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Visible Learning: John Hattie and Student-Directed Projects

Dan Brown
The cover of John Hattie's Visible Learning boasts the blurb "Reveals teaching's Holy Grail." Everybody in education needs to get it. If Hattie's subtitle, A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, gives you pause, I can assure you it isn't as scary as it sounds.

In fact, Hattie's exhaustive research into what quality teaching and learning looks like is the best road map I've ever seen for how to get the most out of students. I hope my two-year-old daughter's future teachers have read it; if not I just might be foisting copies on them at Back to School Night.

Standardized tests aren't nearly good enough to measure student learning. Sadly, the outsized emphasis on them in many schools is a destructive force. So what does real learning look like and how can we measure it?

In a powerful conclusion to his chapter on "The Argument [for Visible Teachng and Visible Learning]," Hattie writes: "The teacher needs to provide direction and re-direction in terms of the content being understood and thus maximize the power of feedback ... It [visible learning] also requires a commitment to seeking further challenges (for the teacher and the student)—and herein lies a major link between challenge and feedback, two of the essential ingredients of learning. The greater the challenge, the higher the probability that one seeks and needs feedback ..."

In my high school English classroom in Washington, D.C., I try to bring to life worthwhile challenges and quality feedback in long-term student-directed projects. For example, each year my 12th grade students read a Shakespeare play (currently we're exploring Much Ado About Nothing) and then work in groups to develop an alternate design concept for a new staging of the play. They need to transplant the script of Much Ado About Nothing from old Messina to a new time and place—one that emphasizes or dramatizes key themes in the play. Aided by research, they design appropriate new costumes, sets, and sound cues. Then they organize and offer their visions in written and oral presentations. The class chooses one group's design concept to use for a whole-class production of Much Ado. Each student takes on roles in the cast and crew. They rehearse, become experts on their characters, compose reviews of professional performances, write analytical essays on the text, maintain a reflective journal of their participation, and ultimately perform in public. The curriculum, titled Text Alive! and developed by the Shakespeare Theatre Company, builds in great challenges and constant opportunities for feedback, nudging students to "become their own teachers"—a crucial goal that Hattie identifies.

The multifaceted performance-based Shakespeare project leaves behind a trail of visible learning. It's messier than a bubble test, but true learning should be. As we prepare students for a knowledge-based professional sector, these are the types of tasks that an expert like John Hattie—and common sense—would celebrate.

Dan Brown teaches high school English in Washington, D.C.

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