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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Are You Sure Your Favorite Lessons Work?

By Peter DeWitt — August 05, 2015 6 min read
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We are so hung up on our beliefs that we are always looking for research that will support our opinions, and never really take the time to look for research that will debunk our opinions.

Year after year, we do things that we believe have an impact on student learning. During the summer, like this one, we float through the process of reflecting on the previous year and then turn to pondering what we will do differently in the year to come. When we teach, it’s very hard to just drop from our minds the school year we finished.

We sort of go through the motions of letting go of the stressful moments and cherishing the successful ones. We think about the students we made a positive impact on, and the ones that we feel we may not have impacted at all, hoping that someday they will remember our words and understand the impact they had on us.

But...we need to remember that reflection and impact are only beneficial if they come with evidence. Without it we are just guessing.

As a teacher I tossed my lesson plan book into the garbage at the end of the year and started all over again. Yes, I kept the good ideas that made an impact based on student engagement and the feedback I received during the learning process. Those lessons that all the students loved always stayed with me and I certainly didn’t need to write them down to remember what they were. I tried, like many teachers, to do a multitude of things differently every year.

But I wonder now if I went deep enough...

Like many teachers I didn’t use desks. For most of the eleven years I taught, I used tables because I wanted students to work in collaborative groups. When computers first entered the classroom (yes, I’m that old) I set up centers that students could rotate through on a daily basis during literacy blocks. As an inclusion teacher for seven out of the eleven years, I made sure I co-taught with the special education teacher.

I tried new things. As a big fan of Howard Gardner, I used the Multiple Intelligence approach to student learning. It gave me hope because it helped cement my view that every student had a strength, and for awhile I used ability groups because I wanted to work with the students where they were academically. No worries on making students feel bad though, because I called the groups Lions, Tigers and Bears. Students wouldn’t know the Lions were the group that needed the most help, right?

Some of what I did in the classroom had a low effect size. I didn’t know that at the time, but after working with John Hattie over the past year I know that now. A low effect size from the Visible Learning research means that students are not making a year’s worth of growth for a year’s impact. Hattie calls .40 effect size the hinge point, because it means students are making a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input.

More Than Numbers...

At first when I saw the low effect size, I assumed that Hattie had never been in my classroom, which is why his effect sizes were so low. After all, they helped meet the needs of students. Then I realized he has over 250 million students as a part of his research and decided I needed to rethink some of my perspectives. I needed a mind shift.

What kind of research do I have to provide you to get you to rethink your position?” is a question I think of quite a bit. This is not just a question for education, but for politics as well. We are so hung up on our beliefs that we are always looking for research that will support our opinions, and never really take the time to look for research that will debunk our opinions. This is why we need a mind shift.

The other day I posted that the Growth Mindset didn’t work, which you can read here. I am an advocate of the growth mindset, so when Hattie talked about it’s low effect size (.19) at the Annual Visible Learning Conference (I’m a VL trainer), I wanted to go deeper with my understanding. What I like about Hattie’s work is that nothing is ever what it seems.

It’s How You Use It...

As a teacher I used Collaborative Groups, which has an effect size of .59. But...just because collaborative groups has a high effect size doesn’t mean it will automatically work. It takes a great deal of modeling and dialogue around what collaboration looks like. Merely putting students in collaborative groups is not enough.

I know what you’re thinking...

You think it’s common sense, but Professor Robert Coe did a study on the fact that students sat in collaborative groups for 60% of their time in the classroom, but 80% of that time they were involved in individual tasks. Are you sitting them in collaborative groups and getting them to work collaboratively?

Computer-assisted Instruction, which mostly happens during literacy based centers, has an effect size of .37. However, putting students on a computer and telling them to travel the road of self-discovery is not enough. There must be a reason why students are using the software. Students consuming information isn’t as important as using computers to create their own content.

Co-Teaching is something that I believed was hugely beneficial but according to Hattie’s research it has an effect size of .19. Why? Because is many classrooms co-teaching means pulling the struggling students to the back or it means one teacher is teaching at the front of the class and the other teacher is pointing at the worksheets to keep students on task. I co-taught with Anna Leigh, someone I learned a great deal from early in my career. We taught together, divided and conquered with mixed ability small group learning (.49 effect size) and worked on expanding our teaching strategies (.62) together.

When it came to Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, we tried to see that students had strengths in different areas, but we were at risk of matching learning styles (.17) to the Multiple Intelligences being used. We have to be careful not to give students the impression that they only have one way to learn.

And finally, one of the harmful things that I did, was put students in Lions, Tigers and Bears. Ability Grouping has an effect size of .12. As a young teacher, I thought I was helping students by keeping them together by ability during reading, but it took me a few years to realize they were better off in mixed ability settings. Students can learn a great deal from the modeling of students who excel where they may not. Additionally, students who struggle still have the capability to offer effective feedback to their peers, regardless of their academic level. It’s how we as teachers model it that matters.

In the End

When numbers are aligned next to an intervention or influence on learning it can heighten our stress level as it might challenge our existing beliefs and ways of working. But there are many encouraging numbers in education. 95% is one of them. Hattie has said over and over that 95% of what the research says we do in the classroom works. Even the low effect sizes have a positive effect on learning; it just doesn’t give us the high effect we may believe it does.

So, this summer take a look at your favorite interventions. Consider your greatest influences on learning, and decide how you can go deeper so they have a greater impact. We all need a mind shift to know what we are doing has an impact, and there is never a better time to do it than right before the school year begins.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.