Visible Learning

A little over a year ago, I became fascinated by the Visible Learning work of John Hattie.  Partly this is because his data-basedVisible Learning approach appealed to me.  However, mostly I see this research as a way to simplify our teaching while also making meaningful improvements.  He offers a way to spend less time on techniques that work only a little, and focus instead on those tactics that provide the absolute best student outcomes.  Do less and get more, what isn’t to love?

My past experiences help inform why I love this work: in teacher’s college and during my years as a teacher, I have been told about countless ways to teach better.  All offered data as to how students using these techniques fared than those students in the control group. Some of these techniques I have embraced, some I have not.  There would be no way to do them all, some techniques are mutually exclusive and the list is too long, too exhaustive.  In each and every case, I believe that I have been offered people’s best ideas and that most of these have been supported by research showing that these ideas improve student learning.  If you have had a similar experience, you may already be skeptical of more data-based research, or feeling inundated with all the great ideas that you need to implement.

VisibleLearningMeterAt its core, Visible Learning is a statistical analysis of almost every meta-analysis of all of these teaching methods.  Hattie, the author, has looked at over 800 meta-analyses, each of which examines multiple studies.  So the scope of the work is astronomically large, involving millions of students and tens of thousands of teachers.  Hattie uses a statistic called “effect size” to combine and compare all of the strategies.  Using this common statistic, Hattie shows us his revelation:  there is a measurable cut-off point we can use to determine which strategies are effective enough to be worth using.  As it turns out, almost anything improves student learning, but what improves it enough?

Hattie shows me that increasing my subject area knowledge will have a small effect on student learning and falls below the “cut-off” line.  Nothing wrong with pursuing my subject knowledge, but I can see that if I instead use my extra time to focus on teacher-student relationships, the benefit to my students will more than double.

We don’t have to throw out everything that falls below the cut-off if we don’t want to.  I can see that web-based learning is, by itself, not that helpful.  However, informed by Hattie, I could choose to use the web as an aspect of teaching problem solving, a very effective thing strategy that helps with numeracy, literacy and life skills.  In doing so, I weave web-based learning into something more powerful.

Looking at Visible Learning has been fascinating.  It is, at times, challenging to find a favoured strategy is less effective than I thought.  However, with the evidence of so very many studies, I’ve embraced that some past strategies have been helpful, but that I could be doing even better.  This is a chance to discard what isn’t working well enough and to make plans around the best possible evidence-based methods.  Methods that, more often than not, support the assessment goals of documents like Ontario’s Growing Success.


21st Century Teaching and Learning

I regularly hear 21st Century Learning referred  to as learning a lot of technology, a big term saying that I need to know a lot of apps.  However, this isn’t a definition I choose.  Those technologies are important, as are those apps.  But if we are to keep up, learn the newest programs, adapt to the next big paradigm shifts, then the most important areas of learning are the foundational skills that we will need. thinking Learning the newest programs serves me well until I am no longer someone’s student. At that point, what I need is the ability to teach myself, to discern what I do and do not need to know and how and when I need to apply my learning.  I need to develop and choose the techniques best suited to solve the problems I will face in my life.  And if the new reality is that I will work in several different jobs and fields, then any job specific skill set is less useful than the skills to help myself transition to my next career.


And so it is that the new reality, in so far as it exists or will exist, is best served by students who have highly developed critical & creative thinking skills.  These students can teach themselves the newest tools and apply them with skill and meaning.  Students who can pose and solve problems will navigate change with success.  Students who understand their place in the world of technology, in the social world and in the natural world, and who can think and make informed choices to shape the best future possible.


In selecting these topics, it is inevitable that there will be objections about the 3 Rs and how more time spent on other topics lessens the English or Mathematics learning of our children.  I disagree.  If we look at the broader areas of literacy and numeracy, we find critical thinking and problem solving as essential skills.  A quick look at my school’s OSSLT results from the past years shows that our literacy is most fettered by students struggling to make connections and use high-level thinking skills.  Teaching critical thinking might address this deficit.  On the math EQAO, we suffer most in questions related to solving problems and that fall under the thinking/inquiry category of the achievement chart.  We’d be better mathematicians, and certainly more numerate if we were better thinkers.  In both tests, students do fairly well in their recall of knowledge and facts.  We don’t need kids with more facts, we don’t even need kids who know where to find more facts. We need kids who know why they need to know something, what kind of facts they need, where to find them, how to connect them and what limits the information they gather may have.  We need kids who can face the environmental and political crises that they inherit from us.  That’s what I believe will lead to success in the 21st century.  It’s what I want for my own children.


This post in part of a blog hop on 21st century learning.  Please see the other entries here: 
Susan Campo @susancampo
Jim Cash @cashjim
Greg Pearson @vptechnodork
Phil Young @_PhilYoung
James Nunes @jameseliasnunes
Donald Campbell @libramlad
Ken Dewar Bestbefore2030
Graham Whisen @grahamwhisen
Lynn Filliter @assessmentgeek
Debbie Axiak @DebbieAxiak
Alicia Quennell @AliciaQuennell
Jonathan So @MrSoClassroom
Jim Blackwood @jimmyblackwood
Jason Richea @jrichea
Tina Zita @Xna_zita

Attention Deficit and Nature Deficit Disorder

I’m often struck by how much two areas of my educational work overlap: working with students at-risk and “greening” schoolyards and parks. The connection may lie in a psychological connection between humans and their environment as suggested by Richard Louv and Attention Restoration Theory researchers.  This connection is a topic I’d like to explore further since in my classroom, connecting with nature is often the key to connecting with students at-risk.

In Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv suggests that a variety of factors have lead most of us to exist in a state of “Nature Deficit Disorder” (NDD).  This can be traced back to both a decrease in time spent outside as well as a decrease in the availability of nature when we are outside.  Some of the key culprits are new technology, changes to parenting practices and rapid development.  The idea is that NDD exists in relation to biophilia, the human innate love of nature.  NDD is the disorder that occurs when we are not able to fulfil the basic needs of our biophillic selves.  As with any disorder, there are troublesome symptoms which can include depression, attention problems, obesity and academic performance.



I first learned about the science behind this connection in a 2013 townhall put on by the David Suzuki Foundation which featured Richard Louv. However, the connection between ADHD and NDD was much earlier made in a 2004 University of Illinois study which states, “Overall, our findings indicate that exposure to ordinary natural settings in the course of common after-school and weekend activities may be widely effective in reducing attention deficit symptoms in children.”  This makes sense in terms of pedagogy too: Visible Learning tells us that the effect of outdoor education is greater than that of most other strategies.  In fact, the longer kids get outside and the younger they start, the more effective the outcomes.  While these terms and studies may be new to us, the reality is not – we know that getting many of our hard-to-serve students outside can yield great results.  Sometimes this can be about the chance to run around, something that can also happen inside, but how often do we also talk about the kids needing some “fresh air?”

For my suburban students, fresh air is important, but it’s part of something bigger. This year when I took my Credit Recovery class out to remove invasive species in their local park, I witnessed many transformations. Students diagnosed with ADHD, some of whom have been quite oppositional and face numerous challenges in school, became engaged learners.   They worked hard, they were even leaders, encouraging others toward the goal of a healthy park and ecosystem.  I just can’t stress enough how much of a change this was.  The work may have been fun, but real learning was required and the work could become strenuous.  Still, the great news was that the kids responded and that this transformation even lasted for days afterward.  It was as if the students had received their nature booster shot, which continued to inoculate them against the mental effects of their suburban sprawl surroundings for several days.  This is about a lot more than some fresh air.

Teachers know that transformative experiences require a lot of things working together and a little luck. In the case above, doing something that matters in the real world combined with time in nature and perhaps some solid instruction and a good teacher relationship was that magical formula.  And, as delightful as it was, it wasn’t a surprise.  My department has been using nature in a variety of circumstances in transformative ways with our Credit Recovery students. As well, BEAR, a specialized program in my department for unattached students who are highly at-risk, used a variety of reasons, used environmental and recreational activities in nature to foster huge transformations that we were able to measure in terms of improved marks, attendance, attachment and empathy.

On a more personal note, I also notice that I can focus better in nature or after spending time in nature. My primary aged children can focus for a very long time on an insect or hunting for pinecones.  A friend of mine, who worried about her daughter potentially having ADHD also knows that she can focus seemingly forever on catching frogs or picking serviceberries.  It’s as if many of the distractions melt away when immersed in nature.  Or rather, our distractability melts away.

In both my personal life and my professional life, I’ve become convinced that nature is an important part of helping students learn and grow. For me this adds urgency to my work partnering with the city to improve local parks and, not only greening my schoolyard but doing that greening in a way that creates inviting spaces for students to benefit from being in nature.

The Challenge to MI & Learning Styles and Why I Care

Recently, a friend and colleague sent me a link to an article that speaks of learning styles as a myth, or at least tries to debunk some myths associated with learning styles.  Initially confusing is the way that in the article, “Myths of Learning Styles”, the author appears to use “learning styles” to mean both learning styles and also what I commonly refer to as “multiple intelligences.”  Forwarding the article to me was an intentional and thoughtful act by a dedicated colleague, so I decided to spend some time thinking about the topic.

First, some background: I’ve been an advocate of thinking about multiple intelligences (MI) within my school.  I designed a custom Learning Profile (see the video linked here) application to provide each student with data about their self-assessed MI scores as well as their VAK and Learning Preferences.  So I am invested in MI. On the other hand, I don’t wish to continue to promote and use a theory that is wrong.  I’ve also had a complicated relationship with the idea of MI. Although I ultimately use and support it, I certainly have a voice in my head that values the old definition of intelligence and wants to privilege “book learning” and math above other modes.  But I see real benefits to the theory and try not to listen to that voice when I’m teaching.


The “Myths” article presents two fact that seemed potentially most damning to my practice and MI as a whole:
1.  Changing learning styles (MI) does not guarantee successful outcomes and
2.  There is no evidence that when an instructor changes to a learner’s preferred style, it helps them learn.

These points took me aback.  I spent some time of reading, observing and thinking, wrestling with whether we could be wrong.  So I went back to some of the articles cited by the “Myths” author and read there.  In “Advice About the Use of Learning Styles”,  I returned to a question of definition.  “Myths” opens with talking about how students learn, but the most convincing points in the cited article spoke of how students prefer to learn.  Intentional or not, the term “learning styles” was being used broadly in “Myths” and narrowly (arguably properly) in “Advice.”  Misusing definition allows error to creep into our thought.  Students not learning best based on choosing a preference, is not the same as students not learning best when utilizing a strength.

The lack of evidence to support Learning Styles cited in “Myths” further turns out to be an issue with how research has been conducted by proponents of the theories. There are apparently a lot of competing versions of the Learning Styles theory, so research is fragmented – no one is talking about or researching exactly the same thing.  So, it’s not that there is evidence against the theories, just not particularly good evidence to support it.

So, a little reading helped and I got to use my philosophy degree to talk about errors of definition.  However, now instead of promoting the wrong theory, am I promoting the inadequately researched (and therefore possibly wrong) theory?  To be sure, this is really about MI for me, not Learning Styles.  I’m most heavily invested in how kids do learn, less invested in how they’d like to learn. So, I searched MI in my favourite academic catalogues and could find nothing negative.  Hardly scientific, but if the theory was being widely debunked, I suspect I’d have found something.


Now for the observing and thinking.  I don’t think that I or many other teachers expect to find a silver bullet in Multiple Intelligences theory.  But I do find several benefits:  the first is that we do clearly all have different strengths. It’s clear that I’m better at language and worse at math than some other teachers in my school.  Others have more social skills.  Similar differences are apparent in my students.  These are not particularly contestable facts.  We can argue causality and have a nature/nurture debate, but the immediate truth of our differing skills isn’t debatable.  These differing skills are terms with names thanks to Gardner and MI.  So that’s handy.

The second benefit is that through thinking about MI, students weak in traditional academic areas get to feel value in their own strengths.  This is self-esteem based on real strengths, far better than some other self-esteem boosting practices in education.  In recognizing strength and weakness, we can also challenge our students to develop their weakness, but from a position where they have a specific deficit, but not an overall deficit.  In my video above, everyone’s pie graph adds up to 100%, we’re all equal.  But we’re not all equal in all areas.  Combined with a lesson in brain plasticity, students can choose how to tackle their developing brains.

Lastly, it’s never a bad thing to be reminded as a teacher that my students are all different. “Myths” speaks of those


differences in a way to debunk MI, but I see MI as one of several important aspects of the student learner.  Students’ interests and backgrounds are very important in planning lessons and assessment, but that does not mean that the modes in which they learn best and worst are not also important.  Our learning profiles help teachers by showing them individual MI, but more than that, when we’re insanely busy and rushing to prepare our lessons, they can remind us that our classes are not homogenous, that we need to reach all of our unique students.

Whether it’s MI, VAK, Learning Styles, Triarchic Intelligence or even True Colours, as long as we don’t label and unfairly categorize, I’m convinced there is value in pausing to think of our students using  a few different lenses and to consider them as fully as individuals as we can.  That leads to better teaching and it leads to better connected, more attached students.

Planting Seeds to Grow Empathy and Biodiversity

RCRPLANTING-CLOSEWe wanted it all: beauty, biodiversity, character development and learning. That’s why I’ve been growing native flowers from seed for the last five years. With the right seeds, equipment and method, it can be very easy, very rewarding and work toward many of my most important class/school goals all at once.  We’ll also be doing important work to support our local monarchs and other pollinators.

The Learning: Students learn curriculum and build character. I use growing native flowers from seed as an opportunity to talk about eco systems, invasive species and biodiversity in general as well as landscaping and horticulture professions. Sometimes we measure and graph the growth of our species. And, as a teacher working with students at-risk, I am always grateful for this activity as a chance for students to practice caring for something living, practicing being nurturing and thus working on their capacity for empathy. Watching this in action with my students has been a really rewarding experience.

The Equipment: You do not need a grow light stand, although it helps. For years I grew seeds only using a window ledge, I just had to start the seeds a bit earlier and choose the right plants. What you do need:

  • A self-watering seed tray from Lee Valley Tools. This is your best friend because it survives through March Break and it’s hard to overwater your plants. Thin versions are available that can perch on smaller windowsills.
  • Soil. Even cheap potting soil will be just fine.
  • A spray bottle with a gentle mist setting for watering young Hyssop (see below)
  • A few trowels
  • Seeds

Choosing the right seeds: Go native or go home! Native plants have vastly greater eco-system benefits and will survive better. Non-natives may actually be hurting your ecosystem. For Ontario schools, I recommend ordering seeds from Wild Flower Farm near Orillia. They have a variety of fantastic native Ontario seeds. However, for your first year, I highly recommend these three species as foolproof and great in the garden: 

Lavender HyssopAll three grow very easily. All three are long-lasting flowers that will be great to help our troubled pollinators. The most serious problem is usually that too many seeds sprout(ed) in each cell: an embarrassment of riches! If you plant them early enough, say early-mid February, you should see flowers in the first year! Just remember to follow the instructions on the packet, particularly for the Hyssop which needs the seeds to be “planted” on (the) top of the soil.

I’ll have more as we near the season for planting outside.  I don’t have any financial connection with Lee Valley Tools or Wild Flower Farms other than being a regular customer.

Parents and Alternative Education

images-11I’ve had a long history working with students in alternative environments.  In the past I’ve worked in youth corrections, a drug rehabilitation center and an alternative school. I am now a department head responsible for student success, which means in part, an alternative classroom within a “traditional” school. However, in all of these workplaces there has been one constant: we need to increase parent involvement.

I’m not out to criticize parents. Often there have been hundreds of calls home, dozens of meetings and intervention plans before their son or daughter reaches me. Some parents need the school to stop calling them at work and to be taking less time away for meetings or risk unemployment. Still others are exhausted by the number of interventions, phone calls and the amount of time they have invested in strategies that have ended poorly. Fair enough – the behaviours we see at school can sometimes be exponentially worse at home. And of course, I do see some involved parents, but not enough.

The trouble is that parent involvement can really help make a difference for our students in alternative placements. Often these placements offer a new start and opportunity to turn everything around, an opportunity that may work best with home support.

So what can we do? We can’t change work circumstances or the past.  So I set out to try to discover what other barriers there may be to parent alt. ed. involvement and to isolate the ones that I could influence. I came up with two and I’m working with my team to try bring more parents on board by changing what we can.

Understanding the program. Alternative education is often poorly understood. We’re not well marketed because our existence means that sometimes our other programs aren’t adequate to serve a minority of students. They can be seen to symbolize failure. On this front, I disagree. Instead, in our alternative programs, I see an understanding that some students require a unique path and that caring educators will go to great lengths to build success for all of our students.

Others perceive the program as a punishment or a validation of their child as a failure. Messaging akin to “If you don’t do X, we’ll be sending you to the Y program” is common in some of my past workplaces. It doesn’t help anyone if students and parents are overcome with feelings of shame or resentment while we are trying to motivate and encourage change.

Hope. The road to my classroom probably hasn’t been good, but the outcomes still can be. Instead of failure and punishment, we could recover several credits and get their child completely caught-up! And in a new environment with lots of 1:1 and understanding, there is lots of reason for hope if we can change mindsets. Lots.

So what to do? We’re trying a video and phone campaign. The video above is less flashy than some of our other work, but is designed to show parents the nature of our programs and to encourage their involvement. And because it’s online, it won’t interfere with  parent work schedules.  We’re sending students home with a small slip of paper (reduce, reuse, recycle) with the link and QR code for the video, instructions on how to sign up for remind101 text message updates and asking for the parent’s signature that they received these messages.

We’re beginning a phone home campaign at the beginning of the semester, before any new negative messaging may occur, to welcome their child, connect to parents and share the amazing possibilities of their semester in an alternative environment. As the semester proceeds, our challenge will be to maintain the hope of parents and students as we navigate the rest of the semester.

That’s our parent plan: information and hope. It’s modest, but it’s something that can be maintained each semester without undue hardship. We know that parents want the best for their child and are doing the best they can.  Perhaps our work can help inform their efforts and re-connect them with school.  We’re hopeful that at the end of the semester we’ll be able to share information about the success of campaign.

On Being a Green School

2013 was a good year.  Our efforts led David Suzuki SS to be a gold EcoSchool for its second year (the school is only two years old) and we were the top Green High School in Canada.  A lot of things had to go right in order for this to happen, which has me reflecting on the elements necessary for broad-based environmental success in schools:

Vision.  Opening a school named Suzuki gave us an edge – the environmental vision was clear. Yet, every teacher in the school had to buy-in to that vision in order to make our success happen.  Why did they?  I believe that feeling part of a grand narrative, one aiming to improve our planet, and feeling that such excellence was obtainable, was a powerful motivator.  Even those not active on the Eco Team knew that they could contribute to something bigger than themselves, something meaningful. And that felt good.

This isn’t exclusive to my fancy new school.  In a past school, an alternative education site for students at-risk, I had led some high profile environmental initiatives.  It did not take long for this narrative to transform the school.  I first noticed this as teachers previously uninterested in such work were suddenly suggesting that our logo needed to be green because of our green identity.  They were getting something out of our environmental work, it felt good and they wanted it to continue, maybe to even contribute. With students, the story was similar: feeling a part of something big and important generates motivation.  One way we’ve tried to harness this at Suzuki, is by promoting our programs through videos like the one above, and rallying everyone to the environmental cause each September.

So for me, the learning has been to put extra effort into sharing success stories, and letting the success of environmental initiatives belong to everyone.  It feels good to do good work, and your staff may just decide they want to keep on making a difference.

Partnerships.  I’ve been working closely with the City, the conservation authority and several environmental groups in the area.  Sometimes, it feels like it might be faster to do things myself.  However, very often these partnerships yield additional ideas, help, guest speakers and money that improve our projects tremendously.  Not only that, but projects with community partners are easier to get approved and are more attractive when applying for grant money.

If you aren’t an expert in what plants go where or what is native to your watershed, partnerships with local environmental organizations are absolutely key to maximize the benefit of your good intentions and hard work.

Persistence.  The first time I tried to do a 100+ tree planting, I ended up spending over 4 months in a debate as we sought approval for the project.  I had the support of my administration, but other interested parties were less convinced.  It took a lot of persistence to continue pressing my case to people well above my pay grade.  In the end, we accommodated their real concerns, alleviated any unwarranted fears, cleared up any miscommunications and we proceeded to create an amazing planting.  That planting day is one that many at my past alternative school will always remember.

I’ve come to understand since that time that few things require more persistence than an environmental project needing approvals.  Sometimes it’s tempting to just go it alone and risk the consequences.  However, to the extent that I’ve been successful as an environmental education leader, it’s often been by applying for approvals and anticipating the needs and concerns of other interested parties.  Looking at the custodian, facilities manager, school board etc. as a potential barrier, we may get stuck.  But thinking about how to do your important environmental work in a way that makes life better and addresses the needs of these parties can really yield results and open more doors in the future.  It requires knowing what they want, what about your work could make their job easier or harder.  It also requires making sure that they feel valued and are listened to.  For example, a group of trees makes for more difficult lawn mowing – you may have to fight your custodian.  That rarely ends well. However, a group of trees connected by a mulched bed means less mowing and likely a supportive ally.  Hang in there, win some allies and you’ll soon be doing the important work you’ve been craving and building support for your next project along the way.

It’s been a great journey: both fun and highly rewarding knowing that I’m making a difference.  However, as I think beyond the group of schools I support, I sometimes worry when I hear people talk about how difficult it can be to green their school yard or do other environmental work.  I’ve found that with a team, some persistence and a vision, anything is possible!

Got any other secrets to environmental success in schools?  I’d love to hear them!