Sunday / May 19

Establishing a Shared Language for VISIBLE LEARNING (Part 2)

Helping Students Develop the Traits of an Effective Learner

Professor John Hattie notes in Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning (Routledge, 2012) the importance of going beyond the parking lot and confines of a school to make sure parents are invited into understanding the shared language of learning with clear terms and understanding. He notes, “While all parents want to find ways to help co-educate their children, not all parents know how to do this. A major barrier for these latter parents is that they are often not familiar with the language of learning and schools,” (2012, pg. 165). Hattie’s point is clear and hard to refute if we’ve spent more than five minutes as a teacher or school leader.

In our previous post we shared several examples of how Valley View School District 365U began their journey into Visible Learning with teachers and building level leaders engaging in dialogue around what truly makes a good learner a good learner. This provided the platform to begin building a shared language of learning and determine ways to help their students develop the characteristics good learners must embody. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at how one Valley View middle school invited not only staff and students into the development of a shared language, but also their parents.

What Makes a Good Learner—Going Deeper

At John J. Lukancic (JJL) Middle school (Enrollment 635), Principal Tricia Rollerson and AP Josh Gage faced a similar challenge to their fellow administrators in Valley View. They found their staff had significantly different views regarding what traits quality learners consistently displayed. Tricia and Josh viewed this as an opportunity not an obstacle. This was a chance for them to model for their staff how they valued teacher voice and input—but that agreement and consensus would be the target. While this initially created additional work and effort on their part to bring staff together, it opened the door to have some effective dialogue around staff beliefs about the dispositions and characteristics that truly embodied a ‘good learner’ at JJL. Tricia and Josh embraced the power of teacher voice and effectively guided their staff to come to an agreement of five traits everyone believed an effective and Visible Learner at Lukancic Middle school should exemplify.

  1. I ask questions and seek feedback.
  2. I see errors as opportunities for growth.
  3. I am comfortable taking risks.
  4. I seek opportunities to challenge myself.
  5. I self-assess and take action.

03.31.16_small_JJL Effective Learner TraitsVisible Learner Traits FOR ALL LEARNERS

Agreement on these five traits was only the first step. What was more significant was helping the JJL staff share how they viewed the actions that would drive the development of these traits for all learners at Lukancic: both in classroom practice as well as the professional development provided for JJL teachers.

Patty King, (6th grade) stated, “The power of these characteristics is the seamlessness in which they can be naturally embedded into day to day instruction and learning with my students. They aren’t seen as separate – it’s just what we do.” Rollerson saw a chance to also impact the adult learners at JJL. “We have been able to see the value in having a shared language of learning for both students and staff in multiple ways. Our characteristics have created a common ground between different content areas and grade levels. We are all speaking the same language and students and staff are familiar with examples that could fall within each characteristic. Having something in common building-wide has sparked additional conversations about the power of everyone enforcing the same message and being consistent.”

Adults Need to Help Students Develop These Traits

Rollerson and Gage knew that if they allowed these characteristics to simply exist as a list of five or tried to shoehorn the entire staff into one size fits all examples, it would never drive changes in culture, practice, and learning in JJL classrooms. They needed teacher input on how to bring these characteristics to life, so they charged JJL teachers to develop common ways within the different disciplines for how students would embody these learner traits and exemplify them in action. Below is a sample of what teachers created for one of their characteristics – I See Errors as Opportunities for Growth.

I See Errors as Opportunities for Growth
Mathematics English Language Arts Science Social Studies
Students seek feedback on the process/understanding of the mathematical concept not just the correct answer. Students analyze errors on common formative assessments to identify opportunities in their next steps in learning Students perform multiple trials in experiments with a focus on utilizing their errors to help make adjustments to each trial. Students recognize and relate how errors in history helped to drive movements forward for people, nations, economies, etc.

Shared Language Must ALSO Include Parents

While Rollerson and Gage fully recognized the role JJL staff and students played in the development and embodiment of JJL learner characteristics, they also recognized the value in inviting parents into understanding JJL’s shared language of learning. One of John Hattie’s mindframes – I inform all about the language of learning, emphasizes the need to partner with parents in the learning process, as many parents are unaware of what learning looks like or means for their child. Hattie notes in a 2013 interview with In Conversation, “They (parents) don’t understand the language of learning and they don’t understand what is involved in learning today. And this means that they don’t know how to talk with their children about their learning or with teachers about their children’s learning.” Armed with this information, Rollerson and Gage created opportunities for parents to learn and offer input into JJL’s characteristics of “visible” learners. They began by sharing JJL’s characteristics at Open House and Curriculum night seeking parent feedback focused on how they valued these characteristics for their children. Gage shared, “We had a lot of voice evidence from our staff and students, but we needed to hear from parents on how they felt about JJL’s learner characteristics. The information we gained from their feedback helped refine the direction we took moving forward.”


A pivotal step for any school to move towards becoming a Visible Learning school is the establishment of a shared language of learning with the adults as well as their students. When we extend that partnership to include parents around this shared language, the opportunities to talk about student learning evolve and strengthen. Hattie offers a School ‘Health Check’ for Visible Learning that includes ensuring “families understand us when we talk about how their children are learning and achieving at school,” (2012, pg. 193). Collectively focusing on understanding a shared language of learning with ALL stakeholders creates opportunities for just that to happen.

Click Here for: 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.

Zagarac, George. “Know Thy Impact: Teaching, Learning and Leading.” In Conversation IV. 2 (2013) ISSN 1922-2394 (PDF)

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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