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Friday / March 23

#AnnualVL2015: Reflections on Day Two

Contributed by Gary Houchens

This post was originally published on School Leader.

AVL 2015_2Today was the second and concluding day of the Corwin Press Annual Visible Learning conference featuring the work of John Hattie and associated authors.  You can read my reflections on Day One here.

The day began with a wide-ranging keynote presentation from Douglas Fisher on “Better Learning Through Structured Teaching.” Based on his book by the same title, the presentation provided an overview of Fisher’s framework for gradual release of responsibility.  Fisher focused primarily on the first phase of the process, focused instruction, in which new information is introduced to students.

Of most interest to me was the great emphasis he placed on clear learning objectives.  Students must know what they are learning in each class and how they’ll know if they mastered it.  His comments resonated with the condition I find in most Kentucky schools.  Educators know that we need to post learning targets for each lesson.  But in many classrooms, the effort stops there.  The targets are often not clear or well developed, the teacher rarely references the target in the lesson, and students are often quite oblivious to the real goal of their learning or how it will be assessed.

And without that foundation, none of the other steps in the structured teaching process make much sense.  So I think this points us directly toward a lot of work that remains to be done in area schools around further deconstructing standards, developing new learning targets (sequenced into learning progressions; see James Popham’s work on this), and then coaching teachers around the effective use of learning targets in the instructional process.

Later, I attended a great session with Raymond and Julie Smith, authors ofEvaluating Instructional Leadership.  If the spirit of Visible Learning is that teachers should know their impact, it’s essential that school principals should also know their impact on student learning.  This is no easy task, since research shows us that the leader’s influence on student outcomes, while real, is indirect and mediated through his/her interactions with teachers.  The Smiths provided some excellent tools for leaders to identify practices associated with larger school improvement efforts that can become a basis for gathering data and then correlating that data with changes in both teaching practice and student achievement.

After lunch, a whole hosts of Corwin authors came together for a panel discussion.  They discussed many topics, including how district leaders can encourage Visible Learning, how teachers without administrative support can pursue Visible Learning, etc.  The discussion veered toward policy questions and I heard a lot of negativity from the panel about the over-emphasis on testing and our rather crude accountability structures that make it harder for teachers to focus on important improvements in classroom-level instruction.

To my point of view, Douglas Fisher had the best response when he basically said that testing will simply take care of itself if we attend to the work of Visible Learning without getting distracted by the larger policy issues.  This seems right to me.  As I’ve written before, we got into this testing regime because of long-standing, unjust achievement gaps.  The public has a right to know how much kids are learning, and while testing may be a limited measure, it’s a useful measure when used properly.  And besides that, if you have a strong instructional vision that is based on research and good practice, the tests can be a secondary priority.

One of the most immediately practical sessions of the conference came from a presentation by Jennifer Abrams, author of Having Hard Conversations. For many of the aspiring and practicing administrators I work with, the hardest part of their jobs is dealing with difficult situations that require hard conversations with colleagues, teachers, or other staff.  In general, I don’t find a lot of great examples in the field of school leaders who are especially good at this.

My sense is that these hard conversations require a degree of emotional courage that is extremely hard to muster in conflict-ridden situations.  Abrams helped articulate the reasons we hesitate and struggle to generate this emotional courage, but even better she provided several excellent resources for helping discern when to have a hard conversation, how to prepare for it, and even quick scripts to help structure the conversation itself.  These tools will be immediately useful in my administrator preparation classes and for the principals I coach.

But the most interesting portion of the conference for me came in John Hattie’s closing keynote at the end of the day in which he discussed the kinds of fundamental changes that must take place in structure of schooling itself to support Visible Learning.  From a recent paper he wrote on “The Politics of Distraction,” Hattie outlined five popular “distractions” that get in the way of seriously scaling up student achievement, including various schemes for reducing class size, increasing school autonomy, increasing school funding, revamping teacher training. etc.

Hattie was careful to say these things are NOT unimportant (and indeed, I would argue that some of the “distractions” – like school choice – are goods in and of themselves regardless of student achievement).  Rather, when it comes to student learning outcomes, right now the body of empirical research literature cannot establish any large-scale link between these ideas and achievement.  We can, however, draw empirical links between the instructional and learning strategies that are proven to help student learn.

Hattie advocated for shifting our professional narrative from these distractions to the politics of collaborative expertise.  He insisted that we should ensure – as a minimal expectation – that for every year kids sit in school they should get at least one year’s worth of growth compared to where they started.  Researchers and practitioners must work toward agreement on what one year’s progress looks like.

Hattie argued for the development of new assessment and evaluation tools to provide feedback to teachers.  What he’s talking about is much more than the complex, if well-intentioned tools familiar to Kentuckians in the new Teacher Professional Growth and Effectiveness System.  Rather, Hattie is talking about mechanisms for providing teachers rich, real-time achievement data.

Related to this, Hattie argued for developing teachers’ expertise in diagnosis, interventions, and evaluations.  Here, I thought of the good work on data teams going on in many of our area schools.  This new version of professional learning communities, coupled with the strategies outlined in Visible Learning, could be a powerful method for accomplishing this goal.

Finally, Hattie argued that the autonomy teachers crave should be linked to this achievement of at least one year’s growth for every child, emphasizing that we need to redefine a “good school” as one in which students are progressing – regardless of whether the overall achievement is high or low.  In this way, I think schools that are of greatest concern are those with high-achieving students who are making little progress (what Hattie called “cruising schools”).  These schools deserve as much scrutiny, support, and attention as low-achieving schools (especially those that are high progress).

I need more time to process all of this rapid learning, but I’m as excited about Hattie’s work and its implication for leadership as anything I’ve encountered in awhile.  More reflections to come.



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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