Tag Archives: #John Hattie

Hattie the Hero

Real heroes are hard to come by in the world of education.

Estelle Morris remains on a pedestal. Few days go by without imagining a better, more decent world where Morris is in charge and not Gove. The late journalist Mike Baker falls into the same category, not least for his ability to write well and to strip complex issues and fluffy arguments down to the bare essentials of what mattered and what did not.

But top of my admittedly short list of educations heroes is Professor John Hattie.

The Director of the Education Research Institute at Melbourne University is above all a pedagogical myth buster. He uses the simple test of looking for evidence as to whether any given factor makes a difference to learning, be it a teaching intervention or a socio-economic circumstance. In doing so, he debunks the preposterous or the fashionable and reveals something approaching the truth about learning and teaching.

What sets him apart is his determination – albeit a dry and diligent determination – to bridge the chasm between what researchers have discovered about teaching and learning and what happens in the classroom. His aim is to synthesise all that we know about the former so that it knocks on the door of the latter, invites itself in and becomes the loudest, most persistent, most persuasive voice in class.

Luckily, we live in treasured times: Hattie is currently on a roll with his ‘Visible Learning’ series of books. Managing to be dense, academic yet also accessible they set out a clear rationale for what teachers should be doing and how they should be doing it.

Although it is not his intention, his work inevitably crosses the boundary from the pedagogical to the political. It is hard to read to much of what he says without thinking of Gove.

Take his latest book ‘Visible Learning and the Science of How we Learn’. By page fifteen, Hattie has shredded Gove’s assertion that employing untrained, unqualified experts as teachers is in any vague sense a wise thing to do. Shredded. Utterly shredded.

Knowledge, it turns out, is not quite what Gove thinks it is. It’s not something which can simply be relayed from all-knowing expert to sponge-like child.

In fact, as Hattie quotes, knowledge can be a curse. Research shows that those who are specialists in a subject and who have no understanding of how to transmit the complexities of their wisdom – in other words those who know a lot but know nothing of teaching – are less effective at doing their job than those who may have less subject knowledge but who are expert, skilled teachers.

Pure knowledge does not correlate with an ability to teach. What matters is simple; it’s teachers who know their stuff and who are trained, skilled and passionate about what they do. Professor John Hattie is a giant – if only we had an Education Secretary who would stand on his shoulders.


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Filed under Michael Gove, Politics - general

It’s the teaching, stupid

Why – I ask myself at infuriatingly regular intervals – in our chastened economic times, is Michael Gove spending money (and so much time) on such a speculative, long-odds, hit and hope punt as free schools?

Let us assume the focus of our endeavours, whether you are a political lefty or a righty or a don’t-give-a-monkeys, is on the question: what is the best, quickest and most sustainable way to improve children’s educational experiences and outcomes (bearing in mind, of course, UK PLC is a bit skint)?

Even if you are an avid supporter of free schools, someone who thinks the answer to the question is ‘a: Toby Young’ – or, conversely, if you are a determined opponent and think the answer to the question is ‘b: anyone but Toby Young’ – it is hard to justify the monstrous amount of political energy and will being expended battling for (or against) a policy which will result in the odd school here and there.

More importantly, this is a policy which in essence misses the most obvious response to the question.

Strip the school experience down to the barest of bare bones, and it is not, I’m afraid, the governance structure of a school that defines whether little Jonny has an educational career of impeccable quality and unremitting excellence. It is not whether the school is ‘free’ or whether it is maintained by the local authority, that cuts the mustard for Year 7 on a damp Friday afternoon.

What does, then?

As boring and as straightforward and as simple as it sounds: it’s teaching. Or, more accurately: teachers teaching well. The oft-repeated line that the quality of a school cannot exceed the quality of its teaching is the fundamental truth that should guide all policy-making. To misuse Bill Clinton’s campaign phrase: it’s the teaching, stupid.

In tough times, businesses look to their ‘cash cow’; the steady seller that keeps the tills ringing and profits healthy. They keep risks low, invest cautiously and look for reliable, predictable returns rather than taking a gamble. Unexciting, maybe, but in these times, reliable results are rightly judged to be more important than flamboyant failures.

So, why not – when each public utterance from our leaders contains the obligatory reference to deficit reduction and cuts, usually closely followed by the ‘difficult decisions’ said things entail – go for the easy win and invest our scarce pennies on teachers?

At the risk of being accused of blatant self-interest and self-promotion, the science backs this up: John Hattie’s remarkable analysis of educational research (‘Visible Learning’ – unfortunately not in a good bookshop near you) picks out the interventions that make the most difference to learning. Handily (Mr. Hattie is very helpful), these interventions are listed at the back of the book; of the ‘top thirty’, nineteen are directly related to teachers or teaching methods (and many of the other eleven are directly related to teaching skills too – such as behaviour in the school).

And, critically, it takes a long look down the list to find evidence of the impact of structural reforms of the kind being supported here – religious schools and charter schools (the U.S equivalent of our free schools) are both outside the top hundred.

So, what to do? Attracting new and better recruits into the profession is vital; tomorrow’s teachers should ideally be better than the current bunch.

But what of today’s teachers? How can they improve what they do? On this, from Government at least, so little seems to be said (aside from the title of the White Paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’ – an attempt at flattery which fails to disguise the paucity of ideas within). If only the effort and the energy currently absorbed in establishing new free schools could be diverted towards the development of teachers.

Whatever cash we have – and whatever political will there is – would be most wisely invested in this area, not the unproven risk of free schools. I don’t mean more pay – I mean investment in the best training and development there is. Here’s a start: every teacher should be trained to Masters degree level, based on research and development which takes place in their own classrooms.

There will be few headlines, favourable or otherwise, to such a move. In fact, it would be very likely to send the dispassionate observer into a deep sleep – and perhaps that reveals why it seems so low down the political agenda.

Indeed at the end of a Parliamentary term there would be no new buildings, no Acts of Parliament – nothing to show for it, except a few thousand teachers who were better at their jobs, and many, many thousands of children whose prospects had been elevated and whose eyes had been lifted to see previously unimaginable horizons.


Filed under Conservatives, Free Schools, Michael Gove, Policy, Politics - general, Schools, Uncategorized

Gibb v Hattie: The Verdict

After Nick Gibb’s pounding at the hands of Professor John Hattie in Round 1 of the ‘Improving Schools Challenge’, its time for a more sober analysis of the other strands of the School Minister’s ‘vision’ for schools.

In an interview with Mike Baker, Gibb identifies certain ‘imperatives’ which he expects schools to follow (it’s not too difficult to spot the tension here between a stated aim of freeing up schools to teach how they want and, at the same time, prescribing what teachers must do).

Alongside ‘setting by ability’ (which has been addressed in ‘Round 1’), Gibb’s ‘imperatives’ are: first, for schools to adhere to a policy of ‘strict school uniform’ and, second, for teachers to teach reading using the ‘synthetic phonics’ method.

One wonders at the process by which these seemingly unconnected ideas have become central to Gibb’s world-view. Even taken together they fail to constitute anything approaching a vision for primary education. But, let’s put that to one side, and deal with them on face value and scrutinise their worth using the ‘Hattie test’.

(For those who can’t face reading my last blog, you have my sympathies. Put simply, this is a ‘Hattie test’ : the Professor from Auckland analysed – meta-analysed to be precise – over 50,000 different studies into almost every imaginable area of school life. This analysis was then computed to give something called ‘effect size’ which tells you whether a given variable – e.g. teachers adopting a particular questioning style – is worth doing or not. It’s very clever, meticulous work, giving some clarity to the confusion and complexity of classroom life and the still-intriguing process of learning).

Let’s start with school uniform: does a crisp shirt and a throat-throttling school tie help children to learn?

The evidence here mainly comes from the United States which has traditionally had a more relaxed approach to school attire. President Clinton introduced a rule allowing public schools to require students to wear uniform. Interestingly, not many did (about one in four), but enough to carry out a large-scale analysis of achievement and attitudinal data. And the conclusion?

Bad news for Gibb: school uniform had no effect on academic achievement in elementary school and a ‘significant negative effect’ in high school; no effect on attendance, or self-esteem or behaviour incidents. Overall, the impact was ‘close to zero’ (keep in mind that, the way ‘effect size’ is calculated, almost anything has an effect – even, say, a teacher standing still, smiling. So, a score ‘close to zero’ is really, really bad). Hattie describes highly-visible ideas, which are shown to achieve nothing, as ‘coats of paint’; look pretty, but pointless (assuming your measure is improving academic achievement).

So: round 2 to Hattie.

Round 3? Synthetic phonics (a process of teaching reading by breaking down words into the smallest sounds and ‘blending’ them to assist reading; children are then taught these sounds as part of a planned programme, building their knowledge of phonics day-by-day and/or week-by-week. Typically, synthetic phonics is used in this country very early in a child’s school life – infant school – and as an intervention for struggling readers later in school).

This has been an area of some contention, after it was introduced with much enthusiasm by the last Government. It was presented as a panacea; critics suggested the research base was weak, arguing the most effective method for teaching reading involved the development of different strategies (e.g. reading a whole book, using visual clues to predict words, learning words by sight – as well as a phonetics etc), rather than the adoption of a single strategy as the way to read.

But does synthetic phonics work?

Gibb is in unusual territory here: he’s backed up by the science! Hattie is enthusiastic about phonics instruction and concludes it is ‘powerful in the process of learning to read’.

The only reason this is not a clear win for Gibb is that nowhere does Hattie argue that ‘synthetic phonics’ should be used in isolation. So, teachers still must use different strategies to encourage reading (not least enthusing about books and encouraging children to love reading). But, let’s give the man some credit: Gibb ties Round 3 with Hattie.

It looks like the message from Hattie to Gibb is this: put less emphasis on ‘setting’ children, it doesn’t make a difference; loosen the old school tie, it’s purely cosmetic; and keep going with the synthetic phonics, but it’s not a panacea.

To finish, one other of Gibb’s ‘imperatives’ is worth a menion. Gibb, believe it or not, thinks children should stand when a teacher enters the room. In his meticulous study of the effectiveness of interventions which have an impact on educational achievement, Professor John Hattie makes no mention of ‘standing up’ or, indeed, ‘sitting down’.

This could be because he thinks it is of no educational significance. Or he could be saving his really big, knock-out ideas for a later volume. You decide.


Filed under Conservatives, Curriculum, Nick Gibb, Policy, Schools

The ‘Improving Schools Challenge’: Nick Gibb v John Hattie – Round 1

Ladies and Gentleman – welcome to the first round of the ‘Improving Schools Challenge!’ This is no physical fight, but a battle of minds: who has the best ideas to improve schools? Lets meet our contestants:

In the Blue corner: put your hands together for former accountant, Conservative MP for Bognor and now Schools Minister, Mr Nick ‘The Disciplinator’ Gibb. He will be fighting tonight using arguments based on hunches, prejudice and a desire to precisely replicate the grammar school education he experienced way back when.

In the Impartial corner: a big welcome to the little-known Kiwi boffin, all the way from the University of Auckland, Professor John ‘The Synthesiser’ Hattie. He will be counter-punching with arguments based on sound research, an analysis of 50,000 studies involving millions of children and the objective application of reason and evidence.

Who will win?

Please settle down for Round 1.

Nick Gibb starts the battle of the brains with an interesting proposition. Drawing on a tactic from a previous fight (on the Politics Show), he dives in with:

“I visit schools every week and I’ve seen some very high quality comprehensives in very deprived parts of Britain…and what they do is they set their children by ability so that children are taught in similar ability group, whereas in a lot of comprehensives under this government, only about 40 % of lessons are set. So that’s a key priority…then you’ll see the grammar school type of education existing in the comprehensive [schools].”

Hattie looks stunned. He never thought he’d have the old “put ’em in sets” argument chucked his way. He reels, turns and reaches for…what’s this? Yes, it looks like Hattie is going to go straight for Gibb’s weak spot and use empirical evidence.

‘The Synthesiser’ goes technical. He says that you can measure something called the ‘effect size’: this tells you, in precise terms, the impact of almost anything on a child’s achievement. He fronts up to Gibb: ‘I’ve got it all in my locker: whether giving homework makes a difference, or the size of the school, or teaching phonics, or the degree of parental support. You name it!’

Now it’s Gibb that looks dazed. He digs deep, drawing on his experience of the handful of schools he has strolled round. He swipes wildly: ‘Some were really good’, he says, ‘and they had their children in sets – so let’s have children working in sets everywhere. Take that, logic-man!’

Hattie knows what to do. He goes for the kill. Calmly, he reels off the findings of over 300 studies (carried out by clever people who know what they are talking about) into whether grouping by ability works.

He unleashes a fierce flurry of blows: the overall effects of grouping by ability are ‘minimal’ and in some cases ‘profoundly negative’; across three ability groups (top, middle and bottom) ‘no-one profits’; those in low-ability groups can have their educational experience ‘deadened’ and, as a result, are ‘alienated’; this negatively affects ‘low-income’ groups more than those on higher-incomes.

What matters, says Hattie, is the quality of teaching, not how children are grouped: it’s the teachers, stupid.

Gibb stumbles back to his corner, clutching his old school tie, mumbling ‘Well, I was in top set and it worked for me.’

Looks like it’s Round 1 to ‘The Synthesiser’, Professor John Hattie!

Will ‘The Disciplinator’ recover?

Round 2 coming up soon…

(If you would like to read Professor John Hattie in the unfettered form, his extraordinarily comprehensive findings can be found in his book ‘Visible Learning’. Not as read-able as a Grisham I’ll admit, but it’s a gem all the same).


Filed under Nick Gibb, Policy, Schools