Instructional Tools, Must-Reads, Recent + Research-Based

BOMish: September 2018 {“Visible Learning for Teachers”}

book-of-the-month (1)

This month’s BOMish (Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning by John Hattie) was another book used in one of my graduate courses, and it was the first textbook that stopped me in my tracks. I mean, really– how many textbooks do we find arresting ever? This was the first researched-based text that allowed me to see what works and why when it comes to actually fostering learning. Not memorizing, not meeting standards, not testing– but good ol’ fashioned learning

Let’s get to the good stuff.

Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning (John Hattie)


  • The Stats: 296 Pages, published March 2012 (but online resources are consistently updated)
  • Who Should Read It: Teachers, school administrators, educational program designers
  • My Rating (out of 5 ♥): ♥♥♥♥.5
  • My Thoughts: As educators, we’re constantly trying new things with the goal of helping our students learn. We want things to stick, but not for the sake of memorizing, but for internalizing concepts, ideas, patterns so students can draw meaningful connections and learn from a wide. But trying new things can be maddening and brings up more doubt and questions than just coasting with the status quo. Where should you start? Do you flip your classroom just because it seems like that’s the “in” thing right now? Do you try all the things, and see what works best? Do you just try one thing and stick with it for the year? What research should I trust? What works best? How do I know if what I’m doing is actually working?

Hattie’s book (hailed as “teaching’s Holy Grail”) takes out the guesswork and provides a no-nonsense meta-analysis of over 50,000 studies and 80 million students and offers 200+ instructional strategies and their relative effectiveness as related to student achievement. In other words, he tells us what helps and what hinders learning and helps us get into the minds of our students. With so much data analyzed, the results are at first a bit overwhelming.

Check it: 


…wait, w h a a a t ?

The chart takes a minute or six to digest.

What you’re looking at is a ranked list of the factors that affect student learning. The ones on the top? Those are the goodies. They have the most evidence that using them will increase student learning. Moving towards the middle, Hattie found that the “hinge point” was at 0.40. In other words– go for the strategies that are above 0.40(ish). And, finally, at the bottom, we’ve got what hinders learning: ADHD, deafness, boredom, depression, moving, corporal punishment (how is this still relevant enough to have studies…? #shudder), etc. 

As you read the list, you might be struck by the vastness of the categories (breastfeeding? chess instruction? modifying school calendars?) and wonder how and why Hattie selected the factors he did. The original list was a scant (sarcasm) 138 categories, and was developed by analyzing data of studies spanning 6 major areas, including  students, schools, home, curricula, teaching strategies, and the classroom. The list continued to take shape and grow after incorporating a holistic picture of students backgrounds, culturally, physiologically, emotionally, financially, and more. Personally, I don’t need all of the categories of the updated analysis and find the first iteration to be sufficient. Overall, the list hasn’t changed too much, though more categories have been added towards the top and bottom.

So, is the book all numbers? Ah, thank heavens, no, and in fact, you’re supplied with ample examples on how to leverage effective teaching strategies with examples, hands-on activities, and ideas. There are checklists, facilitation tips, as well as rich resources to use in nearly any classroom. The book was updated in 2012 and Hattie’s online resource bank is updated constantly. 

If you’re a new teacher struggling to keep your head above water, a veteran teacher looking to mix it up, an administrator wondering what initiatives to promote, or an educational program designer… I can’t recommend this book enough. While, of course, each student group is different, and ultimately your students’ achievements may not fall exactly in the order laid out on this grand meta-analysis, Hattie’s book directs you to the starting line and points you in the direction of success.

Side-note: Since this was an assigned text, I admit it may not elegantly catalogue into taking charge of my own professional development. I take full ownership of this decision 🙂 

Curriculum, Instructional Tools

UbD is A-OK with me!


I read once that you should never explain or offer a disclaimer for your own writing.

I’m also not one to always play by the rules.

And, so:

Disclaimer 1: I’m completely on-board with Understanding by Design. I’ve used this planning framework frequently and con gusto (though rarely to its full capacity– never took the time to write out an entire WHERETO in real life) in my own professional development as a teacher. I’ve also found it quite helpful to revise some of my old lesson plans to fit within UbD frameworks.

Disclaimer 2: I will always be intrigued by the critical perspective of any idea, no matter how wonderful it seems and how well it works for me. Call me a cynic! But a learned one, ever-inspired by curiosity and the pursuit of teaching excellence. 

This week, I’m thinking about Understanding by Design framework and lesson plans that follow this format. Need a refresher on what exactly UbD is? Read Chapter 1 (free) by its creators! Not into reading (what are you doing on this blog!?)? The lovely Avenues: The World School has the YouTube version of UbD champion, creator, author, and researcher Grant Wiggins himself.

Since I’m not actively in the classroom at the moment, I paged through a few lessons, which, as I said, are close-but-not-exactly in the UbD framework. As I worked through the UbD framework, I thought a little bit more about lesson plans that are drastically different than UbD (think- worksheets, prescribed activities with little flexibility, etc.). And, during this unit, I found myself naturally wondering:

  • Is there pedagogical opposition to UbD?
  • If so, why is UbD pedagogically opposed? (this excludes motivation-based resistance to UbD, aka- I’m too lazy excuses, and refers principally to educators/administrators who are aware of and not bought in to UbD)
  • Are there emerging alternatives or competing strategies to UbD?

After a brief internet search, I found several blog posts and personal opinion pieces critiquing UbD. I took a gander on beloved EBSCO, but couldn’t readily find a great deal of information on UbD critiques (much of the primary research is on a singular case study). Here’s a running list of the critiques I unearthed from the Interwebs:

UbD is a one size fits all for all subject areas.

-Shouldn’t the money and time for training teachers how to design a lesson using UbD be spent instead on deepening their understanding of content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge? teachers need support in upgrading and updating their knowledge of content and pedagogy. These are things that cannot be addressed by simply changing the curriculum or changing the way of preparing the lesson plan, much more its format.

-No empirical evidence exists that states UbD is effective

-teachers had a lot of difficulty in making a UbD-based plan

-appears to promote “teaching to the test”.

-I do not quarrel with the design steps laid out in Backward Design. My quarrel is with the sloganism. It is commonplace to begin any adventure by focusing on the outcome first.*

-The concern here is that in some quarters Backward Design is packaged and promoted as something new and innovative. There is nothing new about the concept of beginning the learning process with a clearly stated purpose and anticipated outcome for the learner.*

(* From the very entertaining and thorough blog of Dr Larry Creedon)

Perhaps the most compelling/cogent arguments I found were that it’s a time sensitive process and that there is a risk of teachers spending so much time with the process that it actually becomes less student-centered as a result. As a teacher, I have to admit that doing the ENTIRE process of UbD is cumbersome, and I’ve never been accountable to turn in lesson plans or even show evidence of my entire unit. Instead, it’s more of an encouraged process that we are given time for at the start of each semester. This looks like teaching teams coming together to get a big picture evidence of Steps 1 and 2, which include big ideas, essential and guiding questions, performance tasks (big projects and smaller assignments, as well as “Students will know” and “Students will be able to,” which are written as learning targets based on standards. This approach, I find, is quite sustainable and allows the planning to indeed be on the end in mind…which is exactly what it should be! If I were required to do this for each and every lesson, I’d likely burn out, focusing more on the final product (a lesson in a specific format) versus the process. The approach I’ve used also allows for a fair degree of flexibility and maneuverability.

I’m left wondering a few things:

  • When schools decide to implement UbD, what is the process of implementation? Is it every lesson plan? Are teachers held accountable for turning in a “portfolio” of all of their lessons?
  • What flexibility exists in a more rigid or traditional school with respect to UbD plans? Can a teacher readily pivot the curriculum, or are they “locked in” once they create a UbD unit plan?
  • Will we see empirical evidence on UbD soon? (a la Hatte’s comprehensive meta-analysis in Visible Learning)

When UbD is implemented in a school, what is the process? Does it come from administration? What is the teacher support? Is this often associated with a curriculum coach? (Here are many ways not to do it!)

[Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash]

Professional Development, Recent + Research-Based

Design Thinking: All Talk & No Action?

I recently read an article circulating about the design thinking world with a compelling angle on design thinking (DT) itself. The author, Meg Miller, states that often times, DT’s inherent exclusion can actually further exacerbate the problem for which a final product is being designed. The example Miller raises in the article is peace- and relationship-building amongst populations that are threatened and severely affected by race-related violence in St Louis, MO. This article in particular was written following the police shooting of Michael Ferguson in August 2014.

Miller interviews Antionette Carroll, who runs a non-profit for diversity awareness, and she’s made some interesting yet controversial observations on the design thinking world, which she sums up into 3 overarching principles:

  1. Design thinking has an exclusion problem (the designers are often not directly affected by the problem, and therefore, the solution)
  2. Act fast, then keep iterating (she recommends immediate action plans of diverse peoples– her favorite is the 24-hour workshop model which not only generates ideas but also allows people to get to work on problems immediately)
  3. Approaches not solutions (assuming simplistic solutions ignores deeply embedded problems which exist in many communities, like St Louis– affordable housing, police violence, etc.)

These principles would actually be the founding philosophies for her newest non-profit, Creative Reaction Lab, which works to “expos[e] the invisible mechanisms of inequality, many of which were by design themselves.”

The interview makes me critically wonder about design thinking overall. Last semester, I took a class on Adult Education and Andragogy, and we had a final unit that was rooted in design-thinking. Our final project was to use design thinking to overhaul distance learning with adult learners. The class itself was a distance class, and the design thinking unit left a great deal to be desired. My classmates struggled to ideate and come up with solutions that weren’t already readily implemented into distance learning classes. I left the project with lots of questions:

  • Was this an example of poorly facilitated design thinking, or was it a case of design thinking’s limitations?
  • Can design thinking be effectively facilitated in a distance environment?
  • What degree is personal connection necessary in the design process, and is it essential to have this type of human connection in each of the 6 steps?

Admittedly, I began the project a bit skeptical with design thinking to begin with, though I’m so open to having my mind changed. As an educator, I see the process as valuable. It employs empathy, creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, refining and changing, and many other excellent tools. I guess my beef is that I see design thinking as a clever and attractive tool, but I frequently wonder about the longevity of the final product, if there ever is one. Of course, this is coming from me having seen design thinking in the “before” stages– quite common when these are being facilitated at conferences or workshops. There’s just not time for a final product to be realistically (nor reasonably) implemented in the span of 3 days.

So, does it work!?

I have to agree with Carroll to some degree. I find that in my facilitation workshops of design thinking, we spend a lot of time hypothesizing, using post-its, and making prototypes out of cardboard and tape… and I have to wonder if this is an effective use of my time or if I can really implement these skills. This makes me wonder about me as a teacher, too! How many times have I asked students to create something just for practice versus create an authentic final product that solves a problem for a real audience? Rarely, as much as I think of myself as a creative and effective educator.

Overall, I’m not sure I have answers… and I’m enjoying the process of thinking about design thinking from positive and critical perspectives, and I’m inspired by the fact that it makes me wonder about my own teaching. What would it look like if I employed Carroll’s 3 principles to my own classroom? What if, for example, I had an entire “think-tank” type of class where students ideated for several hours until they could reasonably come up with a solution? Might this make laboratory science more compelling and “real”? Further– with inquiry, problem- and project-based learning taking the stage, it seems to me a matter of time before design thinking may weave its way into progressive education; indeed, in some circles it already has.

[Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash]