bottom line? Giving varied feedback takes awareness and deliberate practice. We need to aware of the different types of feedback and more importantly, we need to equip ourselves and our students with capacity to effectively use the appropriate type of feedback for any given situation. Of course, quality feedback is rooted in level of trust in the relationship.

It should be noted that this concepts can also be applied to how we provide feedback to each other as professional educators!

Meta Cognition
Meta-cognition is essentially the skill of thinking about thinking. The research reveals that learners that can take control of learning and self regulate themselves improves achievement.

Teachers need to deploy both cognitive and meta-cognitive strategies with students.  By comparison, cognitive (thinking) interventions are related to the learning process that enable learners to make progress. Meta - cognitive interventions are related to the self management of learning skills - enabling learners to control progress

At the heart of this "impact" is the idea that teachers (and students) need to model meta cognitive strategies in their own learning. It is also clear that meta cognitive strategies can be taught and can be applied across learning areas.

In needs to be noted that these meta-cognitive strategies are not taught as an "add on" but rather within related content/subject areas.
The following is a link to how meta-cognition  can be used in an elementary school language arts class.

Teacher as Evaluator: Capturing Student Voice
An important teacher "mindframe" that Hattie identifies is "teacher as evaluator". 

Teachers must be primary concerned with understanding their impact on student learning on a daily basis.  A teacher needs to answer: How am I doing? Where to next?  How am I going to get there?

To get an accurate picture of their impact,  a teacher must capture authentic student voice.

How many schools actually ask students, teachers and parents "What does learning at our school look like?"

During the workshop we were presented with a few examples where entire school communities engaged in a school wide goal of determining student attitudes toward feedback and learning.

It was fascinating to observe examples of  how school communities went through the process of creating a common language around learning, teaching and feedback - a worthwhile and powerful process for sure!

Assessment Capable Learners & Teacher Expectations
The research reveals that students are very good at predicting their achievement level - which affirms the use of self assessments in the classroom. Furthermore students in classes where teachers raise expectations, beyond what the students believe they can do, and provide necessary supports to reach those expectations, do better.

The bottom line is that in any given class, students (& teachers) should be able to answer "where am I going? How am I doing? Where to next?

Collective teacher efficacy
Student achievement improves when when teachers work together to make each other better. From planning for instruction and assessment -  to teachers should NOT be working alone

Learning Criteria & Teacher Clarity
Teacher clarity of instruction and clear and transparent criteria improves student achievement.  Achievement improves when students are clear of the learning intentions and success criteria. (Learning intentions are the learning goals of the lesson. Success criteria are related to the what the learner must demonstrated at the end of the lesson.)  The clearer and transparent the learning intentions and success criteria, the greater the achievement. In the same way, the use of "exemplars" are extremely effective in this capacity.

Response to Intervention
This is a model of instruction where specific and varied interventions by teachers have a positive impact on student achievement. Watch this video  for a quick reference to RTI

Teacher Knowing Student prior knowledge
The research reveals that 60-70% of what teachers teach the students already know. Teachers must be very diligent in getting an accurate read of students prior knowledge or they run the risk of disengaging most of their students.

Other Interesting Revelations:

The research reveals that homework has little positive impact on achievement at the elementary level.  It does have a relatively greater positive impact at the high school level.   When combined, homework does have some benefit in improving achievement but not a significant one.

The overall effect of school leadership on achievement, is not huge.  Further exploration reveals that leaders who mostly focus their energies towards being instructional leaders does have a positive impact on achievement.

Class Size:
The research reveals the class size is not a significant indicator of student achievement.  This topic elicited some conversation and questioning.  On a personal level, I believe that effective teachers are those that can establish strong relationships with their students.  It is far more challenging to establish relationships and respond to the individual needs of your students in a class of 35 than a class of 25.

The salient point of the research, however,  is that teachers in smaller classes DID NOT change their teaching practices  to reflect the smaller sizes!  Teachers in classes of 20 taught the same as when they had classes of 35!

Boys & Girls
Hattie suggested that schools that spend time exploring how boys learn different from girls are spending time answering the wrong question!  The research reveals that difference in achievement levels is minimal and not worth the energy. 

Learning Styles
Hattie was clear on this topic. Teaching to different  learning styles is "nonsense".  There is no evidence to support that it increases achievement. 

Problem Based Learning
Problem based learning has a positive effect on student achievement provided students have a have a solid base of subject knowledge

Technology itself does not improve achievement.  Technology used to enhance meta-cognition, feedback,  problem solve and think critically has greater capacity to improve achievement.  In other words, technology needs to be seen as more than a tool for accessing information (the 21st century textbook)

Implications Moving forward:

A couple of quotes that resonate with me:

Visible learning and teaching occurs when teachers see learning through the eyes of students and when teachers help student become their own teachers
When observing classes, do not watch teachers teach, but rather watch students learning, through the eyes of students...

As I continue to absorb Hattie's work and it's implications for our school system, I am left thinking about how this research can inform our school, teacher and principal growth planning/ evaluation systems.

Lots to think about and still figuring it out....


  1. Thanks Johnny - this is a very useful summary. I was particularly interested in the thinking around gender. I saw a speaker at UBC last week that made a similar comment - saying that there is no boys achievement crisis but there are serious concerns with the achievement of certain populations of boys (e.g. Aboriginal). I really appreciate you sharing this summary with us.

    Chris Kennedy

  2. Thanks Chris. Hattie's work continues to intrigue me and push my thinking. It would be interesting to see a comparable body of work in the affective domain intersect with Hattie's work. As always I appreciate you reading, commenting and sharing

  3. Thanks so much for this post, John. I really enjoyed it. Ever thought about writing a "Coles Notes" version of the book? Anyway, I have a few thoughts:

    1. "Creating a culture where error and mistakes are welcome." I find this incredibly difficult to foster. Why are students so afraid to take risks?

    2. "What does learning at our school look like." I want to talk about this! How many times have I had a serious conversation about this with peers and administrators?

    3. "Common language about learning." I want to talk about this! How many serious conversations have I had with my peers about this?

    Thanks again for the excellent post. More, please.