The Visible Project

“The human mind was just bad at seeing things it did not expect to see, and a bit too eager to see what it expected to see” (The Undoing Project, page 40).

I was pretty excited when I first heard Michael Lewis was publishing a book about the lives of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Kahneman wrote Thinking, Fast and Slow, which I’ve come to believe is required reading for anyone who finds value in recognizing cognitive biases. Lewis’s book, The Undoing Project, includes the riveting life stories of Kahneman and Tversky along with their important body of work in psychology, which birthed the field of behavioral economics.

After publishing Moneyball in 2004, Lewis began a correspondence with Kahneman. (Tversky unfortunately died in 1996.) Moneyball is about how Oakland Athletics’ General Manager Billy Beane used statistics and other unconventional means to draft or trade for players who were collectively believed to be “subpar” (i.e. cheap), but who nevertheless brought value to Oakland. Ultimately, Beane avoided the cognitive biases Kahneman researched for most of his professional life.

“Simply knowing about a bias wasn’t sufficient to overcome it… The mere fact that (the Houston Rockets) owned Kyle Lowry appeared to have distorted their judgment about him” (The Undoing Project, page 44)

In the field of education, much has been written about John Hattie’s Visible Learning research. He’s accomplished the important work of ranking 195 influences related to learning outcomes. Some of these influences have little positive impact on student learning, and others have a huge impact. Although the effect sizes have slightly changed throughout the years due to the addition of hundreds of meta-analysis, these influences are a valuable tool for educators–primarily because they give us the best advice available for making objective decisions regarding how to best teach kids.

“Theories for Amos were like mental pockets or briefcases, places to put the ideas you wanted to keep. Until you could replace a theory with a better theory–a theory that better predicted what actually happened–you didn’t chuck a theory out. Theories ordered knowledge, and allowed for better prediction” (The Undoing Project, page 151).

As stated above, Hattie’s effect sizes change as more research is conducted, and educators should use the effect sizes as Amos used theories: we don’t replace them until the data tells us there’s a more powerful effect size. This is important for a number of reasons.

  1. We’re getting the biggest bang for our buck in regard to instructional time.
  2. We’re avoiding our faulty and biased opinion when deciding large initiatives for schools and districts.
  3. We’re willing to change course when the data suggests it’s prudent to do so.

The way I see it, education has been in a dark room for decades. Hattie’s research has guided our hand to the light switch.

“You need to be so careful when there is one simple diagnosis that instantly pops into your mind that beautifully explains everything all at once. That’s when you need to stop and check your thinking” (The Undoing Project, page 216).

Of course, there’s no simple diagnosis. Effect sizes should guide our thinking, but there is still value in experienced intuition and heuristics. The lesson to be learned from The Undoing Project, and also from Kahneman’s work, is that it’s really difficult to be completely certain of anything–especially when it comes to how students learn best. The research must continue.

“There was a reason for this: To acknowledge uncertainty was to admit the possibility of error. The entire (medical) profession had arranged itself as if to confirm the wisdom of its decisions. Whenever a patient recovered, for instance, the doctor typically attributed the recovery to the treatment he had prescribed, without solid evidence that the treatment was responsible. Just because the patient is better after I treated him doesn’t mean he got better because I treated him, Redelmeier thought. ‘So many diseases are self-limiting,’ he said. ‘They will cure themselves. People who are in distress seek care. When they seek car, physicians feel the need to do something. You put leeches on; the condition improves. And that can propel a lifetime of leeches. A lifetime of over prescribing antibiotics. A lifetime of giving tonsillectomies to people with ear infections. You try it and they get better the next day and it is so compelling. You go see a psychiatrist and your depression improves–you are convinced of the efficacy of psychiatry'” (The Undoing Project, page 221).

We must use data to guide decision making while at the same time constantly question whether our strategies are what’s actually causing the positive outcome. Also, it’s important to touch upon a portion of the above excerpt: “So many diseases are self-limiting… they will cure themselves.” Are there any strategies we’re using in education that are the equivalent of leeches? Do we deploy initiatives because they make it easier for us to explain how we’re being effective?

“It is sometimes easier to make the world a better place than to prove you have made the world a better place” (The Undoing Project, page 230).

Billy Beane has found success with his statistical approach. The Boston Red Sox borrowed his strategies and eventually became world champions. In education, let’s adopt continual inquiry into our practice, along with Hattie’s research, so we can experience the same level of success for student learning.

30,000 feet and from the sideline

Finding the Winning Edge is a book written by coaching legend Bill Walsh that’s impossible to find–unless you’re willing to pay $300 on Amazon or Ebay. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted.

This ESPN article does a good job summing up the book’s importance to many coaches. I really like the following excerpt from the post:

Some of the wisdom (from Finding the Winning Edge) is painfully obvious. “A quarterback should lead by example.” But McDermott understood why Belichick calls it a bible. In a secretive profession, it shows how a legend thinks. It teaches a coach to view the game from 30,000 feet and from the sideline. It provides the tiny details that add up to a philosophy for building a team, winning games and running a franchise. Mostly, it can lure a coach into the illusion that if all the steps are followed, perfection can be attained.

My favorite takeaway from above is a coach must view the game from 30,000 feet and from the sideline. Let’s examine this in regard to all leadership positions. Some leaders feel comfortable remaining at a 30,000 foot elevation (i.e. avoiding the details). Then there are leaders who insist on remaining at the sideline. In other words, they’re tromping through the weeds and don’t possess a higher perspective. Both approaches are beneficial–sometimes you need to cruise at 30,000 feet and other times you need to attack the weeds. The challenge is knowing at which elevation to cruise. A leader has to travel from 30,000 feet to the weeds and everywhere in between (continually).

In football, a coach must have knowledge concerning all positions while sitting in the skybox or standing on the sideline. The same goes for leadership in education. Leaders require a school-level perspective while at the same time drilling into curriculum and lesson planning. It’s not an easy job, and the more I learn, the more I realize how difficult it is to be an effective leader–especially in education.

I recently read Michael Fullan’s Indelible Leadership, which helped me gain a better perspective concerning what makes a great leader. Fullan provides six “tensions” within his Leadership Model:

  1. Combine moral imperative and uplifting leadership
  2. Master content and process
  3. Lead and Learn in equal measure
  4. See students as change agents
  5. Feed and be fed by the system
  6. Be essential and dispensable

These six tensions must be deployed simultaneously, which of course is not easy. In fact, Fullan writes in his book:

I warn the reader that it is hard (especially at the beginning) to become as good as you will need to be (at being a leader), so expect to invest time and persist… it won’t seem like hard work once you and others are immersed in it because the focused energy that is generated is irresistible.

Being a good leader at 30,000 feet, in the weeds, and everywhere in between takes hard work. To be more precise, it requires “deep work.” Fullan refers to Cal Newport’s book Deep Work* and quotes the following by Newport:

To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. To learn . . . is an act of deep work. If you are comfortable going deep, you’ll be comfortable mastering the increasingly complex systems and skills needed to thrive in our economy. If you instead remain one of the many for whom depth is uncomfortable and distraction ubiquitous, you shouldn’t expect these systems and skills to come easily to you. (p. 37)

Effective student learning requires adult leaders to master 21st Century skills and an understanding of complex systems in order to master all six tensions of the Leadership Model. It is in this way that teachers and administrators can grow, which in turn will encourage the skills needed to effectively circulate professional capital throughout schools and districts.

Deep work is the helicopter that will help us view student learning and effective practices from many different elevations.


*I haven’t read Deep Work yet, but I have read So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport, and I found it to be a very helpful and engaging read.

Collective efficacy

Steph Curry shoots three-pointers like no one else. His consistency and excitement cultivate confidence within himself and his team. This confidence, or efficacy, helps both Curry and the Golden State Warriors stay motivated and resilient.

Collective efficacy is born as a result of experiencing success as a team, which positively influences the team’s belief that there will be more success in the future. We see this in sports all the time, as well as other organizations.

As I stated before, just as Curry has forced basketball players to think more strategically about how they can effectively make points and work as a team, John Hattie is helping educators rethink how to be more effective in the classroom. According to his research, collective teacher efficacy has an effect size of 1.57, which is quadruple the .40 necessary for one school year’s worth of growth.

As stated in Leading Impact Teams, collective teacher efficacy is when teachers work together to build the confidence that they can get all students to advance in learning. These teachers truly believe that collectively they have the capacity to promote successful student outcomes within their school. Like Curry, they have confidence because they’re using proven strategies that give them the biggest bang for their buck. Good results beget good results, which builds not only the professional capacity of the team, but also their collective efficacy (i.e. their belief they can promote student achievement).

I really enjoy drawing a parallel between the effectiveness of Steph Curry’s basketball strategy and the educational strategy of focusing on good teaching strategies and collaboration so collective teacher efficacy is fostered. Just as shooting threes instead of dunking the ball is an efficient tweak for scoring more points without changing the structure of the game (the game wasn’t made longer, they didn’t have to make a four-point shot, etc.), educators can make choices that allow them to truly work smarter, not harder, and help students achieve greater heights without large-scale and expensive educational reform.

Shoot more threes

Steph Curry has changed basketball by showing players and fans what should have been apparent all along: If you practice really hard and get really good, shooting a three-pointer is far more beneficial than taking a two-point shot.

Growing up in the late 80’s and 90’s, I thought the slam dunk was the most thrilling offensive move. But no matter how high a player could jump off the ground–no matter how acrobatic his trajectory–a dunk was only two points.

Of course, three-point shots have been around forever, and there have been many great shooters throughout the history of the NBA. Curry is different though. Not only has he perfected the three-point shot to almost superhuman proportions, he’s changing how other players approach the game. Further still, he’s influencing how this generation’s young people practice. Yeah, dunks still look cool, but the three-point shot is now even more cool. Better yet, you get three points instead of two.

I was thinking about this the other day in relation to education. There are a lot of two-point shots being taken. Maybe even some slam dunks and the occasional alley-oop. Looking at John Hattie’s ranking of effect sizes, these two-pointers could be any number of things:

  • homework
  • use of PowerPoint
  • summer school

These three random examples each have less than a 0.40 effect size, so according to Hattie’s research, you’re not getting a lot of bang for your buck by using them in the pursuit for student achievement.

Just as Curry has forced basketball players to strategically think about how they can more effectively make points for their teams, Hattie is helping educators rethink how to be more effective in the classroom. Every strategy has an effect (just like every made shot within the three-point line is two points)–what’s important is using precious instructional time to choose the strategies that reap the greatest rewards. According to Hattie, these “three-point shots” are:

  • teacher estimates of achievement (1.62)
  • collective teacher efficacy (1.57)
  • self-reported grades (1.33)

Teachers and administrators must shoot fewer two-pointers and begin shooting more three-pointers. Here and here are good places to start in this pursuit.

Antifragility and the 4 right drivers in systems

Two of my favorite non fiction books are Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Coherence by Michael Fullan and Joanne Quinn. The more I think about both of them, the more I recognize how intertwined they are. The best way to illustrate this is to first describe the central idea behind Antifragile.



Think of an egg. You drop it on the ground, and it looks like this:


That’s fragility; introduce a little force or instability, and destruction follows. Fragility should be avoided at all costs: fragile systems, fragile investments, fragile jobs… the list goes on.

Think of a bowling ball. You drop it on a tile kitchen floor, and it looks like this:
That’s robustness. Introduce a little force or instability, and the object, person, or organization isn’t affected. Obviously, this is more ideal than fragility.

Think of Hydra. You remember Hydra? When you cut off one of its heads, two more grow back in its place, like this:
That’s antifragility; introduce a little force or instability, and the object, person, or organization becomes stronger.

So we have three ideas: fragility, robustness, and antifragility (a term coined by Taleb). These ideas are important to keep in mind when discussing systems.

Let’s discuss the book Coherence. Fullan introduces the four right drivers and the four wrong drivers in educational systems .

Right drivers:

  1. Focusing direction
  2. Cultivating collaborate cultures
  3. Deepening learning
  4. Securing accountability

Wrong Drivers:

  1. Punitive accountability
  2. Individualist strategies
  3. Technology
  4. Ad hoc policies

Let’s say you run a school district. The first thing you should do is foster the creation of the four right drivers. You begin by focusing direction, which means becoming good at a small number of things and aligning all your initiatives and resources toward that end. The second thing you must do is cultivate collaborative cultures. The means professional learning communities (PLC) are supported, as well as the components that create effective PLC time (i.e. an emphasis on common formative assessments, focusing on goals, and providing enough time for members to be productive). The third driver is deepening learning, which means building capacity (shared skills and common vocabulary) regarding that which your system is focusing. Fourth, you must apply external accountability while fostering internal accountability.

I believe a school district can be made robust–and maybe even antifragile–by incorporating the four right drivers. Before I explain why, let’s discuss how the four wrong drivers will make a system fragile.

First, punitive accountability is a tactic made by politicians and shortsighted leaders who want (need) quick results. This has never worked, and never will work to advance student learning. Second, individualistic strategies are damaging to a system. Teachers who are individualistic tend to alienate themselves. Likewise, charismatic leaders who are individualistic and make a big impact often leave a vacuum when they switch jobs or retire. Third, technology has been viewed as a panacea because devices are easy to buy and install within classroom. They can be tangible, “shiny objects” that catch your eye. But don’t be fooled, nothing magical will happen by putting technology in classrooms. Fourth, ad hoc policies can inflict much harm upon a district. This is because they’re often implemented without awareness of their placement within the coherent ecosystem of the district. For example, if you really want to introduce problem based learning (PBL), and you haven’t established conceptual links between direct instruction, Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards, and technology, then the implementation of PBL is going to be a disaster.

All the wrong drivers Fullan discusses in his book will make your organization fragile. When you have the fragile-robust-antifragile paradigm established in your mind, it’s easy to make the connection between wrong drivers and fragility. Punitive accountability will make you weak. Individualistic strategies will make you weak. Technology could make you weak (unless you use it as an accelerator), and ad hoc policies will make you weak. In fact, ad hoc policies are the silent fragility maker, mostly because the people implementing them have the best of intentions and no idea they’re weakening the organization.

On the other hand, the right drivers will make districts robust–and as I wrote above–possibly antifragile. If an organization has focused direction, it doesn’t matter which shiny objects are offered; the organization is not going to bite. If collaborative cultures are strong, people will be unified, which helps focus direction. If educators delve deeper into their learning, they’ll be more likely to share, which cultivates collaborative cultures and focuses direction. And if accountability is secured both externally and internally, then learning will be deepened, people will collaborate, and the focus will zero in on what’s important. Thus, coherence.

This coherent organization will be robust because it will be strong. New curriculum adoption? No matter, we’ll learn it and use it to teach Common Core. New digital grade book? No matter, we’ll learn it and use it to provide valuable feedback. New principal? No matter, we’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing because we produce results.

That’s robustness. It takes a licking and keeps on ticking. But what about antifragility? Remember, antifragility is like hydra–this means the organization doesn’t just absorb the blow, it becomes stronger because of it. The antifragile district thrives within chaos.

My argument boils down to this: A district that incorporates all four right drivers can thrive within chaos. It can gain from disorder. This means the loss of a charismatic leader, lack of funding, Wi-Fi that’s down, large class sizes, new implementations, new standards, and new ideas can make a district stronger.

This is possible. We just need more people to jump on the Coherence train as we travel toward antifragility.

Fiver Fridays

Fiver Friday is a newsletter I send every Friday containing five things I’ve found useful or information regarding education (or somehow related to education). Sign up here to receive the message in your inbox every Friday. You can view the archive by clicking the Fiver Friday tab at the top of this blog.

Thank you, Mrs. Bauer

I hated taking the bus to school during first grade. I was a sensitive kid, and walking to the bus stop was no easy task. My parents meant well having me trek down the street every morning–I think the attempt toward cultivating a little more resilience was noble–but there was an issue that eventually threw a wrench in my parents’ plan for carpool-less mornings and afternoons: The morning bus was always late.

Most kids could care less that the bus dropped them off late at school. The tardiness wasn’t their fault, nor their parents’. The culprit was the bus, so most kids didn’t bat an eye when strolling into class 10-15 minutes late.

I was not one of those kids. If the bus didn’t show up at the stop on time, I cried. When the bus did eventually arrive, I’d cry on the way to school. And when the bus finally arrived, I’d cry while walking off the bus and into class.

I’m not proud of these tear-soaked episodes. I wish I could talk sense to six-year-old Steve. “Don’t worry about the bus,” I want to say. “It’s not a big deal. All you’re missing is attendance and the morning announcement. Maybe you’re missing the pre-spelling test if it’s Monday, but again, not a big deal.”

In my memory, the bus was late a lot. Maybe I’m exaggerating this lateness. Even if I am, I have plenty other reasons why the bus was bad news for me. I remember stepping in dog poop before boarding the bus one afternoon. It didn’t take long for everyone to smell it and begin making fun of me. I also recall a pimply bus attendant who introduced me to Freddy Krueger. I remember the first time he told us first graders about a scene from A Nightmare on Elm Street... it was the part when the heroine is in the bath tub closing her eyes and Freddy’s claw emerges from the soapy water near her feet. I couldn’t take a bubble bath for weeks.

The terror of the tardy bus culminated one morning in a way I’ll never forget. My mom walked me outside, gave me a kiss, and waved goodbye from our driveway. It was a cold morning, and as I made my way to the bus stop I could see my breath, so I pretended to be a locomotive for a while. I was about halfway to the bus stop when I shifted by backpack and noticed it was a little light. I slipped one of the straps off my shoulder, unzipped the bag, and peered inside. My lunch box was missing.

At that moment, the bus made its turn far up the street and began to slow toward the bus stop. It was finally early on a morning I forgot my lunch! With my backpack in hand, I made a dash toward the bus. The bus stopped and two or three students boarded. Then the doors closed and the bus lurched forward. The driver eventually saw me out the window, so he stopped, the door opened, and I jumped inside.

Unfortunately, as I was running my nose started bleeding, so I sniffed back the blood the best I could. Most of the kids probably just assumed I was crying–they obviously had strong prior evidence to believe this was the case. Eventually, they were correct, because I did begin crying. I had an empty backpack with no lunch. I was frustrated about the bus coming early on the day I forgot my lunch. I was embarrassed about getting on the bus late. And my nose was bleeding. I was a hot mess.

Because of the bus’s promptness, no other students were around when my bus mates and I stepped on campus. I walked to my first grade classroom, sat outside on a nearby bench, and continued sobbing.

A first grade mind is like another planet for adults. Too quickly we forget what it’s like to be young. The lens with which we view the world is drastically different now than it was then. Life experiences, cognitive development, and common sense all help us control our emotions and put things in a healthy perspective–at least most of the time. 6-year-old Steve, with a bloody nose and no lunch box, had a lot of developing and learning to do. I think that’s why I was crying, and it’s also probably why my crying eventually caught the attention of my first grade teacher.

I remember Mrs. Bauer opening the door. She stepped out, helped me to my feet, and walked me inside. Her room was warm, and she had on the classical music she sometimes played while we worked. It smelled like coffee, which I liked. She sat me down and brought over a box of tissues. She gently rubbed my back as I pinched my nose. She told me everything was OK.

She helped me wash by face when the tears and blood stopped flowing. Then she called my mom to let her know I needed a lunch.

The amount of relief and peace I felt in Mrs. Bauer’s classroom that morning is something I’ll never forget. She calmed me down, helped stop my bloody nose, washed my face, and ensured my lunch would arrive. As the other students began whooping and hollering outside upon their arrival, Mrs. Bauer let me stay inside and eat a snack. She smiled and spoke softly. It may have been cold outside, but her classroom was filled with so much warm light.

Teachers do this on a daily basis. They help students who had bad mornings or terrible nights. They leave indelible impressions so girls and boys can grow into strong and empathetic women and men. Educators help students again and again and again–all the while teaching standards, creating engaging lesson plans, formatively assessing, intervening, attending meetings, and much more.

I wish I could say thank you to Mrs. Bauer. I wish I could tell her I still feel the warmth of that morning in her room. I’d like her to know I eventually did become more resilient–that through good and bad years I grew into a man who now has two of his own children whom he loves dearly.

So thank you, Mrs. Bauer. And thank you to all teachers who care for our most precious resources by showing love and compassion on a daily basis.