Friday / December 8

Establishing a Shared Language for VISIBLE LEARNING (Part 1)

Developing Effective & Assessment Capable Learners

The Visible Learning research from Professor John Hattie has opened our eyes to the importance of two critical actions all educators must take:

  1. Always viewing learning through the eyes of our students
  2. Consistently monitoring the impact of our actions on student learning and mastery of targeted objectives.

Hattie’s synthesis of more than 1,100 meta-analyses demonstrates what actions and approaches have shown to provide the greatest gains in student learning. At the same time, he challenges all of us to embrace the (10) Visible Learning mindframes which are the beliefs that drive and underpin our every action and decision in a school,” (Hattie, 2012, pg. 159). One of these mindframes is ensuring there is a shared language of learning—An understanding by all stakeholders related to what learning looks like, how we measure it, and how we make it Visible. A critical first step is making sure that the adults in the school are in agreement for what they mean by a shared language of learning.

Importance of a Shared Vocabulary Among Adults

We are a profession of many terms and acronyms. Having a shared understanding for the lexicon of learning we use is critical. In Valley View School District 365U, their journey and success in Visible Learning started with a focus on a shared language of learning with the adults. Executive Director Karen Flories noted, “When we first ventured into looking at the Visible Learning research, it challenged a lot of beliefs held by staff. Focusing on building a shared language of learning helped put a focus on what is truly important when we talk about student learning and what it means to be a good learner.”

What Makes a Good Learner a Good Learner?

This question was a catalyst for Valley View to determine how the adults in the system viewed good learner traits and dispositions. Staffs in their 21 schools began asking their students this question to see just how their students viewed learning. In most cases, student responses swayed toward compliance-based responses: Sit up straight, raise our hand, turn in all work on time, etc. Few student responses focused on traits Hattie notes that drive impact on learning such as: ‘Know what I am learning and how and if I am making progress, seeking feedback, looking for challenges, being resilient, and viewing error as a path to learning, etc.’ Many of Valley View’s schools charted student responses over time during the school year to determine if students had changed their views. In some cases the student responses hadn’t changed much. There was one commonality in the schools where they did see a notable change in how students were acknowledging and embracing the traits good learners should possess and exemplify: a shared agreement of the adults as to what a good learner was and how to help develop those characteristics.

Checking for Disagreement of Adults First is Critical

In several of Valley View’s schools there was a significant change: Students’ views had shifted toward embracing how to become a more effective learner. In each of these cases their school leaders first had to challenge their staff to overcome disagreements they themselves had in how they viewed effective learners.


Jody Ellis, Principal at Woodview Elementary (Enrollment 483) noted how she confronted the disparity of staff views of what traits a quality learner should exemplify. Two years ago, when Jodi asked her staff what traits they felt made an effective learner, about three quarters of their responses were compliance-based. She said, “When we posed the (effective learner) question, there were different views from the staff. I needed to help them see how this would drive different actions in our classrooms for our students that move from grade level to grade level.  We needed to ensure we had similar beliefs in these traits as well as how we would develop them.”

Rather than simply dismiss the beliefs that were focused on compliance, Jody embraced bringing staff voice to the forefront to build a shared language instead of trying to create one for her teachers. She engaged teachers in dialogue, provided research evidence, and presented examples of what other schools he determined to be the traits they most valued in developing the best learners in their school. Midway through the year it was apparent the beliefs of the adults were shifting. Ellis proudly now says today, “You would be hard pressed to find a teacher at Woodview talk at all about compliant characteristics when describing what we believe about good learners.”

High School

At Romeoville High School (enrollment 1,785), bringing a large staff to a shared language on anything, let alone what effective learner traits are, was a great challenge. Principal Derek Kinder first ensured a platform for staff voice to be heard before moving to consensus. He shared, “We asked all staff what they believed makes an effective learner at Romeoville High School. We allowed teachers freedom to truly voice their beliefs. With 135 certified staff members we expected to receive many different points of view…and we did. Together, and I stress that term, we collapsed the large list into an organized and communicable summation. We then began to broadcast it to staff, students, and parents as things we wanted to work on and develop in all learners at RHS…including our adult learners. Staff was validated in many ways, but we had to address specific aspects of disagreement and then incorporated those specifically into our professional development plan.”


Developing a shared language of learning with all stakeholders for any school or system starts with the adults in the school or system itself. Questions such as “What really does make a quality learner?” posed to all staff with the chance for dialogue can truly drive united actions to best impact all learners – both student and adults. Ensuring this shared language is explored and solidified is a crucial step in building future success – a step well worth the foundation it establishes in moving Visible Learning forward.

Please look soon for Part 2: “Ensuring ALL Stakeholders Recognize the Traits of an Effective Learner.”

Are your students assessment-capable learners? Check out the Instrument to Help Determine Current Reality of Assessment Capable Learners in Your School / Classroom


Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. Routledge. New York, NY.

Written by

Dave Nagel is an international educational consultant and researcher. His educational career started as a middle school science and high school biology teacher. His administrative experiences involved being a middle school assistant principal, high school associate principal, and director of extended day and credit recovery programs. In his former district, Dave was instrumental in implementing power standards and performance assessments. He was honored numerous times as a “Senior Choice” winner, with graduating seniors selecting him as someone who dramatically affected their life in a positive way.

Dave has been a national and international presenter and consultant to schools for over 10 years. Using his experience and expertise, he has presented and helped schools, from pre-K through Grade 12, implement effective practices leading to gains in student achievement. His main focus when working with schools has revolved around assessment, instruction, leadership, and effective collaboration. He has worked specifically with schools in implementing the following topics: prioritizing standards, common formative assessments, building authentic performance tasks, effective use of scoring guides, data teams, rigorous curriculum design, and effective grading practices.

Dave is the author of Effective Grading Practices for Secondary Teachers.

Karen Flories is the Executive Director of 6-12 Educational Services for the Valley View School District 365U in Romeoville / Bolingbrook, Illinois.

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