Professor John Hattie’s meta-analyses have helped to unveil effective teaching and learning practices. Here, LYNDA SHANKS shares how this research is being made accessible to schools and teachers through the popular Visible Learningplus programme.
When Professor John Hattie met with parents and educators over 20 years ago, conversation circled around what ‘the next big thing’ in education might be. Everyone seemed to have a theory about what really made a difference to teaching and learning – and everyone was searching for a new idea. It struck him that rather than chasing everything new – and with so much great learning already taking place – it would be great to know what really does work for students’ learning.
And so the research project was born. For 20 years Hattie has been seeking out research studies called meta-analyses so that he can find out what things really do make the greatest difference to student learning.
There was so much research available (in fact he has looked into over 1,000 of these studies) but the studies tended to focus on one thing at a time. For example, a researcher might have a strong interest in homework. They pull together all the studies that have ever been done on homework and then make some overall conclusions and, by using some calculations, are able to see how effective homework is for students.
While these are really helpful studies, Hattie wanted to be able to pull all of these studies together so that he could look at the difference that various things collectively made to student learning. He wanted to know what things we should pay attention to and what things we shouldn’t get distracted by. What struck him while researching was the importance of learning being visible to everyone in the learning process – leaders, teachers and especially the students. The tag line he has for visible learning is ‘when teachers see learning through the eyes of their students, and students see themselves as their own teachers’.
Putting research into practice
Hattie wanted his research to do more than just sit as an interesting body of work that made no difference to student learning, so he worked with Cognition Education in
New Zealand to develop the Visible Learning plus professional learning programme. As they have compiled this programme they have taken the research and thought about the ‘so what’ question – what are the implications of the research for schools and teachers?
The big ideas of visible learning are used as a framework for considering research-informed strategies in the light of the specific learners in their context. With that in mind, the Visible Learning plus programme is intentionally designed to enable educators to understand their impact and how it can be evaluated through a series of workshops and ‘impact’ cycles (evidence-based cycle of inquiry and knowledge building). Four key areas provide a basis for deep learning conversations that get to the heart of teachers’ and leaders’ learning and understanding of the impact of their practice and the combined impact for a school or system.
What is visible learning?
At the heart of the programme is the ‘visible learner’ – understanding how to create students who have the skills, dispositions and characteristics to lead their own learning is vital. Visible learners will be able to answer three essential questions: How am I going? Where am I going? Where to next?
‘Know thy impact’ means that teachers and leaders understand the difference they make to students in terms of progress and achievement as every child has the right to make one year’s progress for a year’s worth of teaching.
The programme also delves deeply into what it means to be an ‘inspired and passionate’ teacher and in particular from the students’ perspective; how these characteristics enacted by the teacher are experienced by the student.
‘Feedback’ makes up the fourth area of visible learning and has been one of the most researched influences, as done well it has the power to double the speed of learning.
Providing the cohesion for all these strands needs good alignment of systems, process and structures at both a system and classroom level. The way that schools organise things such as planning, how data is gathered, student voice and so on has the ability to support visible learning or create barriers.
This is all underpinned by a certain way of thinking. In Hattie’s book Visible Learning for Teachers (2012; 9, p15) he has written about eight ‘mindframes’ and has since added a further two. He says, “… mindframes underpin our every action and decision in a school… the claim is that teachers and school leaders who develop these ways of thinking are more likely to have major impacts on student learning.”
How can Kiwi schools utilise visible learning?
In order to turn this into reality schools and systems have transformed this theory into practice in a variety of ways that suit their context and learning needs. Deb Masters, global director of Visible Learning plus, says the materials provide the framework for the multiple, varied and ‘one-size-fits-one’ discussions that schools, school leaders and wider systems (districts and territories) might have as they interrogate practice and evidence.
Here in New Zealand we have schools that use Visible Learning as their umbrella framework that guides the actions and decision-making, whereas other schools might have Visible Learning as one of the spokes of their umbrella as a key pedagogical approach. Whichever way is used, alignment and coherence are critical to the success between different aspects of the curriculum so they all support one another.
Case study one
A secondary principal in the upper North Island describes his role as being: “to influence the teaching and learning at the college in order to close these gaps by developing a much greater transparency around what was happening inside our classrooms and to enable our students to be able to take greater responsibility for their own learning”.
Student voice gave them the impetus to reframe what they were doing as it had shown the staff that learning was actually ‘invisible’ to students. In this case, it was decided that:
- success in learning is no longer to be measures by Achieved, Merit or Excellence but instead it is best defined and measured as the progress (or growth) that students make
- the focus of teaching and learning is to understand where students are at in their learning and then using this understanding to guide future action, monitor progress, and evaluate the effectiveness of interventions
- the next iteration is teachers identifying individuals’ levels of readiness and learning needs in order to set appropriate stretch goals for further learning.
Through a collaborative process they set out with a clear aspiration and a three-year instructional plan for teachers and students to develop:
- a shared understanding of the language and process of learning across the school
- a shared understanding of learning progressions and the ability to use them to evaluate progress
- observation of feedback processes that are based on student learning.
They identified both the knowledge and practices that staff and students would need in order to achieve this, which became a relentless focus for professional learning. The leadership team’s dedication to only a small number of priorities has led to successful implementation of the plan and, more importantly, long-term sustainability. All too often teachers can feel overwhelmed at the barrage of innovations that come and go and nothing ‘sticks’.
Case study two
Principal of Pahiatua School Lynne Huddleston also had a positive experience with the programme while leading a cluster of five schools in Visible Learning. Initially all five schools worked together with their professional development days and now are at a point where each school is seeking its own pathway as they have grown more confident in understanding their evidence/needs and impacts. Huddleston has exemplified what it means to be an evaluator and change agent.
“This year the kids have grown wings – they are so hooked into their learning it is unbelievable,” she says, “Our five-year-olds talk about persevering, where they are with their learning, and where they need to get to. They work independently and with purpose.
“Furthermore, we can see progress across the board in all assessments, but even looking solely at the National Standards we had an overall [across the school] improvement of 18 per cent of students in writing achieving at or above. Our target cohort of year 8s improved
45 per cent and there is a similar story in maths.”
She credits the hard work and dedication of the teachers and the students. The lift in achievement can be seen in every aspect of their learning.
There are many stories of schools from around the world that have been inspired by John Hattie’s research and have been part of the Visible Learning plus professional development programme to get to the heart of understanding their impact. These cases are summarised in the latest book titled Visible Learning into Action – International Case Studies of Impact and provide a glimpse of great stories that will inspire you to delve deeper at your place.