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Visible Family Engagement

Note: This is the first of a short series of blogs that will help connect the work of John Hattie’s Visible Learning, the important role that family engagement plays in Visible Learning and how Engage Every Family: Five Simple Principles can assist educators in maximizing student achievement potential.

I don’t think there is much argument out there about the tremendous impact of John Hattie’s Visible Learning synthesis and analyses, which prove that what teachers do really does matter. It also stands to reason then, that what teachers do with regard to the engagement of families matters as well as do certain aspects of family educational culture that can be influenced by educators. Hattie’s work clearly supports this notion. The Five Simple Principles to Engage Every Family ™ provide a pathway for educators to create the effect that will matter to student achievement. (See the link at the end of this blog)

Hattie (2009) states that the “hinge-point,” that being an effect size that moves into a zone of desired effectiveness is 0.40. At this hinge-point, “we can notice real world differences”(p.17). Parental involvement in learning has an effect size of 0.51 that puts it squarely into the category of desired effectiveness. The author makes an important point about families:

“A major concern is that some parents know how to speak the language of schooling and thus provide an advantage for their children during the school years, and others do not know this language, which can be a major barrier to the home making a contribution to achievement” (p.61).

The language referenced above centers on the ability of families to navigate their child’s school, it’s perceived complexities in instruction, curriculum, assessment and culture. In other words, the ability for families to foster the necessary efficacy to support their child’s learning outside of the classroom has a profound impact on the degree to which a child is successful in school.

There are many reasons for family disengagement from school: language barriers, lack of parental success in school, fear, curriculum and perception of school response to certain socio-economic factors in a family. What is not present in this list is apathy. Even though in many schools the percentage of families that are seemingly disengaged from their children’s learning is higher than any of us would like, it is rarely, if ever, due to parental or family apathy toward learning. Every family, regardless of their station, desires that their children exceed them in their quality of life. We can make that happen.

For many years, research has confirmed that when families take a more active role in learning, the likelihood of that engagement producing more positive learning outcomes for their children is greater than if the parent or family member is simply monitoring school-related issues such as grades, reports and so forth, or in other words, a more passive, monitoring role.

The science of engagement tells us, among other things, that people engage when the information, organization or situation is meaningful and relevant to them. Making opportunities for families to connect with school in meaningful ways, then, is a pathway toward better outcomes.

Parental Aspirations

Earlier, I mentioned that every family desires that their children exceed them in their quality of life. It is this very aspiration that many researchers, including Hattie, mention as an important influence on children’s learning outcomes. Many of us tend to think that if families monitor homework, the social lives of their children or time with television and technology that this type of involvement will produce desired achievement outcomes. Research would suggest the opposite and Hattie points to specific research that touts the negative effect on student aspirations for success.

The highest correlation to promote aspirations and ultimately success in school (d = 0.56) is the relationship between student achievement and parental participation, which lives within the relationship of school staff and every family and the school’s ability and desire to actively engage every family. The degree to which families are empowered to join with the school in the education of their children is a determining factor in student achievement.

So How Do We Get More Active Family Engagement?

The Five Simple Principles to Engage Every Family™ is a logic model that allows educators to understand the process of connecting families to their children’s learning in meaningful ways and provides a roadmap to achieve measurable results. The process of active engagement of families begins with a school culture that accepts and values this type of participation. Educators who look first at the culture of their organization and ask important questions about their beliefs and values as they relate to active family engagement are important first steps. For example, if a school sets a goal of better communication, but the staff of the school do not believe that communication will bring about change or they place little value on the role that school-family communication can play, it is very likely that any communication goals will produce minimal if any results.

The key ingredient in any successful organization is the relationship of the people associated with the organization. Relationships rely on trust and trust is built with opportunities for meaningful two-way dialog among all participants. Once a relationship that is valued by all parties is in place then the efficacy of every family can be leveraged. Leveraging efficacy, or the power for families to produce a positive effect on their children’s learning outcomes is easier than you think!

My Famous Two-Question Test

In many years of workshops and speeches I have tried to drive this point home by asking audiences to participate in my famous two-question test. The scenario is this: a family finds themselves together for dinner…a rare occurrence. A parent asks the children this first question:

What did you do in School Today? When I ask audiences to shout what they think the answer is, they always get it right . . . “nothing!”

The follow up question asked by most parents and families is this one: “Do you have any homework? “No,” is the usual universal response. (The runner up answer is “I did it in school.”)

Changing the Questions

Promoting active engagement of families is as simple as ensuring that they are empowered to engage in better conversations about school and learning. Supply them with information about what is happening in school before it happens; prompt them with questions (and answers) they can ask their children that are better than the ones above; provide a mechanism so that families can share with teachers how their children responded to questions. Integrate families into homework assignments and maybe even projects. Engage every family in the learning life of their child.

I bet you can come up with a hundred different ideas about active engagement of families that will translate into improved student achievement. If you need help, there are resources at www.drsteveconstantino.com

Check out the webpage devoted to logic model and descriptors for the Five Simple Principles here.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.