Sunday, 26 October 2014

Review: Visible Learning for Teachers

The next text in my quest for knowledge on thinking is John Hattie's Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximising Impact on Learning (2012). I've spent the last two days reading through the text from from to back (leave no stone unturned, right?), taking notes, so that I can provide for you (and me, really) a summary of the best bits. So here we go...

The main message of the book is that teachers need to 'Know thy impact'; essentially, we need to constantly evaluate our impact on the learning of our students. As such, 'teachers and school leaders need to be critical evaluators of the effect that they are having on their students'. This isn't to say that we should focus on external results though; instead, it's about being able to recognise when we do (or, just as importantly, when we don't) have a positive effect on the learning of our pupils. When they don't make the progress that we expect of them we need to think about why that may be and devise ways to bridge the gap.

While there is 'no fixed recipe' for doing this, he does suggest that there are 'practices that we know are effective and there are those that are not'; good teachers (and school leaders) will be able to recognise the good and the bad, and make changes to ensure that the best practice is being used to suit the needs of our learners. When students do not learn, good teachers and leaders should realise that they don't need 'more'; they need 'different'. 

Hattie goes on to suggests that 'the best results come from a community of teachers and learners'. He goes on to cite Paul Brock's (2004) three fundamental principles for creating these types of communities; the ability to nurture intellectual and imaginative capacities, fostering a caring environment, and striving to maximise potential (this should be the role of teachers and students alike). Teachers and students should work together to 'find out what students can do and make them exceed their potential and needs'. Students should be taught how to evaluate their own progress, become responsible for their own learning, and be involved in the learning of others. Like anything, this isn't something that can be changed overnight; it requires the community coming together to learn how to best learn. 

Just like the last text I read, the focus seems to be on making thinking 'visible'. This is defined as making the learning visible to the teacher and teaching visible to the student. According to Hattie, visible teaching and learning occurs when the 'learning is the explicit and transparent goal, when it is appropriately challenging and when the teachers and the student to ascertain whether and to what degree the challenging goal is attainable'. Furthermore, learning should include 'deliberate practice' which is 'aimed at attaining mastery of the goal, where there is feedback given and sought [which, to me, is quite an important point] and where there are active, passionate and engaging people...participating in the act of learning'. 

Attaining mastery isn't done through 'skill and drill' exercises (which I took to mean busy-work), but instead what Hattie refers to as 'deliberate practice'; this is when students concentrate on completing a task while being monitored and given feedback while the task is ongoing. It is therefore not the amount of practice that matters, but the amount of 'deliberate effort to improve performance that matters'. This is formative feedback; it is the type of feedback that students 'thrive' on. Essentially, giving students feedback at the end of the lesson is too late; 'students do not want to wait until the end of the lesson to know that they are on the right track'. In fact, students who are 'motivated by the desire to master the process invest more in strategies to enhance the process'. 

This leads us on to my hobby-horse, feedback. Hattie describes feedback as 'among the most common features of successful teaching and learning', while also recognising that 'its effects are [also] among the most variable'. He states that feedback is 'in the top 10 influences on achievement' which makes it a very important aspect of teaching and learning. (Incidentally, I totally agree with him.) The whole point of feedback, according to Hattie, is to 'reduce the gap between where a student is and where they are meant to be'. Good feedback 'thrives on error' (which I will discuss in more detail later in the post). 

The three feedback questions and the four levels of feedback.
There are three feedback questions that Hattie lays out: these include the setting of challenging goals (Where am I going?), clarifying and sharing progress (How am I going there?), and choosing appropriate challenges (Where to next?). As such, effective feedback allows for students to gauge their prior knowledge and understanding, recognise their current skills, and make plans for progressing from what they know now (or can do now) to what they want to know (or want to do). If used correctly, feedback will provide the 'conditions of ongoing learning' as students continue to build upon their knowledge and skill set, tackling more challenging topics as they grow and develop. 

Effective feedback must set challenging targets though, because a lack of challenge means a lack of growth. As such, 'providing feedback of successes not only has little or no effect, but...may also be costly as the students wait for the feedback, do not go on to new or more challenging tasks, and become dependent on the presence of feedback'. I found this interesting because it implies that the 'two star' part of our current 'two star and a wish' feedback policy is perhaps amiss. 

Hattie goes on to describe how studies have shown that 'providing feedback with no praise compared to feedback with praise has rester effect on achievement'. He also says that 'premature and gratuitous praise confus[es] students and discourag[es] revision' and that 'praise dissipates the message' of feedback. However, when I delved a bit deeper I came to the conclusion that Hattie meant praise for the sake of praise, as opposed to giving specific praise of criteria that have been successfully achieved; so long as the two stars are clearly linked to the success criteria, I can't see them being of any real harm. However, if they are merely 'good job' or 'good effort' then they're best left off; as Hattie says, 'leave praise out of feedback about learning' if it's not directly related to the learning itself.

Interestingly, and something that I have long suspected myself, Hattie describes how teachers view their feedback as more important than the students who receive it. Unsurprisingly, students 'find the feedback confusing, non-reasoned and not understandable'. He also suggests that most students think they've understood the feedback they've received, but often they have not. However, he does admit that little research has been done on how students actually receive their feedback; again, this is something I've found already in my review of the literature, and it's a gap that I hope to address in my thesis! 

Hattie talks at one point about passion, stating that it is the passionate teachers that students remember most. These are the teachers that know how 'every resource (especially peers) can be used to play a part in moving students from what they can do now to where the teacher considers they should be'. In fact, he goes so far as to suggest that 'passion may be the only natural resource that we [teachers] have'. He feels that teachers are 'activators'. We are the starting point, but we should never be the answer; we should instil in our students a desire (perhaps I should say 'passion') to find that for themselves. 

I find the use of the word 'passionate' interesting, as it is one that I feel gets thrown around a lot. People will often wax on about how passionate they are for their subject, their job, the attainment of their students, etc., but I would argue that sometimes this is just paying lip-service to what they think people want to hear. I would be lying if I said I was still 'passionate' about my job; that isn't to say I hate my job, I just don't have the same 'get-up-and-go' enthusiasm that I had when I first entered the profession. I used to be full of energy and wild ideas, but within my first year I soon realised that heady optimism and 'flashy' teaching isn't what students need (it may be what they want, mind). Besides, teaching like that all the time is physically and emotionally draining. It's not sustainable. No, that kind of passion died for me long ago, but I feel that it's been replaced with a much more realistic passion. What I am passionate about is making sure that I'm a good (or perhaps even Outstanding) teacher; to make sure that I continue learning and growing. To me this means constantly re-evaluating my teaching (and learning) and never taking anything for granted; to be stationary, to be resistant to change, or blind to the fact that what worked one year ago, one month ago, one week ago might not work today. 

But I digress. Hattie reiterates much of what I've found already in the literature on effective feedback (and learning): the need for clear success criteria; a way to measure any successes, coupled with steps to move forward; and a safe environment where failure is celebrated and errors are welcomed as an opportunity to grow.

I am a firm believer that mistakes are what drive us forward; challenge should be embraced, risks should be taken, and failure should be seen as a stepping stone to success. I've tried very hard this year to take away the negative stigma associated with 'failure' or making a 'mistake'. In my first lesson with each class, I told them that my favourite thing in the world was mistakes. Every single group was puzzled by this fact, but after getting them to try to explain why, I think they made the connection. 

However, building a classroom culture where failure is seen as an opportunity is no easy feat. It certainly doesn't change overnight. Hattie suggests that we need to teach strategies for 'using errors...seeing them as a positive thing'. By acknowledging errors we allow students the opportunity to make improvements. He goes on to say that 'succeeding at something that you thought was difficult is the surest way ins which to enhance self-efficacy'. 

According to Hattie, effective visible teaching and learning is the product of well planned lessons. For a lesson to be well planned, it has to have a clear purpose and set of outcomes, with a clear idea of what the expected impact will be on both the students and the teacher. He suggests working 'backwards' to create lessons, by first starting with the desired outcome and then deciding how to first instruct students and then scaffold their approach towards completion of the outcome. Within this type of lesson, opportunities should be given to students to become better at monitoring their own learning (and subsequent progress). Emphasis should be placed on having students gain mastery of skills, opposed to focusing on social or performance goals (as these are superficial). He states that 'when students invoke learning rather than performance strategies, accept rather than discount feedback, set benchmarks for difficult rather than easy goals, compare their achievement to subject criteria rather than that of other students...then they are much more likely to realise achievement gains and invest in learning'. 

A critical factor is to ensure that there is clear and understandable success criteria; this needs to be accessible to the students because 'the more a student can see and appreciate the actions needed to attain these criteria' the better their likelihood of success. For example, he gives 'to use effective adjectives' as an example of unclear success criteria, instead suggesting that 'to use an adjective just before a noun in at least four different occasions to paint a detailed picture' is a much clearer, and achievable, target. 

This is probably one of the most fundamental and helpful suggestions I got from the text, in terms of my own practice. I pride myself on including 'success criteria' in many of my lessons, often in the forms of a 'checklist for success'. However, I now realise that most of my criteria are vague and general, and don't allow for easily recognisable achievement. I will definitely be putting more 'specific' success criteria into my lessons from here on in.

Prompts that could be used when students are
working with feedback
Hattie continues by stating that students should be given opportunities, usually through 'rapid formative' feedback, to 'see' their progress within a lesson (or group of lessons) so that they can then monitor their 'investments and confidence in learning'. He also says that teachers should talk less and listen more, which is something I've been told myself after recent lesson observations. According to Hattie, teacher talk 'demonstrates to students that teachers are the owners of subject content, and controllers of the pacing and sequencing of learning'. The negative effect of this type of lesson is that the students will not take ownership of their own learning, because they (wrongly) believe that the teacher is the only one with valid contributions. I know from experience that letting go of the reins can be daunting, but the research clearly suggests that teacher talk is not beneficial to the students; it's the conversations that classes have together that are the most valuable. Accordingly, he goes on to cite Alexander (2008) who devised the following features of good classroom talk: it should be collective, reciprocal, supportive, cumulative and purposeful. 

In terms of intervention, which is a pretty hot topic at my school this year, particularly around Pupil Premium students, Hattie states that 'spaced schedules of studying produce better long-term retention than a single session'. I think that this has been taken on board at my school, as the intervention programmes that I've seen started up are ones that are long-lasting, with clear support and structure provided. This must surely be a step in the right direction. 

Gan's (2011) graphic organiser.
Finally, he discusses at length how students should be better trained to peer and self assess. He cites a study done by Gan (2011), where students were coached on how to formulate peer feedback at task, process and self-regulation levels; he found that this coaching had a 'significant effect on the quality of feedback that the students provided'. I've included an image of the graphic organiser (seen here) used by Gan to scaffold the use of peer assessment targets; my plan is to modify this and make use of it within my own classroom, as I think it has a lot of potential to make peer and self assessment more straightforward and accessible for students.

Anyways, that's about all of my thoughts on the text. It doesn't seem like much, now that I've finished typing up my review. I know that I've found reading then book useful, and hopefully my little summary will be of use to someone - it should save you the task of reading the whole text for yourself, at any rate!

Until next time. 


Alexander, R.J. (2008) Towards dialogic teaching: Rethinking classroom talk (4th ed.) York: Dialogos.

Brock, P. (2004) A passion for life. Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Gan, M. (2011) The effects of prompts and explicit coaching on peer feedback quality. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Auckland, available online at

Hattie, J. (2012) Visible learnings for teachers: maxi zing impact on learning. Routledge.