Is Improving Teaching and Learning Really That Simple?

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by Steve Francis

Adding new technology into the learning environment does not automatically lead to increased achievement. It is vital that educators are clear about how the introduction of new technology will improve student learning. The use of technology is not an end in itself. Effective use of technology should be driven by learning goals rather than the a specific technology. It is vital that we are clear on how the technology will be utilised to make the learning experience more engaging for the student, increase the clarity of their understanding or be responsive and tailor the learning experience according to the student’s needs. Just adding technology is not enough.

Hattie researched the factors that affect student achievement and used effect sizes to show the relative impact of each factor. Hattie’s original ranking of 138 aspects as published in Visible Learning is often referred to.

An effect size of 0.4 is regarded as average or typical. School leaders therefore look for effect sizes greater than 0.4 with the aim of maximising the impact. The latest table of Hattie’s effect size reports that Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI) only has a 0.45 effect size. Interestingly CAI with special learning needs students is reported by Hattie to have an effect size of 0.57. Does that mean that educators would be better off prioritising the use of CAI for students with special learning needs?

I am concerned that the fame of John Hattie’s work on effect size and the launch of the Evidence for Learning website may lull some school leaders into a false sense of security as they endeavor to improve learning outcomes in their school. As much as I would love it to be true, improving learning outcomes is not as easy as painting by numbers or selecting your dinner from a takeaway menu.

You can explore Hattie’s revised, updated and extended list of 195 effect sizes here: https://visible-learning.org/hattie-ranking-influences-effect-sizes-learning-achievement/

I would love achieving quality learning outcomes to be simple. Follow an identified formula for success and you will achieve improved outcomes. Increase one aspect and the results will be better. More of this, less of that…sounds like perfecting the recipe for a signature dish.

Add this technology, implement this program, take this magic pill…but learning is far more complex than that.

In a similar approach the Learning Impact Fund have collated an interesting and simple means of representing the likely impact and cost of 34 education approaches: http://evidenceforlearning.org.au/the-toolkit/full-toolkit/

The website is promoting the use of evidence to make informed decisions in undertaking initiatives to improve student learning outcomes. The 34 approaches are presented with a graphical representation of the average cost, reliability of the evidence and the likely impact (in months) of the approach.

As you can see from this snapshot, the use of digital technology appears to result in an additional four months of learning for the students but comes at a fairly significant cost ($$$ on a $ to $$$$$ scale).

I love the simplicity of presenting the research results and the emphasis on choosing evidence-based strategies for school improvement. It is vital that school leaders consider the potential benefit and base their decisions on evidence and getting return on the money invested.

Whilst I am an advocate for utilising research-based decisions, it is almost impossible in education to single out just ONE variable in a classroom environment to definitively say that changing variable X led to result Y.

It may even be tempting to ‘cherry pick’ the approaches that are likely to give the ‘most bang for the buck’. If, for example, I was desperate to turn around my school’s results quickly, I might be tempted to implement the following six approaches as they appear to have the most impact:

  • Feedback + 8 months
  • Meta-cognition and self-regulation + 8 months
  • Collaborative learning + 5 months
  • Early years intervention + 5 months
  • Peer tutoring + 5 months
  • Reading comprehension + 5 months

Wow! Through implementing these six approaches I could achieve the cumulative total of an ADDITIONAL 36 months of learning in just one year!

If I add digital technology into the mix I’ll add an additional four months learning for my students. Every educational leader would love 40 months of additional learning growth in just one year! Where do I sign up?

However, teaching and learning are incredibly complex. There are a multitude of factors that impact on learning effectiveness. It is too simplistic to isolate just ONE factor and measure cause and effect. It is dangerous to undertake initiatives on a superficial level. The website provides further information and encourages a deeper dive to better understand how the approach has impact and the research evidence behind the indicators. It is essential that school leaders are VERY selective and carefully plan any strategy to bring about real, sustainable improvements in student learning.

The Evidence For Learning website acknowledges that ‘digital technology is associated with moderate learning gains (on average an additional four months). However, there is considerable variation in impact. Evidence suggests that technology should be used to supplement other teaching, rather than replace more traditional approaches.’

I love the title of Marzano’s book, The Art and Science of Teaching. It encapsulates the complexity of learning. I believe teaching is a science and therefore can be researched and supported by evidence but it is also an art, requiring judgement, feeling and intuition.

Each of the approaches advocated by John Hattie in Visible Learning and the Evidence For Learning website can be effectively implemented or poorly implemented. Feedback, for example, is often highlighted as a key factor with a high effect size in Hattie terminology. However, the quality of the feedback can vary widely from one classroom to another. Simply saying we are focusing on ‘feedback’ will not have a predictable impact on student learning. The impact will be dependent on the quality of the feedback. Leadership and quality control are still paramount.

The implementation of technology initiatives can also vary widely. Teachers need support and time not only to learn to use the technology, but also to plan how they utilize the technology to enhance student learning.


Steve Francis is an expert in the complexities of leading effective schools. He is the first choice of Principals around Australia. Whether they want to enhance the skills of their leadership team or they want their staff to be genuinely and absolutely engaged, energised and enthused to REALLY create the difference that sets schools apart, they turn to Steve.

This year Steve was recognised by Educator magazine as one of the top 50 most influential educators in Australia. He is the author of four books including First Semester CAN MAKE OR BREAK YOU! and Time Management For Teachers.

Steve completed a Masters in School Leadership on teacher stress. This led him to develop the Happy School program. Over 600 schools subscribe to receive Steve’s weekly Happy School articles and use them to boost staff morale and reduce teacher stress. This innovative program has been extended to certify schools that are “Employers of Choice”.

Steve is passionate about work–life satisfaction and keeping things simple.

www.stevefrancis.net.au


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Education Technology Solutions
Education Technology Solutions has been created to inspire and encourage the use of technology in education. Through its content, Education Technology Solutions seeks to showcase cutting edge products and practices with a view to expanding the boundaries and raising the standards of education curricula. It introduces teachers and IT staff to the latest products, services and developments in education technology with a view to providing practical how-to guidance designed to facilitate the integration of those products and services into the school environment in the most productive and beneficial manner possible.
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