Thursday / April 25

Pursuing Progress Over Proficiency

An excerpt from the progress story of Konocti Unified School District, Clearlake, California

Konocti Unified School District in northern California has a hard-working staff. The Visible Learningplus school change process, based on Professor John Hattie’s research, is helping the school system work hard in key target areas producing identifiable pockets of progress.

The challenges for Konocti (pronounced “co-knocked-eye”) are many. This region of Northern California has been hit by devastating wildfires, delaying the school start four years running. A large number of families are hobbled by unemployment, addictions and poverty, and a sizable share of students deal with homelessness. Nearly a quarter of students are English language learners (and in some of the schools, the share is closer to a third of students).

On the staff side, teacher transience has been an issue. About a third of teachers aren’t fully credentialed. They have bachelor’s degrees and have passed the required tests, but they haven’t necessarily been trained as teachers.

Teresa Rensch, director of Curriculum and Instruction for the 10-school, 3,400-student district, arrived after a career as a middle school principal at another California district with a background in Visible Learningplus. She’d been introduced to the work of John Hattie when a teacher at her school gave her a copy of one of Hattie’s early books. “Reading the book changed me,” she says.

“We have lots of lists of what we’re supposed to do in education but we don’t always know how well it’s working or who it’s working for.”

The Visible Learningplus approach had helped Rensch gain focus in her activities at the previous district, to make sure she and her teachers were “hanging onto what we needed and how we delegated and prioritized.” She brought that focus to Konocti, where the top administrators and the school board were open to learning more about Visible Learningplus. In summer 2016, a year after Rensch joined the district, she took a group of site administrators, instructional coaches and members of the executive cabinet to a Visible Learning conference, where Hattie himself gave the keynote.

That introduction helped shore up the idea, recalls Rensch, that “we should be able to guarantee every kid one year’s growth or more.” Right then and there, during the conference, Konocti leadership knew Hattie’s research was worth rallying around. “People liked the idea of finding assessments to track our progress along the way. They liked the focus on literacy. They liked the idea of narrowing the focus to just a few fundamental strategies that we were already implementing or could implement even better across the board.”

How a Teacher Uses Visible Learningplus to Level the Playing Field

Konocti Education Center is an amalgam of several programs in one location, including a school for the arts (for grades 4-8), a middle college pathway and a magnet school for health sciences (for grades 7-12).

Robynn Giese teaches all of the science courses for the high school, a total of 12 different classes, reaching every high schooler, many of them in the room at the same time. She believes the Visible Learningplus strategies she’s picked up have enabled her to differentiate the learning for her students.

The taxonomy Giese uses is based on a model of learning1 that has three levels of learning:

  • Surface, where the student knows a handful of ideas but can’t necessarily relate them;
  • Deep, where the student can connect the ideas but not necessarily apply them; and
  • Transfer, where the concepts can be applied to different scenarios.

She likes the use of this “leveled success criteria,” because it helps students learn how to learn. Typically, the surface knowledge for the science students begin with vocabulary, and especially being able to explain terms in their own words. When the students believe they’ve reached a surface level of understanding, either through vocabulary activities or watching short videos and producing Cornell notes, they’re expected to do a “learning check”: They create a video on their Chromebooks in which they explain the vocabulary based on their success criteria.

Once Giese has approved the student videos, they’re allowed to move onto the “deep learning.” Here they’re engaging with the content more, and frequently that involves lab work. And once they’ve provided evidence to support that, they’re allowed to move onto project work. For instance, in a lesson about evolution, whereas the “regular” biology students will learn about the topic in general and develop a more traditional project, the medical students will tackle a project on bacteria and how they evolve to become antibiotic resistant.

But the point is that the leveled success criteria provides a mechanism for giving each group of students “small steps so that they are never too overwhelmed; and they’re given a lot of choice in terms of assignments so that they can be successful at that level.”

Making the learning visible has myriad advantages, Giese says. A biggie is that the process itself puts everybody on a level playing field. “We all start off at surface and really have to work and learn and follow the success criteria to get up to transfer.”

As a result, the process slows down students who just want to be done and “who like to speed through things just because they want that reward—an A from the teacher”, and stops them from doing “treasure hunting,” attacking the reading in search of specific answers. And it sets up “baby steps” toward progress for the students who might have issues such as chronic absenteeism going on in their lives. In that case, she adds, she can spend more time with those students that “might perhaps need more assistance from me directly.”

“We all can have the same learning intention and be doing some activities that are similar,” Giese explains. “But then also, depending on which class you’re in, you can have a different set of success criteria for that learning intention.”

1Hattie, John and Gregory Donoghue, “Learning strategies: a synthesis and conceptual model,” npj Science of Learning, 2016,

This post is an excerpt from Konocti Unified School District’s Visible Learning journey. Read the whole story here: Pursuing Progress Over Achievement.

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Morgan Fox is the Marketing Assistant for Visible Learning and international territories. When not working you can find her hiking, exploring LA, or working on a graphic design project.

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