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5 Teacher Insights from Long-Term Engagement with Visible Learning

2019 marks the ten-year anniversary of John Hattie’s extensive database of educational research, Visible Learning. Since its publication, there have been many comments, conversations and critiques of the research methodology and key findings. Some conversations have focused on the meta-analysis itself and seen the research reduced to a list of influences that have a high effect size, or concentrated on Hattie’s methodology rather than the ‘story behind the data.’ The story however, has remained the same over the past ten years even as the original database is continually updated. In a recent article in Education Sciences, Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey provide some insights of authentic teacher learning and collaboration from practitioners who have engaged with the ideas and concepts from Visible Learning over the long term.

The key message is that there are things that seem to work better than others at improving student learning outcomes, and there are also things that are actually not very useful, in terms of student learning. If schools have a key purpose of helping students’ learn and a focus on academic progress, then implementation based on using evidence and evaluation of impact is worthy of educators’ time and effort.

In some schools and education systems, the extensive Visible Learning research has been reduced to a ‘flavor of the day’ focus  for professional development or a simplified list of the highest effect size influences without regard for school context or the complexity involved in implementation. The concept of learning how to ensure all students’ progress, at least a year of learning for a year of school, is often misunderstood or overlooked. However, some schools have interpreted the Visible Learning messages and philosophy as opportunity for ongoing and collaborative professional learning. They have continued to share learning and stories of implementation and engaged in collaborative inquiry and discussion to evaluate as adaptive teaching experts. What have the school leaders and teachers learnt from their long-term investment with the Visible Learning research?

The Long View

Schools that engage on the Visible Learning journey use the evidence from the research to begin a long-term school change process. The focus becomes ensuring that all students learn, and from this several key ideas emerge as areas for educator learning and collaboration.

Health Sciences High and Middle College in San Diego has interpreted and implemented Visible Learning over several years. Teachers were interviewed about the changes they have experienced as a result of this ongoing, school wide, professional learning, and their shared understanding is summarized in the following areas:

Focus on the learning, not the teaching

Discussions at the school need to focus on students’ learning rather than on instructional routines and practices. Instead of focusing on the strategy, as there are some strategies that have a high probability of improving student learning, discussions focus on the learning that has occurred as a result of teaching and how a teacher might adapt and plan different experiences if students are not learning. This was a key learning for teachers at the school, as professional learning discussions moved from use of particular strategies to evolve into collaborative conversations about how many students demonstrated understanding and what different tools and strategies could be used to help those students who were not learning as expected. Teachers share the tools and strategies they have used that have resulted in successful learning, based on evidence of achievement. This approach honors the fact that there is no one right way of teaching; it is about understanding and seeking evidence of learning, and teachers adapting their teaching to activate the learning for all students.

Know thy Impact

This apparently simple statement is more complex than it may first appear. Previously, teachers at Health Sciences High had used achievement data alone to determine their impact. It was as though the teachers assumed that if the learner achieved a standard, it was because the teacher had taught it. Teachers now understand that they may be wasting time teaching things that students already know. Teachers can only determine impact by assessing students’ current level of understanding and performance and measure change over time. Pre and post assessment are required if teachers are to truly ‘Know their Impact.’

Teachers need tools to calculate the extent to which improvement has been made. Calculating effect sizes, perhaps from comparisons of pre and post assessments, are a method that teachers can use to measure their impact. Teachers unpack curriculum standards together and create shared understanding of what one year’s progress looks like. Collaborative inquiry was demonstrated when one teacher asked, “How much growth are we expecting in terms of linear functions?” This curiosity stance and verbalization is invaluable to further professional learning for all. Measuring impact has changed the conversations at Health Sciences High. Teachers collect evidence of student learning at the beginning of a unit, identify appropriate impact and analyze results so they can identify next steps necessary for students who have not reached competence.

The Value of Clarity

Having clear expectations for all leads to an increased awareness of clear communication between teachers and learners. Ongoing daily interactions and the ability of the teacher to translate the curriculum into student friendly language helps students self-assess their learning progress. Health Sciences High started where many schools do when seeking greater teacher clarity, the development of learning intentions and success criteria (LISC). In creating a shared understanding, they defined:

Learning Intentions as what learners are expected to know, understand and do as a result of learning; and Success Criteria as what learners will do to demonstrate they have met and achieved the learning intention.

This changed how teachers planned lessons. Previously, they planned lessons using objectives, often portrayed or seen as an exercise in compliance. Teachers now understand it is a shared experience in knowing what learning is expected and how to show students have learnt it. Throughout the lessons, the LISC are reviewed and discussed by teachers and learners, reflecting on progress and achievement against this agreed criteria. This teacher clarity has helped teachers co-design and plan learning experiences that allow for students to practice and apply skills, prior to being assessed at the end of a unit. As one Maths teacher commented:

“Expectations have to be communicated so that students accept the challenge of learning… you have to determine the impact to focus on the learning. And then plan the experiences…to have that impact. And then respond when the impact isn’t where you want it.”

Learning Occurs in Phases (and Some Approaches Are More Effective Than Others at Each Phase)

Conversations amongst teachers changed to seek understanding of which phase students were at and then designing learning experiences to move them forward. They now recognise that units of work need to include both surface and deep learning experiences and the means to assess students at each of these phases of learning. Taking further responsibility for leading learning in this area, a group of teachers developed a tool defining each phase, identified a driving question for the learning, named processes for each phase, and suggested instructional routines that are expected to move students through the phases.

Student Assessment is Feedback for Us

Teachers using student work as a way to reflect on the effectiveness of their teaching is a key indicator that teachers are recognizing the influence they have on student outcomes. When student results are viewed as feedback to the teachers about the impact of their design of the learning experiences, they are also better at adapting to the needs of students.

Conclusion

As teachers adapt to their students’ unique needs and create the conditions to focus on mastery learning and progress for all, they too are being visible learners. The long view of Visible Learning is about developing schools as true learning organizations as everyone sees themselves as a learner and an evaluator of their learning. Teachers learn by collaborating with colleagues and students to ensure clarity about student learning and about how students are progressing in that learning. It is no longer just about covering the curriculum, but about recognizing the phases of learning, responding to students’ needs during those phases, and seeing assessment as feedback as also being valuable for the teacher. Making the learning visible and continuing curiosity recognizes the complexity involved in implementing the findings of the world’s largest database of educational research.

Summary of Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey’s The Long View of Visible Learning’s Impact by Sue Bryen, Jenni Donohoo and Brian Weishar. January 2019


References.

Fisher, D.; Frey, N. The Long View of Visible Learning’s Impact. Educ. Sci. 2018, 8, 174

Written by

Sue Bryen, Brian Weishar, and Jenni Donohoo are co-authors of “Implementing High-Leverage Influences from the Visible Learning Synthesis: Six Supporting Conditions.”

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