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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

Why Should Schools Care About John Hattie’s Visible Learning?

By Peter DeWitt — August 30, 2013 3 min read
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Educational publisher Corwin Press announced that they are bringing the work of New Zealand born educational researcher John Hattie to North America. Hattie is the Director of the Melbourne (University of Melbourne, Australia) Education Research Institute and is best known for his Visible Learning approach to student achievement (Corwin & Visible Learning).

In their press release, Corwin Press said,

Hattie's work is based on his meta-analysis of more than 1,000 research reviews comprising more than 50,000 individual studies--the largest meta-analysis ever conducted in the field of education. Hattie identified the major factors and practices that influenced student achievement, from family background to teacher training to specific instructional practices. He then went a step further and calculated how much of an effect each factor had on students."

The big question is...why should schools care?

The answer to that question is...Hattie’s Visible Learning approach provides insight into what teachers and school leaders should stop doing and what they should strive to do better. Deciding what to selectively abandon, especially instructional methods they have been using for years, is not easy for teachers or school leaders. Unfortunately, continuing bad practices instead of the best ones is a waste of time for students.

Sometimes we think something works when it really does not, and what’s worse is that we may continue to do what doesn’t work year after year. We do this because it feels good or we see a valued colleague use it and assume it works for them. Hattie says,

It is surely easy to see how it is tempting for teachers to re-do the successes of the previous year, to judge students in terms of last year's cohort, and to insist on an orderly progression through that which has worked before"(2009. p.1).

Times are tough in education. We have increased accountability and mandates, and it feels as though we always have “experts” telling us what we are doing wrong. To be clear, that is not what John Hattie is saying in Visible Learning.

So...What is Visible Learning?
In Visible Learning (2009) Hattie writes,

Visible teaching and learning occurs when learning is the explicit goal, when it is appropriately challenging, when the teacher and student both (in their various ways) seek to ascertain whether and to what degree the challenging goal is attained, when there is deliberate practice aimed at attaining mastery of the goal, when there is feedback given and sought, and when there are active, passionate, and engaging people (teacher, student, peers, and so on) participating in the act of learning"(p. 22).

That all sounds good...right? Unfortunately, researchers can overwhelm us with ideas even though they do not understand our individual situations. Teaching is a very personal experience, for both the teacher and the student, so when a researcher questions our instructional practices, we can have a visceral reaction. I hate this statement but “try not to take it personally” when Hattie focuses on what works and what doesn’t work.

John Hattie does understand how personal learning can be. Hattie says.

Learning is spontaneous, individualistic, and often earned through effort. It is timeworn, slow and gradual, fits-and-starts kind of progress, which can have a flow of its own, but requires passion, patience, and attention to detail (from the teacher and student)."

He doesn’t believe in quick fixes or silver bullets. Hattie believes in looking through data to see what works and he has spent years looking at meta-analysis that includes the results of millions of studies.

Is Hattie Controversial?
Hattie’s work does not come without controversy. His meta-analysis provides insight, in a quantitative approach, to what works and what does not. It’s not through a gut-feeling but through data that he makes his decisions.

One of the areas that is often seen as a barrier to learning, and one that Hattie does not believe is one, is class size. In Hattie’s research he found that class size did not have a large effect on learning. There were other interventions that had a much larger effect.

Areas such as appropriate cues, time on task, peer tutoring, and effective feedback all have a large effect on student learning. This can help all educators understand what positive elements they should include in their classroom environment.

Lastly, and one of the reasons why I most value Hattie’s work, is the fact that he is a strong believer in student voice and his meta-analysis shows that an element of student control over learning has a high effect; as long as that student control is over relevant choices, and not contrived choices that teacher gives to ultimately get what they want.

In addition to student choice, student voice is important; especially when it comes to feedback. The feedback that students offer to teachers, whether it relates to what works or what they don’t find engaging, all has a positive effect on the learning that takes place in the classroom, which we also understand has implications for outside the classroom.

Too often these days reformers say that schools are failing and they don’t offer any real solutions. Hattie doesn’t believe schools are failing....for him it’s a different view. He believes that teachers, school leaders and students should strive for continuous improvement and he offers ways to do that.

Many educators are ready for this shift in thinking.

In a recent article, educator and author Don Bartalo wrote, “We need to stop saying, “what can we do to improve the schools,” and start saying, “how can we improve the teaching and learning.” Let’s give reforming a rest and start working on ways to advance what is happening in the classrooms.” Students are waiting for us, and Hattie’s work is a good place to start.

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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.