Making an Impact With Educational Research: A Deep Dive Into the Research Behind Big Ideas Math

  • Sophie Murphy

Educational research is at the core of all student learning. It is our job as educators to make sure we are using the latest research to create positive outcomes and achievement in math.

Big Ideas Learning supports the connection of research and practice as they continue to use contemporary educational research to develop their math materials and series of books. They recognize the importance of providing teachers with learning intentions and success criteria that align not only with each chapter, but also connect to the vocabulary from the curriculum to support students in transferring their mathematical understanding from one context to another. Furthermore, the content provided by authors Ron Larson and Laurie Boswell supports interventions and strategies that is framed with evidence-based research. Using the research of many organizations and educational thought leaders such as Professor John Hattie, Professor Jo Boaler, and Jay McTighe (UbD) , Big Ideas Learning creates positive outcomes and achievement in mathematics for all students.


My connection with Big Ideas Learning began in 2016. I was having educational conversations with them after presenting my PhD studies with my M.Ed. thesis supervisor at the University of Melbourne, John Hattie. The folks at Big Ideas Learning had heard John Hattie speak several times and his research resonated with them – in particular, his approach on how to provide clarity to the teachers and students.


The other element that made an impact was John Hattie’s work on the notion of surface, deep and transfer. The SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) Taxonomy, a framework that was shared in John Hattie’s 2012, Visible Learning for Teachers, is similar to Depth of Knowledge and Blooms Taxonomy, yet it has a simple and robust way to move students from surface to deep. This was the framework that was used to assist in developing the Big Ideas Math Learning Targets and Success Criteria. The Big Ideas Learning and National Geographic Learning teams have also taken on other areas that John Hattie believes teachers need to consider:


  • Articulating what students are learning
  • Explaining the next steps in their learning (both teacher and student having clarity)
  • Setting learning goals
  • Seeing errors as opportunities for further learning – in fact, welcoming error
  • Knowing what to do when they don’t know what to do
  • Seeking feedback and exploring the feedback that has the greatest impact


So who is John Hattie?


John Hattie is best known for his ‘Visible Learning’ research and meta-analysis of more than 1,400 research reviews comprising more than 90,000 studies involving more than 300 million students around the world. John Hattie’s research has influenced policy makers, politicians, educators, and students globally. John Hattie’s work aims to find what truly makes a difference in the classroom and what influences student learning and achievement. He has spent over 30 years collecting every study he could find that related to what makes a difference to student learning. John Hattie has provided the world’s largest evidence base on what works best in schools to improve student learning. From that research, Hattie identified more than 250+ factors that have an impact on student achievement.


One of the most influential factors for students are teachers. He believes that teachers make the greatest impact. In fact, teachers account for about 30% of the variance in student achievement and is the largest influence outside of individual student effort (Hattie, 2012).           


Hattie aims for teachers to be able to regularly evaluate their impact in the classroom and adjust their teaching methodology in response to what they see; the classroom needs to be made visible. When evaluating their own practice, Hattie wants teachers to have a clear understanding of their impact and to see through the eyes of their learners. He believes that if educators have a greater understanding of ‘what works’, then less time can be spent on what doesn’t have the greatest impact and more time can be spent on what does make a difference.


He found that the average effect size of all the interventions he studied was 0.40 which equates to a year’s worth of growth for a year’s worth of schooling. Through his meta-analysis, schools and teachers can look at what has a greater effective size and have robust discussions on how to focus on what works. If we are to go back to the notion of using learning intentions and success criteria, we ensure that we have greater clarity, which has an effect size of 0.75 or almost 2 years’ worth of learning.


Clarity of the learning goals not only helps the students but also assists the teacher in focusing on both surface and deep learning and guides students through the following three feedback questions:


  • Where am I? 
  • Where do I need to go? 
  • How am I going to get there? 


This is evident not only as one of John Hattie’s highest influences on learning, but also in the guidelines in NCTM’s Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematics Success for All. The learning intentions and success criteria featured in the Big Ideas Math Series were written to highlight to teachers that all math lessons are sequential, whether this be a full chapter of learning sequence, it shows both teacher and students what success looks like, rather than a single one-off learning activity that doesn’t connect to others.


John Hattie provides the narrative for teachers to begin a rich dialogue about what works in school and in the classroom. For me, the exciting part is when organizations such as Big Ideas Learning and National Geographic learning embrace educational research and endeavour to make it easier for teachers and students to access and translate it into a tool that can be used in the classroom. Globally, particularly this year as we consider the uncharted COVID waters, we need to come together to provide and share knowledge about what truly makes a difference and taking this back into the classroom. We do need to understand and evaluate our impact, making small tweaks wherever we can to change the learning lives of our students.


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