Insights from the “Distance Learning Playbook” by John Hattie, Douglas Fisher, and Nancy Frey

By: | 10/16/2020
Category: Distance Learning

Educators have been in pursuit of guidance, resources, and strategies on how to effectively teach virtually since school was disrupted in spring 2020. At Curriculum Associates, we have been working hard to keep up with all of the rapid changes and support educators wherever students are learning—whether it’s at home or in school. We know that educators are still looking for guidance, so I recently read Distance Learning Playbook: Teaching for Engagement and Impact in Any Setting by John Hattie, Douglas Fisher, and Nancy Frey.

Overall, the book had helpful ideas and strategies all based on the authors’ research, and some of the strategies are applicable no matter where students are learning. It was a quick and easy read. Here are some of the sections I found most helpful.

Take Care of Yourself

As someone who frequently supports, instructs, and presents to educators across the country on social-emotional topics, I was especially interested in the chapter about self-care. The authors echo ideas that might already be familiar to readers from articles, blogs, podcasts, and even presentations I’ve done: If you don’t take time to take care of yourself, you are more likely to burn out in this new world of teaching, and then you won’t be able to help your students (or your family and friends, for that matter).

Recommendations for educators who are teaching remotely include:

  • Creating a dedicated space in your living environment to teach
  • Making sure you set ground rules (i.e., boundaries) with family members, roommates, et al., about your space
  • Developing a detailed self-care plan that includes when you will take breaks and when you will socialize

Although these concepts explored in the first module are not revolutionary, they are worth hearing over and over again. Educators in particular need to be reminded to build in time for YOU as you plan and continue to re-plan distance learning. (If you’re interested in learning more about self-care strategies, you can check out my earlier post on “How to Stay Connected When We Are Apart.”)

Teacher–Student Relationships

This section builds upon Hattie’s visible learning research and focuses on the importance of building relationships with students. It also gives some ideas on how to do so in a distance-learning environment, including how to:

  • Cultivate empathy and unconditional positive regard for students
  • Be genuine
  • Practice non-directivity (i.e., turning inward for answers/trusting your own expertise)
  • Encourage critical thinking

Again, these concepts should not be new to any educator; however, it’s worth re-examining them when we are thinking about a distance-learning environment. How do you show empathy when you are teaching virtually or using prerecorded videos? Do you come across as genuine to your students when you’re looking at them through a camera instead of standing near them in a classroom?

Your relationships with students will grow as long as you keep them front and center. Showing your face, constantly checking in, giving voice feedback instead of written feedback, and offering lots of choices in all your lessons, either virtual or live, will help to build that trust you need to form strong teacher–student bonds.

Teacher Clarity

The module on “Teacher Clarity at a Distance” is a helpful reminder on how explicit you need to be with students and families in a virtual environment. As one of my favorite authors, Brené Brown, says, “Clarity is kind; being unclear is unkind.”

Being clear—really helping students and families understand everything you want them to do—is a kind action on your part. The more explicit you can be with instructions, assignments, information, and any other communication you have with families and students, the better. It’s safe to assume that they’re struggling with so much already—technology, schedules, fatigue, etc. The last thing you want them to do is struggle with understanding what you are asking them to do.

Hattie found that teacher clarity had a very high effect size (i.e., impact on educational results), and the recommendations in this section really focus on how to enhance teacher clarity for distance learning. The authors walk you through unpacking standards, learning intentions, and success criteria for distance learning in particular.

If your school uses Curriculum Associates’ i-Ready Assessment or i-Ready Learning suites, you may already be using our communication templates, family guides, and/or other communication materials in your outreach efforts. However, even if you’re not an i-Ready user, perusing these resources will give you ideas for ways to communicate clearly with families and students.

Engaging Tasks

The last section I’ll highlight is the one on how to create engaging tasks for a distance-learning environment. As you know, engagement is the core of learning and if students are not engaged—or are negatively engaged—it can decelerate learning and/or lead to frustration or boredom. The “Engaging Tasks” section covers three types of engagement: behavioral, cognitive, and emotional. It gives some suggestions and things to consider for each.

Within the section there are worksheets and guiding questions about choosing the right engagement tool in a virtual environment. The authors point out that no matter what tool you use for engagement (e.g., Zoom™, Nearpod®, Google Docs™, etc.) the actual tool is only as strong as the teacher facilitating its use. They suggest that educators spend less time on choosing appropriate engagement tools and spend more time focusing on the delivery of engaging content.


The Playbook is designed to help educators with distance learning, and what I found the most helpful are the embedded videos—which you can access with a QR reader—that thoroughly explain certain concepts. The video on virtual bitmoji classrooms is very informative.

A bitmoji is a personalized emoji—an emoji character that looks like you. Many teachers are finding joy and fun in setting up virtual bitmoji classrooms, and the educator featured in the video uses this environment as an engaging and informational tool to support students’ learning. The teacher is able to have students watch a video, clink on web links, and watch a presentation all through the bitmoji classroom home page. This is just a wonderful example of the creativity educators are bringing to the new environment of virtual learning.

Overall, this book was a helpful reminder of many best practices in education, and it delivers some effective strategies on how to adapt what is successful in a classroom to a virtual setting. It’s a nice complement to the great work many of you are already doing, and if nothing else, validation that you DO know what you are doing!

Zoom™ is a registered trademark of Zoom Video Communications, Inc.

Nearpod® is a registered trademark of Nearpod, Inc.

Google Docs™ is a trademark of Google, LLC.

Teacher and students sitting on the floor.

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