An excerpt from Making Change That Sticks, a whitepaper about Visible Learningplus in Klein ISD, Texas.
Metzler Elementary Principal Lakita Combs was at an education conference in 2013 when she first heard about Visible Learning in a session about a completely different topic. Immediately, she stopped listening to the speaker and began looking up information about John Hattie and his learning influences ranking process. She was hooked. She returned home, began reading Visible Learning literature and got permission to take her leadership team to the Visible Learning conference in San Antonio.
Why the rush? The year before, the school’s state testing scores had taken a “huge dip,” and Combs was in her first year as the principal. “I needed a direction for my teachers to go — something for them to get excited about,” she recalls. “We needed that clarity and to develop that common language so that we were all on the same page, going in the same direction.”
Based on Professor John Hattie’s Visible Learning research, Visible Learningplus is a practical approach that puts his findings into practice. The result is a sustainable change model that connects to district initiatives, addresses specific school needs and grows from the bottom up to ensure continuous buy-in from teachers and school leaders.
Combs set up a foundation day with Corwin to lay out the basics of the Visible Learning strands for all of her teachers and staff. The school decided to start by immersing itself in the “mindframes” of Visible Learning. School leaders spoke with student focus groups to understand what they thought about learning and what it means to be a good learner. The results were startling. Students said things like, “Raise your hand, listen to the teacher, pay attention,” — things that were “task-oriented,” says Combs. “We were hoping that they would say, ‘Good learners are curious, they ask questions, they collaborate, they set goals, they self-reflect, they embrace challenge, they know learning is hard but they don’t give up.’”
Even the teachers weren’t in agreement. “We didn’t have a common definition,” she admits. “We didn’t know that we had to teach kids that. We thought they came knowing these things.”
And so that’s where the Metzler journey really began — by defining the qualities of a good learner. As an example, “We said good learners are curious,” Combs explains. “Then we described what curious looked like, and we agreed upon that.” The educators came up with five different qualities and the traits for each one. They also made a timeline and set what they considered a reasonable period by which they would review their data to see whether they’d made progress. And then they started teaching the kids. The approach: to have everyone focus on one quality of learning and build on it schoolwide until they’d gotten through the whole list.
The evidence of the change is readily apparent, says Combs. For example, conversations with students have shifted. Now when she puts them into their cars after school, she asks, “Were you curious today? Give me an example. Did you work hard? What does that look like?”
The impact is being felt even outside of school. One parent told Combs she and her child were at the skating rink, struggling with a particular technique. The response from that student: “’I can’t give up. Learning is hard work, and I have to keep on trying because I’m a learner and this is what learners do.’ I love that,” says Combs.
That internal mindframe shift has happened with teachers, too. Combs cites feedback as one example: “It’s hard when you’re sitting in a PLC meeting, looking at your data and getting down about it if it’s not what you expect it to be. So we’re constantly telling each other, ‘You know what? Assessments are just feedback to us. It’s pointing us to where we need to go. It’s just data. We need to keep collecting that.’ It’s just a different way of looking at things.”
Now, each student from kindergarten on up has “success trackers” to let them know where they are, what they’re learning and what goals come next for them. Says Combs, “When I walk into a classroom, I’ve got these kids running up to me with these yellow folders saying, ‘Hey, look at where I am with my learning.’ Or ‘Can you test me on this because I’m ready to move forward.’”
Even the students who need that extra bit of encouragement to stay on track are part of the measuring. “We’ll meet with them and keep them pumped up and check to see what they’re learning to focus on that growth: How much growth can you make from where you are? Because we firmly believe that all kids can make at least one year’s growth. It doesn’t matter where they start from.”
Download the full version of the whitepaper to learn more about Visible Learningplus and Klein ISD’s journey.