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Monday / May 29

The Courage to Change the Things You Can

After analyzing 800+ meta-analyses, 50,000+ studies, and over a quarter of a billion students, Professor John Hattie found that almost everything in education has an impact on learning. In 2009, the Visible Learning research immediately shifted the conversation in education from what works to what works best to enhance student learning. Interestingly, even though over the past seven years the number of studies, meta-analyses, number of students, and variables have grown, the story of what appears to make a substantial impact on learning has not. A key part of the visible learning story is that educators have within their control a number of approaches they can take to make a substantial influence over the learning lives of children.

Schools that have engaged in the Visible Learning journey have developed a level of proficiency in using tools to evaluate their efficacy in providing effective feedback, developing assessment capable learners, ensuring inspired and passionate teaching, building assessment capable learners, and measuring their own impact on student learning through pre-post assessments. As teachers and administrators decipher the results of student progress and proficiency in their learning, they naturally ponder potential reasons why certain students are performing at certain levels. From that rationale, they often identify next steps that need to take place in order for students to improve their learning. In other words, once they ‘know their impact’ on learning,  they figure out why this is occurring and craft next steps on how to enhance student learning in the future.

Table 1 The Relationship between teacher and leader influence and impact on learning

Table 1 The Relationship between teacher and leader influence and impact on learning

To support this decision-making process, teachers and administrators need to focus the conversation on what makes a substantial impact on student learning (i.e. what works best?) and on what they can control in the school or classroom. When teams focus the narrative on factors outside their control (i.e. parental involvement) or focus on low impact strategies (i.e. such as school structures or finances) the likelihood that students will increase their performance is minimal. Even more, there is a small chance that teachers and administrators will capture successes of teacher practice and identify areas in need of improvement. Table 1 provides a simple matrix that shows the relationship between teacher and leader influence and impact on learning. Table 2 provides examples of variables that fit within each quadrant of the matrix.

Table 2 Relationship of VL Effect Sizes to Teacher Impact

Table 2  Relationship of VL Effect Sizes to Teacher Influence

The goal for an educator is to focus their energy and effort on the purple quadrant. Obviously, there are factors outside the control of a school or a classroom that make a substantial impact on students. For example, the orange quadrant includes factors that make a substantial influence on learning and should be understood by every educator that has that student under their care. However, spending time labeling and describing situations outside of school does not change the situation at school or in any classroom for that child. Conversations related to the red quadrant should also be minimized as they have a minimal likelihood of making an impact on a child. The red quadrant primarily focuses on working conditions and must be monitored to ensure that teachers can leverage effective practice. The suggestion here is to note those factors and alert the administration, the union, and teacher leadership cohort so they can find long term strategies to better support teachers in their work. If an educator or team of educators are spending more than 10% of their time on working conditions, then there will likely not be much of an impact on subsequent student learning and there isn’t much of a need for teachers to meet and look at data.

To improve learning, educators should invest their time meeting with other educators reviewing data and identifying strategies that have a high impact and are within their influence. Know thy impact and act on that impact.

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Michael McDowell, Ed.D. is the Superintendent of the Ross School District. Most recently, he served as the Associate Superintendent of Instructional and Personnel Services at the Tamalpais Union High School District. During his tenure, the Tamalpais Union High School District was recognized by the Marzano Research Laboratories as one of the top highly reliable organizations in the United States, and schools within the district received recognitions by the US News and World Report, and honored with California Distinguished Schools accolades.

Prior to his role as a central office administrator, Dr. McDowell served as the Principal of North Tahoe High School, a California Distinguished School. Prior to administration, Dr. McDowell was a leadership and instructional coach for the New Tech Network supporting educators in designing, implementing, and enhancing innovative schools across the country. Before engaging in the nonprofit sector, Dr. McDowell created and implemented an environmental science and biology program at Napa New Technology High School, infusing 1:1 technology, innovative teaching and assessment, and leveraging student voice in the classroom. Additionally, Dr. McDowell, taught middle school math and science in Pacifica, CA.

Dr. McDowell is a national presenter, speaking on instruction, learning, leadership and innovation. He has provided professional development services to large school districts, State Departments of Education, and higher education. In addition, he was a former National Faculty member for the Buck Institute of Education and a key thought leader in the inception of their leadership work in scaling innovation in instructional methodologies. His expertise in design and implementation is complimented by his scholarly approach to leadership, learning, and instruction.

He holds a B.S. in Environmental Science and a M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Redlands and an Ed.D. from the University of La Verne. He received departmental honors for his work in Environmental Science and was awarded the Tom Fine Creative Leadership Award for his doctoral work at the University of La Verne. He has also completed certification programs through Harvard University, the California Association of School Business Officials, the American Association of School Personnel Administrators, and Cognition Education. He holds both a California single subject teaching credential and an administrative credential.

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Latest comment

  • While this makes good sense, we still have to consider the quality of learning we are looking for–and that is reflected in Hattie’s studies. If, as I believe, we focus too much on teaching and assessing superficial knowledge–that perhaps won’t be remembered later–then of course direct instruction will trump things like inquiry learning. If we assess only what can be directly instructed, students will demonstrate “better learning” of what has been directly instructed. But it is possible–indeed probable–that if we assess deeper understanding of topics, then inquiry learning may well yield “better learning.”

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