An Administrator’s Reflections on the Annual Visible Learning Conference

The Annual Visible Learning Conference was held July 9 and July 10 in Chicago, IL. When I got there, an employee at the hotel asked me, “What is the conference about?” A group of friends that I was reconnecting with after 15 years asked me, “What is Visible Learning?” My parents, who would be watching my dogs during the conference, asked me, “Who is this researcher, John Hattie?” They all, also, followed up with, “…and is it working?” Hattie spoke in his keynote about the importance in educating parents regarding what works best in education. I hesitated in both of my responses, not because I did know what to say. While I satisfied their curiosity in the moment, their questions provoked further examination.

A Pixar Pitch for Hattie’s Research

Daniel Pink (2012) uses the Pixar pitch, exercised by Hollywood’s animation studio, to advertise or pitch his book, To Sell is Human (2012). I use the Pixar pitch as a way to define an ideal state of an organization or concept. The Pixar pitch has these sentence starters: Once upon a time _____________. Every day, ________. One day, ____________. At the same time ____________. Meanwhile, ____________. Until Finally, ________. I wrote one for John Hattie’s research and his notion of Visible Learning. Once upon a time, there was a man who spent the last thirty years synthesizing over 1400+ meta-analyses that included over 90,000 studies and involved over a quarter million students. One day, back in 2009, John Hattie published a book titled Visible Learning that released this convincing and compelling research to educators around the world. Every day, John Hattie and his research team continue to rank the influences, over 250, using a common scale (effect size) to communicate what works best in education. Because of that, robust conversations ignited amongst educators, leaders, and politicians. Until finally, significant agreements were constructed around the beliefs and behaviors (within the national and international education systems) that are fundamental to teaching and equipping students with the content knowledge, cognitive skills, and learner dispositions that ready students.

And Is It Working?

In 2016, my school district rewrote its strategic plan based on the principles and practices arising from Hattie’s research. My school district resides in a very disenfranchised community in Northern California, one of the poorest cities in the state and only 8% of the residents hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. About 20% of the school district’s students read at level (via the annual state language exam) and less than 10% of the students are fluent in math. Our school district needed to break its narrative. John Hattie’s research told the story that we, as educators, despite such obstacles, have the leverage to change the story. So in 2016, I wrote a Pixar Pitch for our school district: Once upon a time, there was a school district that wanted to ensure students grew one year or more for each year of school. Every day, the director, principals, staff, and students focused their time, and effort on high leverage instructional practicesgrounded in clear expectations and a keen awareness of one’s progress. opportunity to connect some of these strategies such as “ teacher clarity” and “ know thy impact” with greater ownership from the students about their learning and their progress. Because of that, everyone worked hard to find instructional ways to strike a balance of surface learning and deep learning. Unitl finally, every student was advancing more than one year’s growth in one year’s time, and taking ownership over their learning. Currently in 2018, over 50% of our students have made more than one year’s gain two years running, as measured by a local common reading assessment and as measured by the annual state language arts exam. My school district’s preliminary state data shows over 30% of the students reading at grade level or above.

All Schools Can Ensure Progress and Impact

The initial questions that sparked thought within myself also generated reflection in the people inquiring. The hotel employee reflected back on his schooling experience. He remembered how his teachers taught history and hoped teachers today tell the truth. I interpreted his remark as a plea for schools to facilitate civility attributes, cognitive skills and learner qualities within our students. My parents reflected back and accredited the teachers of the school for properly outfitting my sister and me for life after high school. Today, I can appreciate the notion that many variables, variables within the control of the school and out of the control of the school, played a significant role in our preparation. As my group of friends have kids about ready to start school, they wondered what to look for in a school. Even with different research designs, the story still draws similar conclusions in what all learners want and need to succeed. Learners of any age and any skill want respect, credibility, and high relational trust; to know what is expected and what success looks like; to receive feedback on strengths and where/how to improve. Becoming more aware of such influences that work best in education, my friends can now make that educated decision for their children.

A Blueprint for Educational Leadership

In the army, the generals and colonels scheme all the finite maneuvers in training and in preparation for battle – deciding on the equipment to use, simulating how to approach the enemy, studying the layout of the land.  The army’s extensive planning is remarkably commendable. Although plans are a necessary part of preparing for battle, they often do not work on the battlefield. Colonel Tom Kolditz states, no plan (and preparation) alone survives once in contact with the enemy.

    A person does not need to be enlisted in the army to resonate with Colonel Kodlitz’s message. This is our reality in education as teachers and as leaders. The greatest and most well thought-out plans dissolve once in contact with staff or with teenage students. While the plan may not fail, human behavior and thought inevitably alter the plan of action. I cannot tell you the number of times I wrote an agenda for a management meeting or substitute taught in a classroom following my well-written lesson plans, only to come in contact with the staff and students and have the script be rewritten.

    Knowing we cannot possibly plan for every variable, the army developed a new approach for battle in the 1980s called Commander Intent approach (Heath, 2010). The army clearly designed and communicated its intent and outcome for battle. The army moved away from designing every scenario, and moved towards relying heavily on skills, knowledge, and the attitude of the foot soldiers and captains to react and respond to the enemy in a way that achieved the desired intent and outcome specific to each particular encounter. As an example, one general’s mission for his platoon was to protect the soldiers of the third brigade while they crossed the line of enemy fire.

    In education, as a central office district administrator, it is still easy to lose one’s way. I wrote a blog about a month ago from a site principal perspective.  Back then I said I would follow up this month by writing a blog on my plan to ensure one’s year’s growth as the director of instruction and curriculum in a K -12 unified school district.  I moved into this position two and half years ago. Initially, I felt confused and uninfluential as a central office administrator. I no longer encountered the constant daily demands of a site.  While contemplating my influence and my role, Doug Reeves message resounded in my head. In his book Accountability for Learning, he declares “as a fundamental moral principle, no student at any school should be more accountable than the adults in the system”. Though the activities were taking shape differently in my new role, my blueprint in education remained the same, ensure one year’s growth or more for myself, every adult, and then for every student as a central office administrator.

Comparable to the Commander’s Intent approach, I as a central office administrator must distinctly communicate the district plan. Just as teacher clarity anchors the purpose for classroom instruction, leader clarity fortifies the expected adult behaviors and practices that assemble the district mission. To ensure one’s impact in positive, the blueprint must be edged into people’s minds and hearts. The blueprint was constructed based on staff’s needs complemented with current research around what works best in education. Providing regular and consistent feedback to teachers and principals after school and class visits is another noteworthy way to persistently reinforce the district goals and expectations.

Let’s step back from clear communication, and revisit my district’s strategic plan. In 2016-17, one year after being hired, my district and I changed our goal. Instead of focusing on proficiency and mastery, the district asked adults and students alike to focus on progress and improvement. Clayton Christensen (2006) in his article, “What is an Organization’s Culture?” recommends an organization change the task (or goal) when looking to shift adult thinking and practice, and reach the students never before reached. Organizational cultures become ingrained in the “this is the way we have always done things” outlook. When only 22% of our students can read, write, and think at grade level or beyond, such results demand new specifications and new hardware. This new hardwiring has been subtle yet has proved to be an industrial and secure design.

Included in the district’s strategic plan were two actions aligned with the overall goal. The two high-ranking instructional practices sketched into the district blueprint stemmed from John Hattie’s research:

1.) Teacher clarity (a strategy that can double the create of learning) was and is rudimentary to the success of our multi-year endeavor. The learning intention give direction to any activity or project; the success criteria, additionally, describe the necessary steps to arrive at the desired learning destination.

2.) Know thy impact was and is the other high-impact strategy also elementary to the strategic plan.  Regularly and routinely monitoring student’s well-being and academic progress provides the students and adults the necessary feedback to know one’s effectiveness. Furthermore, tracking student improvement allows us adults to know how we are going along and/or where we are at in the mission, responding accordingly.

One other important specification to the district blueprint was the reinforcements. Michael Forman (2017) writes about adding support beams to one’s educational blueprint especially when advancing a school district. As director of curriculum and instruction, certain vehicles of support like professional development, ongoing site and district collaboration, and instructional coaching at each school site, remain an integral part. Dylan Williams (2016) in his book, Leadership for Teacher Learning references such vehicles of support as viable ways to develop our people, and build effective habits/practices. Educators and students alike want to perform well. When commanding huge improvement by the whole system, organizations hold a responsibility to provide such similar and necessary conditions so the adults and students can succeed.

With the mission designed and clearly articulated, Colonel Koldtiz would say the foundation of the blueprint has been secured. As the supporting beams are then positioned, you, as a central office leader, are ready to trust in your staff, their knowledge, their skillset and their heart. The plans may alter but not fold. Just as the soldiers projected the third brigade when crossing enemy lines, our staff can appropriate the essential actions that cause significant student advancement each school year.


Christensen, C. (2006). What is an Organization’s Culture? Harvard Business School, 1- 8.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning. London: Routlege.

Heath, D. H. (2010). Switch. New York: Broadway Books.

Reeves, D. (2004). Accountability for Learning. ASCD Publications.

William, D. (2016). Leadership for Teachers Learning. West Palms Beach: Learning Sciences International.