​We’ve all been there: deep in a conversation, when you or somebody else drops the bomb meant to underscore your point and send everybody else nodding in agreement, “Well, according to a study…

In fact, just a few weeks ago the satirical Onion newspaper reported: “Study finds 79% of statistics now sobering.”

Thankfully, armed with our smartphones we are only a few clicks away from a counter-study to disarm any argumentative opponent. Any day, in fact, I expect the Onion to report “Study: Study contradicts even the idea of this study.”

It is with this fully in mind that I share some information about educational research.

Truth is, while we do our best to use evidence to guide our practice, it can be overwhelming to separate the real science from pop science. And real science can be hard in some areas, where studies can’t keep up with the changes in technology or practice.

At our opening employee meeting this fall, I shared some of the work of the Australian researcher John Hattie. What caught my attention is the scope of what Hattie has accomplished. Over the past 15 years, he evaluated more than 1,000 meta-studies on educational achievement involving more than 240 million students. (A meta-study is a study involving other studies.)

Many more of you will have much more to say on the relative merits or limitations of meta-studies, and there will no doubt be some stinkers among the studies that went into the meta-studies Hattie reviewed. What strikes me about Hattie’s work, though, is that due to its sheer size it is more difficult for a single study to throw the conclusions out of whack.

Hattie then created a level playing field (the effect size) for reporting the impact of a variety of educational practices on student achievement. He has done his best to try and make some sense of the results by grouping them into themes and striving for an overarching takaway, which he describes as Visible Learning.

This summer a group of Cary Academy faculty traveled together to hear Hattie speak about his work. I described the overarching message from the research in two phrases to our faculty and staff.



These phrases are an effort to connect and describe the highest impacting educational practices as uncovered by Hattie. They are:

  • Students’ ability to self-assess their performance
  • Teacher credibility in the eyes of the students
  • Students providing formative evaluation to teachers on how the teachers are doing
  • Feedback about task performance, especially: where to next

Each one of these areas could fill a book, and I do hope to spend some more time unpacking them in future blog posts.

Hattie uses the phrase Visible Learning to describe the overarching message of his work because all of the top performing practices above require making learning visible: to students and to teachers.

Sure enough, Hattie is already at work on analyzing new meta-studies. The educational research is particularly light on technology and brain science right now. Things may (will) indeed change. But in the meantime, we do have some good things to discuss.