Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

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

Is Learning ‘Visible’ to Students?

By Peter DeWitt — December 16, 2013 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Waiting for the next assignment or task, while not knowing what it may be, is very difficult for students. Yet, in some (perhaps...many) classrooms too many students wait at their desks for the next sheet of paper or the next assignment to come their way. Their learning needs take a back seat to the script the teacher is required to stick to...and in some cases, the teacher holds all of the content.

Great teachers, many of whom we have all worked with, know they are not the fountain of all learning. They understand that they need to make learning visible for students so they can move through their own path. Great teachers also know they need to help with the infrastructure of student learning before they can send students on that path. The teacher may not be the fountain of all learning, but they certainly can provide the expertise behind the scenes.

What does it mean to make learning...visible?

The term Visible Learning comes from Professor John Hattie. Hattie is Professor of education and Director of Research at the University of Melbourne (Australia). He is a controversial researcher, and has found himself on the receiving end of criticism because he did the largest met-analysis on student learning which delved into what was (and was not) working in schools.

When Hattie’s book Visible Learning was released in 2009, it provided a synthesis of over 800 meta-analysis. The issue was that some of his findings were misunderstood and misused. Research findings are always important, but equally as important is what leaders and educators do with them. Some of Hattie’s findings, like class size, were used incorrectly and misrepresented from time to time.

At this point, as Hattie’s research continues, there are over 1,000 meta-analysis which involved over a quarter billion students. Numbers matter but what we do with the information matters even more. Especially in our public school systems which have been used and abused for decades by the “next big thing.”

Hattie defines visible learning as, “Making student learning visible to teachers, ensuring clear identification of the attributes that make a visible difference to student learning, and all in the school visibly knowing the impact that they have on the learning in the school.”

Hattie goes on to say that the visible aspect,

Also refers to making teaching visible to the student, such that they learn to become their own teachers, which is the core attribute of lifelong learning or self-regulation, and of the love of learning that we so want students to value." This doesn't mean that students do not need their teachers. Quite the contrary...the relationship between student and teacher is highly important.

All of this is not easy. But...we know that great teaching doesn’t come in a box. Teaching, and more importantly, learning is hard work. A script or a text may offer some insight into where to go but the greatest thing about learning is that we cannot always predict every learning moment, nor should we want to. We can read the road map, but just like any good map, it provides us with directions but doesn’t give us the insight to see the road blocks that may appear. Great teaching and learning helps us all become prepared for those moments.

Learning is Hard

There seems to be a perception by some that learning has to be easy. It may be teachers, school leaders or parents behind this perception, which doesn’t matter as much as the movement away from this harmful idea that learning should always be...easy. It’s not. Learning is hard and our educational philosophy should be that we, as educators, provide the tools to get students through those hard moments. We are now at a time when students, and the adults who surround them, shouldn’t expect a trophy (or an A) just for showing up.

As few years ago, James Nottingham came up with the idea of the “Learning Pit.” In his blog, which you can read here, Nottingham wrote,

Having first heard Dr. John Edwards in 2001 using a "pit" to explain how organisational growth more often than not involves getting worse before getting better, I thought that the metaphor was an ideal way to explain to my students why I was consistently making things more difficult for them."

Students who have used the metaphor of the “Learning Pit” like to say they jump into the pit and it’s hard. They get dirty in learning, and have to find their way out of the pit and clean off before jumping into the pit all over again. The students who jump into the pit know that failure is a great learning tool, and that learning is not always easy.

Making Learning Visible

Visible learning for students provides them with the ability to see where they are going. They may not always see the roadblocks that jump in the way, or the new learning opportunities that pop up because of those roadblocks, but they have the tools and the road map to get through the tough moments.

To get through these roadblocks, teachers and students should be able to ask themselves three key questions, which should be at the heart of what they do on a daily basis. Those three questions (Hattie) are:

  • Where am I going?
  • How am I going?
  • Where am I going next?

In the End

Visible Learning has many important implications for schools around North America. Reading and understanding the work would take a lot more than a book club. Both books, Visible Learning and Visible Learning for Teachers, are intense. It takes time and effort to glean what it would mean for each individual school district.

During this time of increased accountability and standardized tests that give schools very little information about student learning, Hattie’s methods could provide schools with important information and seriously transform student learning. Unfortunately, some researchers and educators have misunderstood and misrepresented Hattie’s work.

Reading an article about Visible Learning may provide a better understanding but it will never give a true understanding of what it all means. Truly understanding his work can provide important implications for student learning. Sticking to a script may be visible on paper but it doesn’t allow for the roadblocks that happen in life. Hattie’s work focuses on lifelong learning for the teacher and student.

Connect with Peter on Twitter.

UPDATE (4:30 p.m.): Peter is trained in Hattie’s Visible Learning and will be working with schools on Hattie’s methods in early 2014.

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.