Visible Leadership

“it is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” – Oscar Wilde

I have a tendency to keep anywhere from ten to twenty books going at any one time.  I often find myself pulled in many different directions on what I want to read on any given day.  So whether it is the ‘whatever strikes my fancy’ to the need to know this for my work or those I lead…reading is just a natural part of my day.  I actually feel unnatural when I don’t have a book with me.

With that said, a recent round of literature purchases landed a copy of John Hattie’s “Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning” on my desk.  While the book continues to make the trek to and from work each and every day, my overall workload and pressures of getting ready for a new school year have hampered my ability to fully dive in to his work.  However, just perusing Hattie’s preface has already pushed the possibilities of what might be found within this gem.

Hattie’s preface to “Visible Learning for Teachers” sets the stage for the questions that we will be required to grapple with throughout the volume.  Hattie is asking if there is “visible learning inside?”  Is there “visible learning” occurring on your campus…and if so, what exactly does that look like?  Furthermore, if we were asked to show people “visible learning” occurring on our campuses, how would we do that?  It is a question that is worth our time and reflection, and not just for the short term…

While Hattie apparently focuses on the teacher…I would like to approach “visible learning” from a different perspective.  Let’s put a leadership perspective on the same question.  How do we create “visible learning” as leaders and administrators in our schools.  While many may consider it easier to spotlight our teachers and students…it is vital for school leaders to grapple with the idea of how they are creating “visible learning” on their campus and within our districts?  A question that we don’t often contemplate as leaders.

So let’s start there.  In the preface of the book, Hattie asks the question of “Where do I start?”  In which Hattie discusses the starting place…“is the way in which you think about your role – it is to know, on a regular basis, the nature and magnitude of your impact on the learning of your students.”  At which point, I would also include our teachers, parents and community members.

Hattie’s question is incredibly important and often glossed over…“Where do I start?”  Many leaders have a tendency to keep doing and doing and doing and doing.  The work and responsibility load for 21st century administrators can be overwhelming to say the least.  And as Artie Davis says, “sometimes we need to stop the bus and get off if we are going to be able to lead forward effectively.”  We may need to stop what we are doing, ascertain the reality of where we are at compared to where we want to go, and determine that as the starting point from which we can monitor the progress of our following efforts.

Hattie goes beyond the ‘start and requires a consideration of ‘your role‘ in ascertaining the “magnitude of your impact on learning” on your campus.  That speaks directly to vision, which is a leadership imperative.  The quality and ability for building a vision for your school can quite dramatically affect the magnitude of your impact on all members of your community and organization.  Many leaders lack clarity to their ‘role and end up spending a good amount of their time managing rather than leading.  Leading is not just about making sure that the campus doors are open and the lights are turned on each day.  Rather, leading is about making sure that you are turning a light on in each individual on your campus.  It is about leading with a vision that sweeps everyone up and aligns the building and organization towards a better future.

So, back to Hattie’s question, “Where do I start?”  Leaders start with themselves.  They start with high expectations and then serve as a model of those expectations.  And don’t be fooled, at times this can be incredibly difficult and lonely work.  That is why trust, relationships, collaboration and community are all vital to the success of an organization.  When those are in place, a leader can gain the needed honesty and feedback to grow and propel the organization forward.  When these are not in place, no matter how many conversations, meetings, trainings, and seminars you provide…it is unlikely that change will happen in the classroom, or behaviors across the campus, including the overall culture of the school.  Without these in place, you will find your leadership ‘role diminished and will lack the influence necessary to create any type of impact on the organization.  The nature and magnitude of your impact” will be minimal.

The other vital question that Hattie puts out on the table…“What does visible learning look like in a school?” and is there “visible learning inside.”  This is an incredibly deep and thoughtful question requiring our reflection.  A question that could be reviewed, discussed, pondered and provided serious thought and ongoing consideration throughout an entire year, or beyond.  Yet we have a tendency to put it all on the classroom, when I think that it starts first with leadership.  Leadership needs to model the process.  As they say, leaders go first.  With that said, let’s reframe the question…

“What does visible learning look like in leadership?”  A thought-provoking question that many leaders fail to wrestle with…which would promote transparency in and through their leadership.  If we want to make our leadership authentic and transparent, then we need to be the model on how to promote ‘visible’ learning?  And it starts with the key word ‘visible’.  We need to make our leadership visual for those we lead.

And what a grand idea it is!  Making our own learning transparent and visual for those in our learning community.  What a tremendous model for any learning community leader.  So how can we ‘start”‘this?  As mentioned before, it starts with the word ‘visible’.  Which reminds me of an article that came through my twitter feed…an article about how we share our learning with students.  The article described how a teacher posted pictures of books that he/she was reading and other learnings that they were engaged in as a motivation for students.  They were actually making their own learning ‘visible for their students.

Incredible!  A powerful and easy way to share with those we lead how we are promoting our own learning.  Just by making it ‘visible’.  As easy as posting it on your office door so others have a glimpse at how you are leading the learning.  Yet, we have to question why we aren’t as leaders visibly sharing our learnings for the betterment of our ‘learning‘ community.  If we are to serve as lead learners then we need to make those learnings apparent and transparent for the community around us.  That level of sharing often serves as the driving force for increasing inquiry and further professional learnings on your campus.  We must remember how incredibly powerful visuals can be…especially visuals that share a story.

However, it doesn’t  or shouldn’t stop at our office door.  Leaders understand that their words have influence and influence is a function of leading.  With that understanding in hand, leaders need to be strategic about the learning conversations they create and engage in.  We all know that the “I was just thinking…” conversation that the principal had with the teacher in the staff lounge before school is all over campus by recess.  It shouldn’t come as a surprise to any school leader how quickly their words travel from one end of the campus to the other.  Yet, what is most important is what a school leader does with that knowledge.  School leaders need to create conversations that will lead towards the vision…that will visibly drive the behaviors and actions of those across the campus towards that vision.  Or, at the very least raise the level of inquiry.  Leadership conversations have the power to visibly increase learning and serve as a change agent for the behaviors and culture of our campuses.  There is visible power in those conversations.

In closing, a question for reflection…is our own level of learning visibly moving the people and organizations we lead to higher levels of achievement and excellence.  And are we holding ourselves accountable?  Accountable to making our own learning visible.  When we do we make ourselves both accountable and vulnerable.  We serve as the model for others, we serve as the lead learner for our building.  This is not easy, being accountable and vulnerable never are.   Yet it is the difference between leading and managing.  We can all drive the bus around…the question is can we drive it to a better destination.

Hattie says, “It involves impacting on the love of learning, inviting students to stay in learning and seeing the ways in which students can improve their healthy sense of being, respect for self, and respect for others – as well as enhancing achievement.  What achievement is to be valued needs to be a major debate in schools, communities, and societies; right now, such curricular questions seem more determined by the test specifications than by such lively debate.”  Being the lead learner means being able to lead the ‘debate’ and the ability and courage to mine the conflict that will take our schools/organizations to higher levels of thinking and acting.  This is difficult and tiring work.  And it can be scary as we drive into unknown territory.  But it is also a leadership imperative.  We have a responsibility to those we serve to engage in this type of dialogue in productive ways in all of our schools.  While it is not easy, it can be deeply gratifying.

Hattie states in the preface, as does PLC Pioneer Rick DuFour…this type of work takes “passion” and a lot of it.  While Hattie states that passion” is a “difficult notion to measure”…it is also very similar to great teaching and instruction, we know it when we see it.

And as Hattie ends so eloquently, go forth and…

Know thy impact.

2 thoughts on “Visible Leadership

  1. Hi David,

    A reflective and probing post, thanks for sharing it with us. I have a copy of Hattie’s previous (longer) version of Visible Learning on my desk and its pages are well marked with notations and highlighted passages.

    Knowing the depth and breadth of the meta-analysis that is the foundation of Hattie’s work gives me courage when I work along with staff and parents about why we need to shift our practices and how we can bring more effective practices into actualization.

    Keep leading, keep learning, keep sharing:)

    Brian Harrison

  2. Thanks for providing the leadership viewpoint in response to Hattie’s book. I look forward to working with school leaders that are wiling to be visible learners and leaders because as Hattie notes schools where collegiality, trust and common focus are high are schools where students thrive. Thanks for continuing to share your thoughts and spur leadership onto 21st century practice.

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