What does John Hattie think about education?

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If you don’t yet know, BBC Radio 4 have lined up a series of 8 interviews with the leading lights of the education world. In the second programme of the series, Sarah Montague interviews professor John Hattie on ‘what works’ in education. Here it is. Whatever your opinion of effect sizes and meta-analyses, Visible Learning has changed the way many of us think about teaching and Hattie has become one of the most respected and widely known academics in the field of education. For those too busy or too uninterested to invest 25 minutes of their lives actually listening to the broadcast, I’ll summarise it below:

Hattie is very clear that the biggest difference made in education is teacher quality and expertise:“It really comes down to expertise, teacher expertise… How teachers think; how they make daily decisions and judgements. It’s not necessarily what they do, it’s not necessarily who they are; it’s how they think.”

He acknowledges that there are many impressive teachers and his avowed mission is to make all teachers like the best. Presumably this means trying to change the way some teachers think about what they do. He cites an interesting sounding piece of research which recorded what teachers talked about in the staffroom. It revealed that teachers talk about the curriculum, the students, the assessments, but they only talk for 1 minute a month about teaching. And obviously, they spend even less time they talk about the impact of their teaching. Really excellent schools, Hattie asserts, create dialogues about the impact of teaching.

He also talks about that hoary old chestnut, learning. Learning, he says, is exploring what you don’t know – errors and mistakes are an absolute critical part of learning. He suggests that in a lot of classrooms, if children haven’t learned to be passive and listen by age 8 they’re in trouble. Instead he wants children to be active and to know what to do when they don’t know what to do. And that is what he considers the essence of great teaching.

Teachers communicate a passion – they make learning fun and exciting. Great teachers have higher expectations of you, than you have yourself. This is important because students learn their place in class – I’m a C student – and this sets their expectation. The role of teachers is to upset some of those expectations. If pupils what they did yesterday is OK tomorrow, this dampens what they could potentially do. Teachers should establish what pupils think they can do and then tell them they can do better. The worst thing you can say is, “Do your best.” Sometimes our best isn’t good enough. The job of teachers is to help them get there. This seems entirely reasonable. And the way to achieve this, Hattie suggests, is to turn kids on the passion and enjoyment of learning

Teachers don’t change how they teach when they go from classes of 30 to classes of 15, and perhaps it’s not surprising. You look at the top countries in the world, most of them are in class sizes of 40 to 50. Not that I’m advocating that at all, but they’ve learnt how to be an expert in those classes and here in England, may teachers have learned how to be an expert in classes from 25 – 30… so when they go down to smaller classes you just don’t see that effect.

When confronted with what parents consider most important about education: class sizes, homework, uniform etc. he dismissed these things as proxies. Unfortunately for parents, they’re not in a position judge what really matters – the quality of teaching. Parents choose proxies because they can’t choose teachers. Here are some of the rebuttals he made:

  • Free schools etc – are an irrelevance
  • Uniform – who cares? Just don’t make it an issue
  • Homework has zero effect in primaries which is why we need to get it right, not why we need to get rid of it. He described homework as a “low hanging fruit” that we should be looking at and ask whether it’s really making a difference. The problem with getting rid of homework is that many parents judge the quality of the school by the presence of homework. Instead we should acknowledge that it’s probably not making much of a difference as things stand and so we should think about how to improve it. He suggests that 5-10 minutes has the same effect as 1-2 hours, and the worst thing you can do with homework is give kids projects. The best thing you can do is to reinforce something you’ve already learned.
  • Homework has a higher effect in secondaries and he suggests that this may be because it tends to be more likely to be reinforcing something learned in lessons. This does however suggest that all those secondary schools switching to project based homework might be wasting their time.
  • Age of starting school: “It’s a pity we have a system that forces parents to send their children to school on the basis of their star sign.” He then went on to say that most differences seem to disappear within the first 2 years of schooling.
  • Setting and streaming don’t make a difference because it’s just fiddling with structures. He acknowledges that teachers think setting makes things easier for them, and it may. However, students, he asserts, get a lot of learning from other students in a class and increasing variability is the way to get more of that kind of learning. I would have like this point probed a bit as I’m not certain what he meant about variability here – I assume he means that the wider the range of backgrounds and abilities, the greater the potential for peer-to-peer learning. I’m not sure this is true, but he seemed pretty certain.
  • Curriculum doesn’t matter. As long as what children learn matters to someone, Hattie’s happy. But beyond the basic literacy and numeracy we’d expect of 12 year olds, what you learn, he reckons, is irrelevant. Instead he’d like to see much greater variability in what’s taught a secondary schools because this will lead to more challenge. I’m not sure how this works exactly, but it’s an interesting point.

Conversely, he identified the best predictor of health, wealth and happiness in adult life as being not academic achievement as we might have supposed, but the number of years children spend in education! If this is true, we should be delighted at how early we send our children to school in the UK. bet those Finns must be kicking themselves!

He was pretty damning about teacher talk. He says that teachers spend about 80% of their time talking and while it’s foolish to state how much they should be talking as a percentage of a lesson, he did say that it should be a lot less than 80%. “If you’re introducing a new topic with a lot of vocabulary, then teacher talk is not a bad thing, but as you get into deeper learning you want more student talk and more student language…. I don’t think it’s right that our kids come to school to watch us work.”

I think he’s got a point; I’d certainly agree that we reduce the amount we talk as we progress through a topic, and I completely agree with the need to develop pupils’ language and thinking through discussion, but I balk a little at the point about children watching teachers work. I mean, we’re getting paid, right? Doesn’t that mean we should be working?

Every child deserves at least a years growth for a years input. And to ensure this we have to look at the collective impact teachers have. Hattie was very clear that his work should not be used as a checklist of what works. Instead what he offers is a way of thinking which can be boiled down to know thy impact.

This has resulted in too many cruising schools; he suggests that we have focused too heavily on below average students at the expense of above average students and have allowed the more able to coast. He spoke a little about what is revealed by PISA and identified certain positives about Asian school systems where the ethos is, if you don’t succeed it’s because you didn’t put the effort in. In our society, if you don’t succeed it’s because you weren’t very able. One of the causes for this cruising is differentiated work, based on our expectations on pupils’ ability.

He went on to discuss how video games are a model for good teaching. Video games know exactly what you’re prior attainment is and set you a success criteria which is beyond that. This bar isn’t lowered even if we fail to achieve it – instead we get continuous feedback, some of good, some of it bad, until we achieve. It then raises the bar further. A great teacher knows exactly pupils are, knows how and where to set the bar, and refuses to lower it.

He finished by offering two pieces of advice to any politicians who might have been listening in:

  1. Stop collecting numbers, start collect teachers’ judgements. Good schools have good growth, not necessarily good attainment.
  2. We need a moratorium on what doesn’t matter. Let’s stop talking about new forms of schools, inspection and tests – let’s instead start talking about teacher expertise.

On balance, I found him sensible, thoughtful and clear. I’m sure some of my misgivings could have been cleared up with a longer interview and an opportunity to ask questions. I’d also be interested in finding out the provenance of some of the research papers he mentioned.

29 Responses to What does John Hattie think about education?

    • susan says:

      When people discuss hatties research they often pverlook spme important information mentioned in the introduction of his article. He is very clear that 80% of the things that impact on children’s learning happens outside of school. Therefore all his rankings are only about 20% of the things that impact learning. Good teachers impact learning the most of that 20%. Poverty and health have an even bigger impact than all the things schools can control.

  1. This is often mentioned but not referenced.

    One ref said Helen Timperley was involved – but in response to an informal query she didn’t seem to know the ref either. Can you find the research? Love to see it.

  2. Really interesting – thanks for the summary and I will listen when I get a minute. I totally agree with the “know thy impact” and the idea of having higher expectations of the students than the students do themselves – something that I put into practice by in the vast majority of cases “arguing them up” when setting targets. I still think “fun and exciting” are misleading words which are interpreted in many places as being entertaining at the expense of learning a subject – I think that if you set a strong ethos of learning in the room, there are better words to describe the higher pleasure that is enjoyed by your class (intellectual engagement? – it certainly doesn’t always look like running around a room with post it notes on foreheads – I realise Hattie isn’t advocating that, but many teachers make that mistake). I hope that the informed and reflective progressive wing, and the informed traditionalists are converging on the right approach to teacher talk. There is no intrinsic problem with teacher directly leading a class on teaching knowledge, but dialogic rather than monologic is vastly preferable in the vast majority of situations, and the quality of it has to be high. I agree with people like yourself, David, who champion that CPD ought to focus on improving teacher talk rather than abolishing it, and I think a consequence of improving it is that it would naturally lessen. I love the stage of Upper Sixth (and in a good year, Year 11, when you really can have lessons where you are invisible and you realise that you would be getting in the way if you disrupted them getting on with improving skills and learning more).

  3. Oh, and on uniform, I possibly come down on the side of getting rid due to it (in my view) having to be an issue, if you want to be collegiate. I positively reinforce the fairly strict uniform at my own school due to that being the expectation set down, and I do not have any intention of not supporting that aim. I do think there is the major positive of saving them from themselves in terms of using school as a cat-walk and being incredibly conscious of that (when asked, my students have always been massively in favour of uniform for the most part), but is it worth the time getting shirts tucked in and top buttons done up? Not sure to be honest.

    • Sylvia Thomas says:

      My response here is that if you choose to have a uniform then expect high standards, otherwise scrap it. There are plenty of jobs out there which demand a smart uniform so we are just preparing our children for the life beyond.

  4. […] haven’t listened to John Hattie’s recent Radio 4 interview yet but, according to David Didau, he makes a similar […]

  5. […] If you don’t yet know, BBC Radio 4 have lined up a series of 8 interviews with the leading lights of the education world. In the second programme of the series, Sarah Montague interviews professor John Hattie on ‘what works’ in education. Here it is. Whatever your opinion of effect sizes and meta-analyses, Visible Learning has  […]

  6. Ian Lynch says:

    Sounds like a lot of good analysis to me. Stuff I have been saying myself for a long time. Governments are good at rearranging deckchairs that have little impact – except to demoralise teachers and cost the tax payer money. Teachers in secondary schools tend to be fighting subject corners as if the knowledge content (because they have it) is indispensable when most of the observations I have made is that a massive amount of what is taught is never used much at all never mind vital. That is not to say we shouldn’t teach anything but we should be a lot less hung up about sacred curriculum cows that fail to motivate individuals to commit to their learning,

    • David Didau says:

      I think curriculum matters a lot more that Hattie & Wiliam would have us believe. This posts is pretty good: http://websofsubstance.wordpress.com/2014/08/22/curriculum-matters/

      • Ian Lynch says:

        Let’s look at the evidence. You teach English so take Shakespeare. I did Julius Caesar for O level one or two other books before that but can’t remember exactly which. So was it vital to study a particular book? Hardly think so, I don’t consider my life overly impoverished because I have never read the “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” I dropped history to do physics aged 14 as science was my preferred learning context. This is pattern is widespread, it’s not specific to me. So which bits of English are vital and which bits are optional? That is the obvious question that gets lost in these superficial debates. If knowledge of Julius Caesar is vital how come if I asked a random set of people in the street to follow on from “Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus”, how many could? And does it matter? Yet if I asked those people to spell “the”, “cat”, and “dog” and they couldn’t I’d be worried. Hattie and Wiliam are not saying the curriculum is unimportant, they are saying that a lot of what is argued to be vital simply isn’t and the evidence stands up to back that up. The sad thing is that the bits that are vital often get lost in a debate that focuses on knowledge versus process as if it is all one or all the other when the reality is a complex coupling of both and with context providing a lot of the motivation. I wrote about this in 1993 http://www.amazon.co.uk/Technology-Science-Education-World-publications/dp/1873882114. It’s rather a shame that the debate has not moved anywhere 20 years later.

  7. Mark Edwards says:

    Didn’t he contradict himself at the end when discussing education in China. He seemed to conclude by saying that the most important reasons for educational achievement in that part of the world were home and wider society cultural factors. Can schools compensate for society? Have anyone seen the achievement patterns of chinese students in UK schools. They are amazing.
    Has Hattie ever “discovered” a study, the findings of which he didn’t think was true with in the first place?

    • David Didau says:

      I have little doubt that student motivation matters a great deal more than teacher expertise; teaching highly motivated children must be relatively straightforward. Possibly the need for teacher expertise is due to the lack of value our society places on hard work?

  8. Ian Lynch says:

    I taught 3 Hong Kong Chinese kids way back. 1 was a maths genius, the other was reasonable low grade A level, the other was bordering on SEN. I guess it depends on who they are and why they came to this country. It could be that just coming here is a filter for the brighter and more motivated. Without a proper controlled study it is impossible to say.

  9. Mark Edwards says:

    Students of chinese origin I meant to say – second and third generation: 70% of which get 5+ gcse’s and 70% go on to university. The same is true of children of Indian origin.Other minorities are catching up fast.

    • Ian Lynch says:

      70% is not that much higher than the current average but it does show why motivation is important. A lot of poor immigrants have education as the route out of poverty in their DNA. As you say, I doubt schools have that much capacity to compensate for poor motivation. They do try by a wide range of means. I’m personally not that convinced that the sort of cramming needed to get exam results up for the sake of it is that healthy in any case. There is a lot more to success in life than gaining 15 A*s rather than say 6 ;-)

  10. Thanks for the summary and the link

  11. […] “ If you don’t yet know, BBC Radio 4 have lined up a series of 8 interviews with the leading lights of the education world. In the second programme of the series, Sarah Montague interviews professor John Hattie on ‘what works’ in education. Here it is. Whatever your opinion of effect sizes and meta-analyses, Visible Learning has”  […]

  12. Amanda says:

    Overall I think this has some great stuff to get us all thinking. I enjoyed reading it and think that it is good to challenge the way education occurs.

    I just have one small issue…and that is that tone that a child’s potential is defined as their ‘best’.

    I think that ‘teachers establishing what pupils think they can do and then telling them they can do better’ IS pushing them to achieve their best, which will push them towards achieving their potential. Stating that ‘the worst thing you can say is, “Do your best.”’ with a reason of ‘sometimes our best isn’t good enough.’ is completely false.

    An individual’s best will change from day to day, week to week & year to year. Hattie almost proves this in stating that ‘a great teacher knows exactly pupils are, knows how and where to set the bar, and refuses to lower it.’ This is also confirmed with the video game analogy where he says ‘prior attainment is (measured) and (accordingly we are) set a success criteria which is beyond that. This bar isn’t lowered even if we fail to achieve it – instead we get continuous feedback, some of good, some of it bad, until we achieve. It then raises the bar further. A great teacher knows exactly pupils are, knows how and where to set the bar, and refuses to lower it.’ To even hint that one’s best is a static level of achievement and that your best is not good enough is to ignore that one’s best is not indicative of one’s potential (as they are very different and no-one can ever truly know what an individual’s potential really is), but to also crush a child’s confidence (as the statement is harsh and hurtful whether it is thought, spoken or written either directly or as part of research).

    When you actually examine the definition of ‘best’ you will find that it is the most excellent or highest degree. My best level of achievement now (having completed tertiary study) is obviously different to what my best was during my secondary education, which was obviously different what my best was during my primary education. My teachers in all of these levels should have (and I am very thankful to say, did), expect me to do my best. My best was always good enough and this made me strive to continue doing my best (obviously my best level of achievement and effort became different as my prior knowledge and personal development changed).

    I know it is just semantics really, but just felt that with everything else that was said (which was amazing) it should be mentioned. I firmly believe that encouraging a child to faithfully strive towards their best, celebrating their achievement of it and re-evaluating their ‘new best’ is not only a POSITIVE teaching practice, that assists a child in developing their self-esteem, but also continually sets the bar at a high level for a student to continually work towards on their journey.

  13. […] "If you don’t yet know, BBC Radio 4 have lined up a series of 8 interviews with the leading lights of the education world. In the second programme of the series, Sarah Montague interviews professor John Hattie on ‘what works’ in education. Here it is. Whatever your opinion of effect sizes and meta-analyses,Visible Learning has changed the way many of us think about teaching and Hattie has become one of the most respected and widely known academics in the field of education. For those too busy or too uninterested to invest 25 minutes of their lives actually listening to the broadcast, I’ll summarise it below:"  […]

  14. […] “If you don’t yet know, BBC Radio 4 have lined up a series of 8 interviews with the leading lights of the education world. In the second programme of the series, Sarah Montague interviews professor John Hattie on ‘what works’ in education. Here it is. Whatever your opinion of effect sizes and meta-analyses, Visible Learning has”  […]

  15. […] If you don’t yet know, BBC Radio 4 have lined up a series of 8 interviews with the leading lights of the education world. In the second programme of the series, Sarah Montague interviews professor John Hattie on ‘what works’ in education. Here it is. Whatever your opinion of effect sizes and meta-analyses, Visible Learning has  […]

  16. […] What does John Hattie think about education? | David Didau: The Learning Spy […]

  17. […] What does John Hattie think about education? by The Learning Spy. Commentary on one of the most influential education researchers, with a link to a radio interview with John Hattie. […]

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