By Aline Garcia-Rubio '93, Head of Upper School
The first and most important influence on student learning is the teacher. And then there’s what the teacher does.
This is borne out by educational research, including the work of John Hattie, an academic and learning statistician who has examined 800 meta-analyses aiming to evaluate the relative impact of various interventions on student learning. His work was published in Visible Learning (2009) and Visible Learning Feedback (2018, with Shirley Clarke), and has influenced the work of teachers and education leaders around the world.
That influence is felt at Catlin as well. When I think about refining the excellent teaching and learning that happens in the Upper School (as with students, there is always room for improvement), one factor I consider is valid, actionable research on learning.
As any good statistician, Hattie tells a story based on his findings. He explains the greatest variables that significantly affect student learning. One can summarize his findings as follows:
- Teachers are among the most powerful influences in learning.
- Teachers need to be impactful, caring, directive, and actively engaged in the passion of teaching and learning.
- Teachers need to move from a single idea to multiple ideas, and to relate and then extend these ideas such that learners construct and reconstruct their understanding. It is not the knowledge or ideas, but the learner’s construction of this knowledge and these ideas that is critical.
- Teachers need to know the learning intentions and success criteria of their work, know how well students are attaining these criteria, and identify where students need to go next in their learning process.
- Teachers need to be aware of what every student is thinking and what they know in order to construct meaning and meaningful experiences in light of this knowledge. Teachers need to have proficient knowledge and understanding of their content to provide meaningful and appropriate feedback such that each student may move progressively through the curriculum.
- A school culture should welcome errors as learning opportunities and foster the discarding of incorrect knowledge and misunderstanding. School needs to be a place where participants feel safe to learn, re-learn, and explore knowledge, concepts, understandings, and new ideas.
We have been focusing on the last three points of what teachers do. We call our focus visible teaching and learning, per the work of Hattie. Visible teaching refers to students knowing what they are setting out to learn (learning intentions) along with what success looks like. Visible learning refers to the teachers knowing how students are constructing their knowledge, developing their skills, and understanding concepts.
If the students and teachers understand where a student is in their process of learning, the teacher can provide feedback that guides them toward the next step. If the student understands learning aims and what success looks like, they may also identify what they need to do differently/next in order to succeed.
This all sounds relatively simple and, like much of data-based claims (statistics), somewhat obvious. And yet, it is a difficult charge for a teacher; visible teaching requires creating deliberate learning aims in an era of information abundance and many necessary skills for students. Visible learning requires constant evaluating and planning in light of student evidence of success, recalibration toward appropriate challenges, and ongoing critical reflection on teaching and learning. All this is done by individual teachers but it is also coordinated with a teaching team, and then with teachers in the same discipline. Ultimately, we seek to coordinate across disciplines as we define the competencies that every Catlin Gabel graduate should have. This is where the recalibration of teaching excellence in the Upper School has been focused on.
Since 2019, we have asked each Upper School course team (whether a solo teacher or a team of teachers) to identify a handful of learning intentions or learning goals for their courses: the skills and content (or concepts) that students aim to learn. One can think of this as that which will transcend high school as enduring learning. Teachers use such goals as the north star from which they design lessons and adjust teaching throughout the year. Faculty work to make the learning aims visible to students and refer to them through lessons, assessments, and ongoing feedback.
One of the ways in which we can move toward visible teaching and learning effectively is by using competency-based learning as an educational framework. Through the framework, a teacher defines learning goals clearly, offers success criteria to the student (sometimes in the form of rubrics), and organizes assessments and feedback based on the student’s progression in their learning. The world of education (from PS to graduate levels) is moving toward competency-based learning and assessment; Catlin Gabel maintains healthy skepticism on trends while modernizing practices that serve students best.
Through the work of the academic dean, instructional coaches and individual teachers invested in perfecting their practice, we seek to create a culture in which feedback is welcome, we aim to offer feedback that supports learning (in contrast with feedback that feeds ego, is solely task-related or not directed at learning goals), and we look to teach students in receiving and using feedback for their growth.
- Visible Learning, A Synthesis of over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, John Hattie, Routledge, 2009
- Visible Learning Feedback, John Hattie and Shirley Clark, Routledge, 2019