Three Things Schools Can Do Differently This Year

Have you ever wondered why our schools, despite challenges and failures, go on unchanged? I mean, there’s something wrong with the status quo when America spends more per pupil than nearly every other country and yet on the best international assessments of critical-thinking, our results are mediocre at best (American teenagers rank 25th in math).

We do a worse job than other countries at giving our poorest students the high-quality education they need to lead better lives than their parents. Even our rich kids perform below their peers in 18 other countries, according to PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) data.

It’s time we at least acknowledge that sending kids into a classroom to try to teach them all the same thing at the same time may not be the best way to teach all kids. We also do not involve students as full partners in their educational experiences. American students, for the most part, consider themselves passive participants in their learning, rather than contributors actively engaged in all stages of the learning progress. They are still too much the passive spectators of the work of well meaning adults.

Ok, I will admit-this is a pretty bleak forecast of our educational system.

Now for the good news: it is possible, through relatively simple strategies, to drastically improve your school or district. Here are three recommendations for teachers, principals and district leaders based on studying some of the nation's most successful and engaged schools:

  1. Practitioners should stop ignoring research about school improvement
  2. Teach students the characteristics and dispositions of great learners
  3. More focus on student/teacher relationships

1. Practitioners should stop ignoring research about school improvement

Visible Learning: The World’s Largest Summary of Educational Research-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 is a comprehensive analysis that involved thousands of studies and millions of students. John Hattie looked at the effect sizes on essentially everything in educational research and ranked ordered 138 factors that influence student achievement, with one being the most influential and 138 being the least. 

Hattie thought, there have been many great innovations in education – is there a way that we can compare how well different things work and put them all on to a common scale? 

A meta-analysis is a statistical tool for combining findings from different studies. The goal: to identify patterns that can inform practice. Imagine you are a researcher with a particular interest in, for example, homework. You could do your own research study, or you could do what is called a meta-analysis. With a meta-analysis, you pull together all of the research that you can find on homework and combine it as one study. 

Currently, Hattie is working with an even larger evidence set from where he initially started this journey-1,400 meta-analyses, 80,000 pieces of research data, involving more than 300 million students. This is the largest summary of educational research ever compiled and is considered the “mother of all research projects”.

So why, then, do we ignore many of the influences that have been identified to double or triple the speed of learning? Until education becomes the kind of profession that uses evidence instead of opinion, we should not be surprised to learn that many methods experts promote are largely unproven. Often, these methods are nothing more than fads.

This is where Visible Learning and John Hattie make a compelling case for change. Not only does he list those influences that work best, they were originally rank ordered by effect. Additionally, Hattie helps breaks the myth about homework and other misconceptions about class size, test preparation, and retention. For example:

  • Homework has higher effects for higher ability students
  • Homework is most effective with older students
  • Homework has lower effects for lower ability students
  • Homework is least effective with younger students

Instead of getting rid of home work, let's get it right and ask if it is really making a difference. If you try to eliminate homework in your school, we know that many of your parents judge the quality of your school by the presence of homework.

But parents need to know that 15-20 minutes of homework may have the same effect as an hour of homework. The least effective homework involves deep learning and problem solving and the most effective is task-oriented assignments involving rote learning, practice and rehearsal. 

Visible Learning means an enhanced role for teachers as they become evaluators of their own teaching. According to John Hattie, Visible Learning and Teaching occurs when teachers see learning through the eyes of students and help them become their own teachers.

2. Teach students the characteristics and dispositions of great learners

What are the dispositions we value in our learners, and, more importantly, how do we consistently and rigorously develop these dispositions within our learning programs? 

Dispositions are environmentally sensitive, meaning they are acquired, supported or weakened by interactive experiences in an environment with significant adults and peers (Bertram & Pascal, 2002).

Can your students:

  • be their own teacher
  • articulate what they are learning and why?
  • talk about how they are learning – the strategies they are using to learn?
  • articulate their next learning steps?
  • determine the quality of their work using success criteria?

Teachers who develop students who can self-regulate their own learning also possess learning dispositions as well. These are teachers who:

  • develop trustful relationships to develop a positive environment where it is safe to make and learn from error 
  • exhibit clarity in explanation using a shared language of learning 
  • know a range of learning strategies and learner dispositions and actively teach their students to employ these to understand and control their own learning

Great Learners are Developed Through Teacher Clarity (Adapted from Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Student Achievement)

Teacher clarity is assumed to be a measure of the clarity of communication between teacher and students in both directions. It is assumed to have four dimensions (plus a prerequisite — clarity of speech): 

  • Clarity of organization. The teacher must give structure to the lesson (and course). She or he does this by (a) stating objectives and relating them to the course objectives, (b) clearly relating the teaching to the objectives, and (c) reviewing what has been covered in the lesson (and course). 
  • Clarity of explanation. The teacher is clear about what he or she is explaining and is good at getting the students to understand. 
  • Clarity of examples and guided practice. The teacher demonstrates on the board examples of the type the students are required to do for classwork, homework, and tests. The teacher clearly explains as she or he goes through the example what is being done and why. The teacher gradually gets the students to do more of the work themselves until most can make quick and accurate progress without help.
  • Clarity of assessment of student learning-feedback from student to teacher. The teacher cannot hope to achieve clear communication unless she or he studies the students’ written, verbal, and nonverbal responses that indicate whether they have understood. 
  • Clarity of speech. In addition to the preceding dimensions, clarity of speech is assumed to be a prerequisite of clarity of explanation. A low score on clarity of speech will necessarily indicate a low score on clarity of explanation. It does not follow, however, that a high score on clarity of speech indicates a high score on clarity of explanation (Cruickshank & Kennedy, 1986).1 

What are the potential benefits of having clarity around learning intentions and success criteria? 

  • Students are more likely to know what they are learning, why (relevance) of what they learning and how they can be successful.
  • Students are more likely to transfer their new learning into another context when they understand the difference between what they are learning and the context in which the learning is occurring.
  • Students are more likely to know what they have to do to achieve success with their learning if they have the opportunity to co-design the success criteria with their teachers.
  • Students and teachers will be more likely to use a shared language of learning.

3. Strengthen Relationships Between Teachers and Students

The saddest and most ironic practice in schools is how hard we try to measure how students are doing and how rarely we ever ask them. Hope, well-being, and engagement are better predictors of post-secondary success than GPA, SAT, etc. It’s time to measure what really matters.

Student self-worth is further developed when students have another person in their lives who respects, supports, and cares for them unconditionally. The condition of heroes focuses on the relationship between two individuals. To build belief in herself, a student must have a person who actively believes in her - someone who “champions” her value. To have self-worth a student must experience herself as worthwhile in another’s eyes. Again, for most of us, this experience comes first in family and extended to others as we engage in school. 

What Does It Look like When Teachers Foster Heroes? 

  • Teachers talk in a positive manner about students.
  • Teachers hold high expectations for all students.
  • Students respect teachers and their classmates.
  • Students feel listened to and acknowledged for their unique skills and talents.
  • Students trust their teachers.
  • Students appreciate each other’s differences.
  • Teachers value students’ ideas and opinions.
  • Teachers let students know they care about them as individuals.
  • Students work collaboratively and support each other. 

Knowing just one thing about each of your students can make a difference.

Commit to A Direction
• Ask students regularly about their hopes and dreams.
• Incorporate student interests in teaching. Even casual references to a hobby will engage students.
• Don’t allow students to sleepwalk through classes. Involve these students in making classes more engaging.
• Ride the school bus at least twice a year to understand students’ pre-school routine/ journeys.
• Greet students when they enter the classroom. 

In effective teacher student relationships where teachers are approachable, students are more engaged, more respectful of others and display less negative behavior. This has a positive impact on student achievement. 

Getting Started

In my opinion, we can simply start with what we all already know:

1. Create an intentional culture formulated by the adults, founded on universal values of honesty and caring, and relentlessly focused on student achievement.

2. Develop collegial opportunities to professionalize the practice of teaching, including learning intentions, success criteria, lesson study, and teacher clarity, while promoting professional development opportunities and ideas that are present in high-performing schools and countries around the world. Most notably, Collective Teacher Efficacy, where “the perceptions of teachers in a school that the faculty as a whole will have a positive effect on the students” (Goddard, Hoy, & Woolfolk Hoy, 2000).

3. Provide leadership paths for teachers wishing to stay in teaching, rather than jump to administration, by creating a host of academic and task-force leadership roles.

All schools have the capacity to become great schools. All they need is the focus and leadership to create the proper conditions for the board, school leadership team, staff, and constituents to do so. 

For additional information on these topics, or anything else about teaching, learning, and leadership, please feel free to contact me at


Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Rutledge

Portin, B.S., Knapp, M.S., Dareff, S., Feldman, S., Russell, F.A., Samuelson, C., et al. (2009). Leadership for learning improvement in urban schools. New York: The Wallace Foundation.

Quaglia, Russ (2015). Student Voice. Thousand Oaks: Corwin

Robinson, Viviane (2011). Student-centered leadership. San Francisco: Jossey Bass. 

Ventura, Steve (2014).  ACTIVATE: A Leader’s Guide to People, Practices, and Processes. HMH.