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Curriculum Opinion

‘Visible Learning for Literacy': An Interview With Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 01, 2017 8 min read
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Nancy Frey and Doug Fisher agreed to answer a few questions about the new book they co-authored with John Hattie, Visible Learning for Literacy, Grades K-12: Implementing the Practices That Work Best to Accelerate Student Learning.

Between the two of them, Nancy Frey and Doug Fisher have led more than 1,000 in-services and written 40 professional books and programs across K-12, affording them unmatched expertise. Both are Professors of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and work as administrators at Health Sciences High & Middle College.

LF: You write about how teachers tend to have students primarily working on “surface-level learning” instead of “deeper learning.” Can you define both of those concepts, with examples, and when one might be more appropriate over the other?

Nancy Frey & Doug Fisher:

Surface and deep describe phases of the learning process, one that we all move through anytime we are learning. Surface learning is about learning the contours and boundaries of a skill or concept, while deep learning is about seeing the patterns among concepts and skills. We’ll break it down a bit further, using reading comprehension as an example. When a young reader is first introduced to a reading comprehension strategy, such as determining importance, she’s got a lot of surface learning to do. She’s learning the definition, the vocabulary associated with it, such as main idea, and she is applying it using examples that are similar to the one’s her teacher is modeling.

But her teacher doesn’t want her to remain at this initial phase of learning. That’s where deep learning comes into play. Her teacher is moving the student forward, especially by making sure that she is recognizing patterns. For instance, the student is beginning to notice that lots of the writers she reads state the main idea directly within a single sentence. That’s pattern recognition in action. Over time, this young reader is noticing that the text type plays a role, and that determining importance in informational text is more straightforward than it is in narrative. Now she’s consolidating knowledge of the interaction between the type of text you’re reading and how you might determine the most important ideas.

As the student is able to understand increasingly more complex texts, she learns that the writers she is reading now more often spread the controlling idea over multiple sentences, rather than a single one. Most of all, she understands that well-written text must have a controlling idea, and that if she’s not clear on what it is, she needs to actively seek it out. What was initially a single strategy (locate the main idea) has blossomed into an entire schema of associated knowledge, concepts, and strategies for maintaining understanding.

Unfortunately, surface level knowledge is easier to assess. It’s what shows up on many tests, especially teacher-made assessments. What’s too bad about this is that we unintentionally communicate to students that this is what’s important, because this is what gets assessed. Asking the student to label reading comprehension strategies doesn’t tell you anything about their ability to apply it in increasingly novel ways. We’d never be satisfied that an adolescent should have a driver’s license just because he can correctly identify the instruments and controls on a car. By reconsidering our assessment processes, we can begin to assess ourselves, and the extent to which we make sure that students move to a deep phase of learning.

LF: You also write that learning for transfer is at the top of a pyramid, with surface at the bottom and deeper in the middle. I don’t think I’ve often seen that kind of division—particularly with transfer apart from “deeper.” Can you first define “transfer” and then elaborate on why you felt it needed its own individual level?

Nancy Frey & Doug Fisher:

Transfer of learning is when a student is applying a concept in a new and different way, and with relatively little guidance from the teacher. It’s important to say that there are two types—near transfer and far transfer. Near transfer is something we do when we’re learning something new. A young child who is recognizing that the rime -ate helps him figure out date and late is applying some near-transfer knowledge. In other words, it’s not a big leap, but definitely an important one. Far transfer is the phase of learning we focus on in the pyramid, and the type most educators are referring to when they talk about transfer of learning. We’ll stay with the reading comprehension example for a moment. A reader who transfers her knowledge of determining importance to her own original writing is now using what she knows in a completely new way.

We’d like to note that transfer doesn’t just happen. The experiences that a teacher intentionally creates help to foster transfer. For example, reading across multiple texts, engaging in debate and Socratic seminar, extended writing tasks are all instructional routines that foster transfer. But without carefully crafted surface and deep learning, students don’t have the cognitive and metacognitive tools they need to be successful in these endeavors.


LF: When you applied John Hattie’s research to literacy, what findings surprised you the most and why?

Nancy Frey & Doug Fisher:

One of the biggest surprises for us was in learning just how crucial timing really is. Using the right instructional routine to match the phase of learning is what makes a difference. A strategy that is mismatched to the learning intention is not going to yield breakthrough results.

We’ll use reciprocal teaching as one example. This is a highly effective means for fostering reading comprehension, with an effect size of 0.74. However, reciprocal teaching, which we locate in within the deep phase of learning, is not going to be especially useful when students are initially learning about comprehension strategies. Reciprocal teaching is an amazing technique for helping students consolidate reading comprehension approaches, but until they’ve learned a bit about them, it’s not going to be useful. In fact, you’re probably going to have a lot of frustrated students. Another example is problem-based learning, which is an excellent approach when your students are moving into the transfer phase of learning. At 0.61, it’s got a large effect size. Except when it’s introduced too early in the learning, when it plummets to 0.15. Everyone who does problem-based learning knows that students need knowledge, concepts, and ideas to work with before they can begin to take on a complex problem. Writing a proposal to curb the rate of deaths among sea turtles, for instance, requires that you know about turtles and conservation laws, but also about how to research and investigate, how to write a technical proposal, and how to work with a group to set goals and deadlines. That’s a lot of metacognition and self-regulation skills needed to be successful.

LF: What one-to-three ideas from your book do you think educators might be surprised by and why?

Nancy Frey & Doug Fisher:

In addition to timing—using the right approach at the right time—we think they might be surprised by the depth of research on direct instruction, and how very effective it is. Direct instruction hasn’t always garnered the kind of respect it deserves, and we certainly aren’t suggesting that direct instruction is the only approach you use. In fact, as students move through deep and transfer phases of learning, dialogic instruction increases quite a bit. Direct instruction includes: 1) setting learning intentions and success criteria; 2) teacher modeling and think-alouds; 3) guided instruction; 4) collaborative learning; 5) independent learning; and 6) closure and reflection. These practices should form the bedrock of every classroom, every day.

Another surprising idea is homework, and when it is more (and less) effective. The overall effect size for homework is small at 0.29, but when you start to tease apart these meta-analyses, you realize that the age of the student has a moderating effect. In other words, the effectiveness of homework for primary students is really small at 0.10, but has a large effect at 0.55 in middle and high school. These results suggest that homework for young children should be about reading with a caring adult or sibling, asking their families interesting questions, and so on--not worksheets. But regular doses of homework for older students can build study habits and self-regulatory skills. Again, it’s all about the timing.


LF: You provide some of the most clear explanations of effect sizes that I’ve seen anywhere. When it comes to education research, what might be some simple guidelines a teacher might use to evaluate the almost countless studies that keep on being published?

Nancy Frey & Doug Fisher:

It’s important to be critical consumers of educational research. One trap to avoid is “they,” as in “they said we should never...” or “they said we should always.” What works in education is incredibly nuanced, and there are relatively few absolutes. So when you read research, or are told about it, ask questions. Who were the participants? What was the time period? All good studies include limitations listed by the researchers. Pay attention to the limitations enumerated, and apply them thoughtfully. And most of all, never ever settle for “they said” or worse yet, “Research says.” Demand the details and look for evidence. Finally, keep in mind the virtues and limitations of quantitative and qualitative data. Quantitative data tell us where to look more closely, but qualitative studies shine a light on previously unseen details. We need both to understand or effect and our impact.


LF: Thanks, Nancy and Doug!

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