Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning
by John Hattie
296 pages, Routledge, December 2011
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What’s the difference between an experienced teacher and an excellent teacher? In his book, Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning, John Hattie examines a vast amount of research to try to answer this question. Using the power of meta analysis, which combines data from multiple studies to reach an overall conclusion, he uses the data from over 900 studies to rank the effectiveness of 150 influences on educational achievement.
Fair warning: This isn’t a breezy beach read, but I think I can convince you that John Hattie’s book is totally worth the effort.
I’ll admit it: I’m a research geek. I spend my Saturday mornings in bed with my iPad, reading articles and chasing down research to the primary sources. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? For me it is. I do it because I’m naturally curious and it’s unbelievably interesting to me, but also because I like to feel that I have evidence behind what I do with my students. I want to know that all the work I’m doing is actually making a difference. I’m also extremely busy. I’m a district Speech/Language Pathologist and a teacher of speech and hearing handicapped. I support around 50 students in three buildings K-12, so I don’t want to spend time engaging in practices that are not effective. I am always looking for a way to be better.
When I first heard about John Hattie’s original 2008 work, Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, I thought, “How is everyone not talking about this?!” It’s a meta, meta analysis that involved hundreds and hundreds of studies and millions of students. John Hattie looked at the effect sizes on essentially everything in educational research and ranked them in order from having significant impact all the way down to having negative impact. By the way, if you’re curious, John Hattie’s rankings and research summaries are available for free, presented in colorful and easy to read graphics.
The reason to read John Hattie’s expanded follow-up work, Visible Learning for Teachers, is not so much to read the rankings, although they are in there, and they drive the content of the book. The reason to dig into this book is that John Hattie takes everything that he’s learned from educational research and identified the critical mindsets, dispositions, and behaviors that make excellent teachers, along with the practices that make student learning visible in schools.
The book is divided into to three main sections that represent the big takeaway ideas from the research in his original book. Each section provides checklists of behaviors that produce evidence of learning.
Part 1: The Source of Ideas and the Role of Teachers
The first section of the book helps to explain the research and how to interpret it. Hattie then attempts to convince teachers of the potential power of their teaching, and to outline the practices of “excellent” teaching. According to Hattie, expert teachers:
- Can identify the most important ways in which to represent the subject that they teach.
- Are proficient at creating an optimal classroom climate for learning.
- Monitor learning and provide feedback.
- Believe that all students can reach the success criteria.
- Influence surface and deep student outcomes.
In one compelling exercise, Hattie lists 30 influences and asks teachers to guess the impact of these influences on student achievement (high, medium, or low). This prompts teachers to examine what we think we know compared to information from a vast amount of educational research (the answers are in the back of the book). For example, I know some teachers that argue passionately for retaining failing students as a way to boost their academic performance. They may be surprised by what the research says. (Spoiler alert! Not only does retention not boost academic outcomes, but it actually has a negative outcome.) In this section Hattie is priming the pump for for deeper introspection and self-reflection.
Part 2: The Lessons
This section is really the meat of the book. In it, Hattie takes teachers through the process of planning a lesson: selecting the success criteria, choosing a method of formative assessment, and interpreting the results to drive next steps. He doesn’t suggest a curriculum or a particular style of lesson planning, but instead takes teachers, administrators, and data teams through a thought process that leads to the formation of lessons with clear targets for all students, a means for rapid formative assessment, and a mechanism to evaluate if appropriate learning occurred or not (and if it didn’t, what is the next corrective step).
This section challenges teachers to think more like diagnosticians. As a therapist, this way of thinking makes sense to me, but I think it would be particularly helpful with teachers who are struggling with differentiated instruction and providing response to intervention (RTI) services.
Part 3: Mind Frames
The final section focuses on the eight mind frames of teachers, school leaders, and systems that lead to visible learning. John Hattie’s mind frames state that teachers and leaders:
- Believe that their fundamental task is to evaluate the effect of their teaching on students’ learning and achievement.
- Believe that success and failure in student learning is about what they, the teacher, did or did not do.
- Want to talk more about learning than teaching.
- See assessment as feedback about their impact as a teacher.
- Engage in dialogue not monologue.
- Enjoy the challenge and never retreat to just “doing their best.”
- Believe that it is their role to develop positive relationships in classrooms and staffrooms.
- Inform all about the language of learning.
These mind frames had a profound impact on me. I had a sense that I was making an impact on my students, but sensing it wasn’t good enough. I knew I needed a way to measure my impact objectively. This led me down a path of revising my goal setting and data collection systems to give myself objective data about my effect on my students’ learning.
In each section, Hattie provides checklists and explanations of observable behaviors that teachers, administrators, and schools can look at that demonstrate practices that lead to visible learning in schools, and in students. He also has them in the appendix of the book. These checklists can help you be intentional in using practices that have been shown to be effective in impacting student learning.
Personally, I’ve used the research findings in this book to make a significant difference in what I do with my students. Now my students understand what their learning objectives are, and they can track their progress toward their goals. I’ve shown my students how to embrace challenge and convinced them that the work needs to be “a little bit hard” for their brains to grow. It’s been so powerful for students to understand and figure out what helps them, or what gets in the way of their learning. I give them feedback about their learning, and they can see their own progress.
Part of my job is to get students to engage in tasks that are difficult for them. If it were easy for them, they wouldn’t be on my caseload! Before, students would get frustrated and shut down during a difficult task. Now they realize the struggle is part of the process, and they use problem solving strategies and find motivation in their progress. I use feedback and assessment data to plan my sessions with students. Using the feedback to drive instruction has made planning much easier and faster and the results have been much more effective.
I work in a district with a very high poverty rate. It can be easy to see the challenges that come with poverty as insurmountable, but the research says otherwise. John Hattie wants teachers to see themselves as “agents of change.” The research shows that teachers have tremendous impact despite some of the challenges that come with working with children in poverty or children with disabilities. That impact comes with high expectations and responsive teaching that uses feedback from students to drive instruction.
Worth the Effort
John Hattie’s concluding sentence of the book is a rallying cry for more effective teaching., “You can all do this…You can focus…You can deeply implement…You can know thy impact.”
There is so much valuable information in this book to reflect on that it warrants so much more than a cursory glance. This is a book to settle into. Grab a highlighter, take notes, think and reflect, because this book might challenge some of your preconceived notions. It may slay some sacred cows. Some of what you read will be familiar, because the current best practices you may be already using are based in the research behind Hattie’s book. The big difference, though, is that Hattie challenges you to question what you know, and what you think you know, and to find the objective evidence for what you do. It’s a tall order that might lead you to some uncomfortable places, but it’s a worthwhile journey. ♦