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Atomi Brainwaves Podcast S1 E7: Su Temlett on Visible Learning

By Thomas O'Donahoo on 24 March 2020Atomi Brainwaves PodcastNSWstaffroomUKstaffroom

Su Temlett opens our eyes and answers our questions on the topic of visible learning. In this conversation we explore the importance of feedback between student and teacher and the role that data and statistics should play in how a teacher runs their classroom.

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Atomi Brainwaves Podcast Visible Learning with special guest Su Temlett
Atomi Brainwaves Podcast: Su Temlett on Visible Learning

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[Music playing]

Simon: Hello there and welcome back to Atomi Brainwaves.  I’m your host Simon and I’m joined today by Su.  What’s up Su?

Su: Nothing (laughing).

Simon: Nothing!

Su: Nothing.

Simon: Nothing at all.  Well glad to hear it, all the more room for conversation.  

Su: Yep.

Simon: We are recording here in the studio at Atomi HQ.  Atomi is an online resource for secondary level education, a platform used by students and teachers alike to help make education awesome and engaging.  We provide content for schools and students in Australia and the UK in the form of short, digestible syllabus specific videos and classroom activities.  Unsurprisingly, this is a podcast about education for educators where we take a look at some key issues in the world of education.  Today we’re doing so with the help of our resident teaching expert, former Head of English, digital learning leader for curriculum and pedagogy and Director of Curriculum, Su.  Today we’re going to be taking a look at visible learning.  Certainly a weird concept for a podcast when you’re listening for visible learning.  Anyway, that terrible joke aside, visible learning was a concept popularised by John Hattie in his 2008 book ‘Visible Learning – A Synthesis of over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement’.  The simple definition that he offers off the top is that visible learning occurs when teachers, by seeing through the eyes of their students, enable the students to become their own teachers.  I want to start by unpacking that definition because I feel that there’s a lot to be said in there, so let’s break it up into two parts.  First of all Su, can you walk us through what Hattie means by “Seeing through the eyes of their students”?

Su: Yeah sure, while students are expected to navigate through a lot in their day and trying to see their learning, although experience through their eyes is pretty important, pretty difficult to do really because it’s very hard as an adult to put yourself into the shoes of whatever age student, so being able to do that and seeing through the eyes of your student helps teachers to see what is working for them, see what is hindering them in their learning, and therefore be able to I guess suggest their teaching practice in order to do more of the things that help, and less of the things that hinder.

Simon: Okay awesome, and I guess the second part of the definition there which we can also dive into “Enable the students to become their own teachers”.  What exactly does he mean by this?

Su: Well I think putting students into a context where they can know what works for them and aid the way in which they learn is what he means by that.  So a student you can sometimes see quite precocious articulate kids who are able to say “I learn in this way” or “This way of learning works best for me”, and it doesn’t mean that they’re always going to be able to learn in that way because a good teacher is going to cater for a range of learning styles and types, but for a student to know that this is what particularly works for them so when they’ve got a task or they’re trying to attack something, they know that “I could break down and do it this way because that helps me to learn” and that’s what he’s sort of getting at there.  They are essentially not teaching themselves everything, but helping themselves to gain the knowledge in the way that works for them.

Simon: That idea of enabling I guess, the first part almost follows into the second of that definition.

Su: Yep it does.

Simon: Okay.  And I guess kind of intuitively following on from that is, I think it would be fair to say, a central pillar of the visible learning philosophy is the notion of feedback, and feedback going in both directions from teacher to student and student to teacher.  So I guess let’s dive into what that feedback loop looks like and see if we can expand upon exactly how that might manifest itself in a classroom.

Su: This one can be quite daunting for teachers, particularly if you’re not at ease with it like a 12 year old student reviewing your performance.  But essentially for me this starts in conversational terms and then it grows a student’s ability to be able to communicate with their teachers in a more mature fashion as to what it is that their teacher did that helped them to learn something.  For example, when a student’s clearly understood a topic, it’s a golden opportunity for a teacher to quiz them what it was that they liked about what the teacher did, how did it enable them to get it.  So the student might say “It’s the way that you explained it on the board”, they might say it was the way you did the matching exercise with the terminology, but whatever they tell you, you can then essentially do more of that for that student because that helped them to gain the concept.  I often do an end of topic review which consists of the students demonstrating their understanding of the topic as well as slipping in a few questions around my teaching practice.  It’s just a fun-like scale and then invite some comment, which can be very interesting, but the sort of feedback that you get can help you to sort of tweak things.  

So you might get sort of ideas on exercises that you thought they would really like but they actually hated, or vice versa things you thought they would hate actually seem really helpful for them.  So gaining like I guess being brave enough to kind of get some feedback on what it is you’re doing that works for (a) the student and (b) the whole class brings that feedback loop.  It’s not necessarily just, in terms of how is visible learning the most powerful use of feedback is for the teacher, not actually for the student, so that’s the kind of distinction between what you find most powerful.  So you’re giving feedback to the students but they’re also giving feedback to you, and that’s where the loop kind of occurs.

Simon: What has the most value going back towards the teacher!  Something you touched on there is you talked about how it might seem quite daunting to teachers and I guess that wraps around the critique of opening up these avenues to students.  Certain people might feel that that sacrifice as a teacher’s authority to a certain degree and kind of shift the power dynamics in the classroom and would maybe argue that it gives too much power to students.  Would you agree with this, or would you say that it’s maybe at the discretion of the teacher and where it’s up to them to draw the lines in the correct place to ensure that that risk is avoided?

Su: Yeah I think so, teachers are there to teach so you’d hope that anything that helps them to teach in a more effective way is welcomed, but I think it’s the same with anything that you introduce into a class whether it’s schoolwide or class-based, you’ve got to put parameters around it.  So you’ve got to, say for example you’ve got students who suddenly start doing online chats in a discussion forum, in LMS for example, you’ve got to put rules around that that they can’t behave in certain ways towards each other, it’s not Facebook, it’s not Instagram.  You’ve got to establish how you expect them to behave and speak to each other online.  So the same way they give you feedback to a teacher, you have to model what is expected, what does feedback look like, and it’s not “That lesson was crap”, that’s not productive feedback.  So it is about setting up in such a way that they can offer feedback respectfully and offer things that are useful and valuable.  

I worked at a school when I first came to Australia in 2008 who one of the Senior Executives actually was in charge of doing whole schoolwide reviews on teachers and so he would review teachers from Year 9 through to 12, so he didn’t do 7 and 8, he sort of felt like they weren’t mature enough to give the correct sort of feedback but through Year 9, 10, 11 and 12, every class was surveyed on all of their teachers and how they responded to them, not how they felt about them cause that feed brings in don’t like, but how they respond to their teaching.  So their questions were cleverly worded and this is back in the day, this is 2012 when we did these so there wasn’t really like a Google form for it or something like that that was like Gilbert collated them all himself one by one kind of thing, and then gave them to the teachers, actually he gave them to the Heads of department and then we gave them to the teachers in a kind of summarised, useful version sort of thing to help with their teaching.  But the Heads of Department got the very raw feedback, and it was very useful to every teacher that I went through as part of their performance management for them to actually see what was working.  

So they had more comments anonymised because that was sort of schoolwide but they did get things like “I really enjoyed this unit because we did it in this way”, so realised what was working for their audience in that time.

Simon: I guess it’s quite a key there what you touched on this idea of the questions and how they’re worded makes such a huge difference because of course it is the students’ feedback, it’s their thoughts, but if you can phrase something in the right way, if you can layer very clearly this is what I want you tell me about, you both get a lot of value and you also sidestep potential problems...

Su: It’s not ratemyteachers.com (laughing).

Simon: Yes wonderful website!

Su: (Laughing) Don’t ever lock yourself up, but it is designed to help with certain things so it’s not free rein, it is feedback to improve our teaching and when it’s sort of questioned around that then it’s important.

Simon: I guess one thing that springs to mind that might be said as a character point to that argument that you sacrifice authority is that, I’m just thinking of myself and putting myself back in my own school days, and I definitely felt that any teacher who was open to what I have to say and actively seeking out my thoughts, I actually felt it had the opposite respect, it strengthened my respect in that teacher and if you’re in a classroom where you feel heard by the teacher, if you feel they actually care about what I think, not only does it help them get better by taking on board my feedback but it motivates me to work harder in that classroom.  Would you agree, do you think that...?

Su: Yes definitely, I think the more the teachers show their humanity the better, because when you’re actually showing a sense of “I’m a person too” and I’ve often described weaknesses too.  Say for example, you really expected you were going to get all that marking done that weekend and you just didn’t because a terrible illness struck your house, or whatever, it’s fine to be actually real with students and say “Sorry I’ve let you down in this way and this is why...”, and as you say, that kind of level of respect of relationship depends because you’re actually sharing life together...

Simon: Its openness and honesty...

Su: Yeah.  Sometimes with students, you might actually be teaching Year 7, Year 8, Year 9, you doing life together in some aspects, so the more that you’re building in that sense of reality, and sometimes they might miss a deadline, and you might miss a deadline, but if you respect them and you respect their thoughts, and that includes respecting their thoughts on you.  It’s much better for everyone all round.

Simon: It has that kind of extra effect of strengthening the relationship beyond just strengthening your own effectiveness as a teacher.

Su: Yeah.

Simon: So I guess so far we’ve kept our focus on the sort of micro level, if you will, of visible learning in a classroom, but just to bring it out broader on this wort of macroscale, I mean statistical evidence obviously played a huge part in the building of this philosophy, I think would be fair to say.  Hattie himself based it off I think its 800 matter analyses and it plays such a huge role in collating his thoughts.  I guess the question that that leads me to is the idea of the role that statistical evidence should play within the classroom, and its two sides to it where you might say “Well of course we should lean heavily on the research and conduct as many studies as we can and let that inform how a teacher teaches his or her classroom”, the other side of that is a teacher might say “No, I know what works for me.  I know how to teach”, it’s just trying to put a square peg in a round hole if I’m trying to bring in this technique that a book told me to do.  I guess where do you think the truth lies, to what extent should statistics inform a classroom and how a teacher teaches versus that teacher’s own experience?

Su: I think statistics do have a big part to play in education and to ignore what is huge longitudinal data seems sort of counterproductive, but I don’t think it’s a question of letting that dictate because it is very real that teachers are expert creators, they have a huge job to do every 50 minutes or so of the day in front of 20-30 kids and they do know what works.  So yes, it’s kind of putting your experience, your day-to-day “I’m in the thick of it” experience against what you have read and learnt and the latest of kind of theories on education and sort of mashing it together.  Teachers need to still be very much in tune with what is going on and how people learn, and obviously that evolves and we learn more things and new things about how people learn.  So for teachers not to be learners is a weird thing for me...

Simon: It doesn’t quite make sense...

Su: Yeah it doesn’t quite make sense.  I think you’ve got to give teachers the respect they deserve, every lesson has different personalities, different abilities, every day brings challenges from what happened over the weekend to what the weather’s doing.  It’s just ridiculous how the weather can influence a lesson (laughing), but all of that is happening in front of you and then they’ve got all of that on-the-ground knowledge plus the theoretical knowledge in their heads in front of what is a fairly unforgiving audience sort of repeatedly throughout the working week.  They’re making on the spot judgement calls, and they kind of just get it, they know what works.  But I think with sort of applying research-based evidence learning onto knowing what works, you’ve also got to kind of take a step back and say “Well this is how I behave often in the classroom”, “These are some ways that I have read about or that are particular at the moment that are being proved to help learning”, “How can I incorporate that with what I know?” and that’s the kind of mashing it together, and then through that you’ve become a better teacher.  There’s many iterations I think of a teacher as they go through their career, a bit like Madonna (laughing), you just keep reinventing yourself kind of thing...

Simon: The perfect aim to plan a teacher...Madonna!

Su: Not the 80’s one.

Simon: Well I can say, many stages...

Su: You’ve got I guess the core of yourself as the teacher, you change and you grow with experience, but you’ve also got new learning that comes to the forefront and it would be like a doctor saying “We’re not using that drug because that wasn’t around when I learnt”.

Simon: Very dangerous...

Su: You’ve got to keep up with what’s working and what’s new and what’s evidence based, but you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater either.

Simon: I guess the impression I’m getting is it seems to be about having the “nas” to know when what works, just stick to the model and other moments when you say “Okay a different type of touch is required here”, and I guess that does come with experience, doesn’t it?

Su: Yeah and that’s why it’s such an exhausting job, it’s such a rewarding job but it is exhausting.  If you’ve ever had a six period day or WA on a Friday afternoon, for example, that takes a lot to get learning happening in the classroom in some of those situations, and you are making split-second decisions for all of the time that you’re teaching, things change quite rapidly and you’ve got no control over say “So-and-so split up with so-and-so” or “There was a fight at lunchtime” or anything like that and how that affects the lesson...the brilliant lesson that you’ve planned, you know totally derailed by a kid crying in the toilets.  You’ve got so many different circumstances and that where teachers are experts at their trade.

Simon: Even though we have shown now that a brilliantly planned lesson can be totally derailed, lets still try to talk about the brilliant planning of a lesson, and what I want to ask is how an individual teacher might take some strategies from the visible learning model and put them into practice in their classrooms, do you have any examples you can run us through?

Su: Yes, so I’ll just recap the basic premise of Hattie’s research.  He analysed the effect of different aspects of teaching, learning and assessment and out of school factors into effect sizes.  Anything with an effect size of plus 40 I think showed to have a reasonable impact on student learning.  So the ones that I want to focus on today are “Collective Teacher Efficacy” which has plus 1.57 effect, “Teacher Clarity” at plus 0.75, “Direct Instruction” at 0.6, “Response to Intervention” at 0.75 and “Scaffolding” at 0.82, so all above that zone of 40 in terms of efficacy.  So “Collective Teacher Efficacy” and practice to me just means using your colleagues for resources for each other and this is something that I strongly advocate and I hate reinventing the wheel, I hate internal competitive between teachers where they don’t share resources, they don’t team teach or play to each other’s strengths, that kind of is not helping each other to build that sense of “Collective Teacher Efficacy”.  

We’re all in it together and we’re here for the sole purpose of helping our students to be the best that they can be, so why not do it together!  So, for example, avoid things like internal competition, it’s really great if your kids get the best in the HSC, but everybody’s kids doing well will help everybody’s kids to do well.  I think avoiding things like that are really important and making sure that everybody is helping each other, I guess.  “Teacher Clarity” I think is really important, so when a teacher can explain a concept in a way that students really understand and that helps them to learn.  So for that one, things like strategies like avoid talking too much in the front of the classroom, don’t waffle, be succinct, be clear.  Things like our product Atomi can really assist in this because our videos have the benefits of students being able to pause and think over, rewind if need be, and all that sort of helps really grasp the clarity of what is being explained to you which can get lost in a teacher explanation if it’s waffling on a little bit too much.  That also linked with your “Direct Instructions” as well, but reusable content is really good as well.  

In terms of “Scaffolding”, I think what’s often missed in classrooms is showing students what they need to do to succeed, so like when you hand out an assessment task, show them how to succeed by showing them I guess what they’re aiming at, it doesn’t have to be exactly like that but show them what is a good example, model how to do a task and scaffold their responses so that they can step through what is required of them.  Students respond really well to timed interventions, so keep an eye out for when you need to intervene in their learning and just make sure you are giving them full examples of what you need them to do, and that “Response to Intervention” at that 0.75 score responding regularly when you feel that they’re going off track will help.  So that structure and the “Scaffolding” and “Response to Intervention” are really nicely hand-in-hand together.

Simon: Amazing, some really effective sounding strategies there in relation to visible learning and to bring it to your classroom.  The last thing I want to ask you about is not strictly in relation to visible learning, but almost as more important in relation to its creators, Hattie and others who are strongly behind the practice have claimed that educational policy often times ignores the data that they or other researchers are presenting in favour of educational policy or form that I guess has a basis more in opinion than it does in the statistical research, I was wondering, do you think this is the case, and if so, why, and what can be done to correct this?  It’s a big question, I know...

Su: Big question...I think educational reform is a little bit like health reform.  It can take 20-30 years before findings are really sort of imbedded and implemented.  I sometimes think it’s a bit like the politicians didn’t come up with the idea themselves and so they have to think of something different rather than go with the researchers and the key facts as they stand, but that’s...

Simon: Those darn politicians!

Su: I guess in many ways we’ve come quite away in education but I think for me one of the hardest things is that there’s so much noise around the space and that there’s so many kind of educational reforms, it’s hard to hold onto one in a real tangible form.  I find Australia interesting coming from the UK where we had a national curriculum, so there was a state wide education and it was sort of more simple.  We had GCC in our level, they were the qualifications and everybody wherever you travelled around the country was doing the same thing, but with Australia with every state holding onto their own version of the curriculum and assessment, I think it makes it really hard to drive reform because it’s like we’re united but we’re not, so then you get lots of differences in how one state is behaving to another and it’s very hard.  Look at when the national curriculum was launched, that was supposed to kind of unify Australia and instead it got merged into NESA Syllabi, it’s like a nod to it now rather than...cause some states believe their system is better than the other state so they don’t want to kind of give an inch.

Simon: Almost when you were talking about the politicians in a way, but on a broader scale between states.

Su: Yeah, I don’t know if that answers the question other than I think it’s incredibly complex and I think it’s almost more complex here because of the individual states’ ownership and I guess some of those states not wanting to give an inch in terms of their ownership.

Simon: It’s a big question.  You don’t need to solve the problems of the world.

Su: Not today.

Simon: I’m sure they’ll come up again and again as we record more and more episodes, so we’ll revisit.  I guess that’s all we have time for so far in relationship to visible learning but before we go we’re going to have, as always, Su’s hot tip.  A little piece of advice or story from your years of teaching for teachers out there.  It can be serious, it can be jokey, and it doesn’t even have to be about teaching at all.  So give us your hot tip for the day Su.

Su: Well this one is serious but it’s actually quite funny when you do it.  Video yourself teaching.  It’s hilarious.

Simon: Dream move for any teacher!

Su: I’ve only done it once and it’s just so funny...it’s like hearing yourself on an answering machine message or something like that...it’s cringe worthy but it’s really valuable to see where you spend your time in the class, who you avoid, who you teach, where you walk, where your kind of safe spot is, just the dynamics of you in the classroom.  If you can’t set yourself up, get a friend to do it for you and then make sure you video them so they don’t have any dirt on you, but it’s just a really interesting exercise and it will give you the feedback that you kind of need that we just talked about in the beginning that you can get from students but you can also get it from doing this for yourself and replaying it.

Simon: Self-evaluation!

Su: Yeah self-evaluation, absolutely.

Simon: Can’t imagine it would be the funnest thing a teacher would have to do but it’s a good piece of advice.  We should say so long as you have permission to video with students in the room, of course.

Su: Yeah, if you’re just using it internally for yourself, you should be fine, but don’t go and put it on You Tube (laughing).

Simon: Just thought we’d cover ourselves very quickly there.  Sound piece of advice so long as all the necessary boxes are ticked and I’s dotted and T’s crossed.  All righty, thank you very much Su, that’s all we have time for today.

Su: No problem.

Simon: Thank you everybody for listening.  We’re looking forward to having you back for wherever we end up in the world of education next.  In the meantime, check us out on our main site at getatomi.com.  For now, it’s goodbye from Su...

Su: Bye.

Simon: And goodbye from me.  Bye, bye.

[Music playing]

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