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Monday / January 22

#AnnualVL2015: Reflections on Day One

Contributed by Gary Houchens

This post was originally published on School Leader.

AVL 2015I’m delighted to be attending the Annual Visible Learning Conference in San Antonio, Texas, sponsored by Corwin Press, with a contingent of Kentucky educators from the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative(GRREC). (Update: See reflections on Day Two here.)

Visible Learning is associated with the work of John Hattie, who describes this approach to education as “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 conference features Hattie as a keynote presenter, along with a host of other Corwin authors also associated with his work.  This post will capture my thoughts at the end of the first day of the conference.

We were privileged to have Hattie and his colleagues in Bowling Green at a GRREC-sponsored event last February (you can read my reflections on that event here).  I was pleased that in Hattie’s opening keynote today he picked up with some of the key concerns I shared with readers after his February talk in Kentucky.

Hattie noted in February that the vast majority of learning in schools issurface level – because that’s how we teach and assess our students.  At the same time, he seemed to speak disparagingly about “deeper” learning strategies like problem-based learning and giving students choice in the learning process.  I observed that, to maximize the power of Hattie’s work, teachers and should leaders should carefully study the original research as itapplies to particular contexts and the impact of how a strategy is used.

In his keynote this morning, Hattie expounded upon this issue in a way that finally made sense to me.  He discussed how we need to be striving for a much greater balance between acquisition of surface-level knowledge and deeper processing skills.  Schools should be criticized for over-emphasizing surface-level learning (though this is a product of what standardized tests really measure).  But likewise, today’s educational innovators should be careful not to also over-emphasize “21st century thinking skills” in the absence of meaningful content knowledge.

“If students are going to think deeply, they must have something to think deeply about,” Hattie said.  He presented a framework that categorized various instructional and intervention strategies along a continuum of learning that starts with the introduction of new knowledge (surface) then proceeds to deep acquisition and consolidation of knowledge – all geared toward helping students transfer that new learning to new contexts and situations (a skill that is virtually unaddressed in most schools).

He offered examples like memorization – a skill that is highly-frowned upon today – but noted that memorization is an excellent technique for embedding new information into memory; but if the student does not move immediately into deep processing of that new information, the value is minimal.  Likewise, higher-ordered activities like problem-based learning are often ineffective when students are lacking sufficient content knowledge, but for the purpose of deep consolidation of information and transfer – it is a powerful tool.

This perspective addresses a problem I have been struggling with recently – how to find a balance between curriculum (what we learn) and pedagogy (how we learn it).  My dismay with the one-size-fits all, factory model of American education calls for a new pedagogy (how), but still requires effective methods for imparting meaningful content (what).   (See my recent post on the perceived tension between classical education curriculum and the Montessori Method).

Hattie’s framework actually gives educators stronger leverage to personalize learning – by directing our attention on students wherever they are; at any given time, some of them need surface learning, some need deep processing, and almost all of them need to learn the skill of transfer.

Later in the morning, I heard Ainsley Rose present Viviane Robinson’s research on the impact of education leadership on student outcomes (Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008).  Robinson and her colleagues identified five leadership behaviors that impact student learning:

  • Establishing goals and expectations (Effect Size: .42) – articulating a vision of improvement and both short- and long-term goals for how to achieve the vision
  • Strategic resourcing (Effect Size .31) – marshaling human, physical, and financial resources to support the vision.
  • Planning, coordinating, and evaluating teaching and the curriculum (Effect Size .42)
  • Promoting and participating in teacher learning and development (Effect Size .84)
  • Ensuring an orderly and supportive environment (.27) – student discipline and creating a positive climate and culture

Note that principals being actively engaging with teachers in learning and evaluating new instructional strategies is twice as powerful as the next strongest two behaviors.  Also note that the “managerial” behaviors associated with resource allocation and student discipline are the lowest.  But Rose emphasized that, despite these effect sizes, from a practical standpoint principals should approach these practices in the order listed above.  Vision comes first, followed by marshaling resources around that vision, followed by working actively with teachers in planning and evaluating curriculum and teaching, followed by engaging in new learning.  And then a supportive and orderly environment will just about take care of itself.

In the afternoon I had to come late to another session facilitated by Ainsely Rose, Peter DeWitt, and Kara Vandas.  These presenters highlighted the linkages between Visible Learning and instructional coaching – a topic I’vewritten about previously as a powerful strategy for principals to actually carry out the third and fourth practices outlined by Robinson et al. above.

Finally, I’m listening to Yong Zhao deliver the afternoon keynote on the five myths about technology and education.  He’s been highlighting the poor track record of American schools in leveraging technology for improving student achievement, and how technology must be used to help personalize student learning and pursue new knowledge.

In summary, I’m so pleased that today’s workshops have connected the dots for several of the topics I’ve been studying and wrestling with in my own work.  It seems that Visible Learning could provide a meaningful framework for linking the many seemingly disconnected initiatives taking place in many of our area schools.

UPDATE: Regarding the five leadership practices Ainsley Rose shared via Viviane Robinson: it occurs to me that we need to map these in our administration program at the university.  I’m quite confident we address all five practices, but it might be possible to do so with much greater intention and thoughtfulness and embed them in every course.



Gary Houchens

Gary Houchens is a former teacher, assistant principal, principal, and school district administrator. He now serves as associate professor of educational administration, leadership, and research at Western Kentucky University and coordinator of WKU’s school principal certification program. He regularly conducts research and writes about instructional leadership and school policy, facilitates professional development, and provides other services to schools and districts.

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