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Wednesday / August 15

An Administrator’s Reflections on the Annual Visible Learning Conference

The Annual Visible Learning Conference was held July 9 and July 10 in Chicago, IL. When I got there, an employee at the hotel asked me, “What is the conference about?” A group of friends that I was re-connecting with after 15 years asked me, “What is Visible Learning?” My parents, who would be watching my dogs during the conference, asked me, “Who is this researcher, John Hattie?” They all, also, followed up with, “…and is it working?”

Hattie spoke in his keynote about the importance in educating parents regarding what works best in education. I hesitated in both of my responses, not because I did know what to say. While I satisfied their curiosity in the moment, their questions provoked further examination.

 A Pixar Pitch for Hattie’s Research

Daniel Pink (2012) uses the Pixar pitch, exercised by Hollywood’s animation studio, to advertise or pitch his book, To Sell is Human (2012). I use the Pixar pitch as a way to define an ideal state of an organization or concept.

The Pixar pitch has these sentence starters:

Once upon a time _____________. Every day, ________. One day, ____________. At the same time ____________. Meanwhile, ____________. Until Finally, ________.

I wrote one for John Hattie’s research and his notion of Visible Learning. Once upon a time, there was a man who spent the last thirty years synthesizing over 1400+ meta-analyses that included over 90,000 studies and involved over a quarter million students. One day, back in 2009, John Hattie published a book titled Visible Learning that released this convincing and compelling research to educators around the world. Every day, John Hattie and his research team continue to rank the influences, over 250, using a common scale (effect size) to communicate what works best in education. Because of that, robust conversations ignited amongst educators, leaders, and politicians. Until finally, significant agreements were constructed around the beliefs and behaviors (within the national and international education systems) that are fundamental to teaching and equipping students with the content knowledge, cognitive skills, and learner dispositions that ready students.

And Is It Working?

In 2016, my school district rewrote its strategic plan based on the principles and practices arising from Hattie’s research. My school district resides in a very disenfranchised community in Northern California, one of the poorest cities in the state and only 8% of the residents hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. About 20% of the school district’s students read at level (via the annual state language exam) and less than 10% of the students are fluent in math. Our school district needed to break its narrative. John Hattie’s research told the story that we, as educators, despite such obstacles, have the leverage to change the story.

So in 2016, I wrote a Pixar Pitch for our school district: Once upon a time, there was a school district that wanted to ensure students grew one year or more for each year of school. Every day, the director, principals, staff, and students focused their time, and effort on high leverage instructional practices grounded in clear expectations and a keen awareness of one’s progress. One day, the staff noticed an opportunity to connect some of these strategies such as “teacher clarity” and “know thy impact” with greater ownership from the students about their learning and their progress. Because of that, everyone worked hard to find instructional ways to strike a balance of surface learning and deep learning. Until finally, every student was advancing more than one year’s growth in one year’s time, and taking ownership over their learning.

Currently in 2018, over 50% of our students have made more than one year’s gain two years running, as measured by a local common reading assessment and as measured by the annual state language arts exam. My school district’s preliminary state data shows over 30% of the students reading at grade level or above.

All Schools Can Ensure Progress and Impact

The initial questions that sparked thought within myself also generated reflection in the people inquiring. The hotel employee reflected back on his schooling experience. He remembered how his teachers taught history and hoped teachers today tell the truth. I interpreted his remark as a plea for schools to facilitate civility attributes, cognitive skills and learner qualities within our students. My parents reflected back and accredited the teachers of the school for properly outfitting my sister and me for life after high school. Today, I can appreciate the notion that many variables, variables within the control of the school and out of the control of the school, played a significant role in our preparation. As my group of friends have kids about ready to start school, they wondered what to look for in a school. Even with different research designs, the story still draws similar conclusions in what all learners want and need to succeed. Learners of any age and any skill want respect, credibility, and high relational trust; to know what is expected and what success looks like; to receive feedback on strengths and where/how to improve. Becoming more aware of such influences that work best in education, my friends can now make that educated decision for their children.

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Written by

A remarkable principal and collaborator, progressive and innovative, Teresa Rensch has been a principal of North Tahoe Middle School for the past 10 years. There she held firm to her conviction for a collective focus as a school around all students achieving grade level, or beyond, literacy.  Before becoming a principal, Teresa was teacher leader in Chicago Public Schools for 10 years. She was known for raising her students’ reading scores an average of .7 per student each year with deliberate daily reading and writing both during the school day and in after school programs. July of 2015, Teresa became Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Konocti Unified School District, penetrating staff and students with a cohesive energy around student visible literacy and learning. To continue effectively learning and leading, she is in partnership with Corwin at Konotci and underway with her Doctorate in Education leadership through Capella University.

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