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Prof John Hattie: What Works Best & What Doesn’t Work in Education

Posted by Colin Klupiec on May 3, 2016 at 10:13 AM

John_Hattie.jpgHave you ever wondered what doesn't work and what works best in education?

Well, Professor John Hattie has and in 2015 he wrote about it in two papers:

  • "What doesn’t work in education: The politics of distraction".
  • "What works best in education: The politics of collaborative expertise".

John Hattie is the Director of the Melbourne Educational Research Institute at the University of Melbourne.

He’s also the Chair of the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leaders, and co director of the Science of Learning Research Centre.

His work is known worldwide. 

The titles sound provocative and controversial. But the message is quite simple. One year of input should equal one year of progress, for all students, no matter where they start.

It sounds obvious, but John Hattie argues we are too easily distracted from the real issues. And we don’t harness the power of collaborating with our best educators to create what he calls a "coalition of the successful".

I caught up with John at the Improving Initial Teacher Education conference in Melbourne, in April 2016. He spoke to me on the Learning Capacity podcast where we dug a little bit deeper into these two papers.

Listen to the podcast.

Topics covered

1. Teacher education

2. A years' growth for a years’ input

3. Individual variance of teachers within a school

4. 21st Century learning

People & organisations mentioned

1. PISA  (Program for International Student Assessment)

2. NAPLAN (National Assessment - Literacy & Numeracy)

3. Noel Pearson

4. Professor Linda Darling-Hammond

5. Dr Betsy Becker

6. Plato and Aristotle

7. Melbourne Educational Research Institute

8. Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leaders

9  Science of Learning Research Centre.

10. Improving Initial Teacher Education Conference 

Resources/books/articles mentioned

1. The Politics of Distraction

2. The Politics of Collaborative Expertise

3. Visible Learning

Previous podcast episodes on SoundCloud

If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:

 Episode 55 of the Learning Capacity Podcast

Professor John Hattie on the Education Politics of Distraction and Collaborative Expertise

Colin Klupiec: John Hattie, thanks for joining us. In the two papers that you wrote in June 2015, "The Politics of Distraction" and "The Politics of Collaborative Expertise," let me start off with one of the first points that you make, and that is, you say, that one year of input should equal one year of progress. Now that, to me, sounds really obvious, and I think if you said that to anybody, they'd say, "Yeah, that sounds really obvious." But why don't we hear that more?

John: Because we have an obsession about standards and achievement. We think good schools, good teachers are those ones that get their students to these high levels of achievement and standards. And certainly I want to do that too, but the problem with that is that it fails to take into account where the kids start. And Australia has a particularly unique problem at the moment.

If you look at its PISA ratings from the international tests over the last 15, 20 years, we are systemically going backwards because of what we're not doing with top 40% of our kids. Because they're achieving a standard, we say, "Leave them alone."

And so I want to turn the debate around and say, "No, every kid deserves at least a years' growth for a years’ input no matter where they start, whether they are struggling or whether they are bright." It's hard to do, it's harder to measure, it's harder to evaluate, but it's the right question. 

Colin: So I don't think I've ever been to a school that doesn't talk about high standards or high achievement, but in the report that you wrote, in the distraction report and...there are two reports designed to be read back to back.

John: Correct.

Colin: You suggest that talking about high standards and high achievement is almost like talking about an inbuilt value system.

John: Oh, absolutely. In many schools where those students are doing extremely well, as they come into the school, I still argue we have a responsibility to add value for those students. But if we get distracted by talking all the time about high standards, we forget those students deserve the same as what any kid deserves from the school and that is at least a years' growth.

Colin: So isn't that counterintuitive though to suggest that that in itself is a potential failure point?

John: Well, it is because the whole community then starts considering good schools as those that have high achievement and they fail to recognise that some of our schools in our most struggling areas of Australia are stunningly brilliant. But just because they don't get their kids at the high levels of NAPLAN or the high levels of achievement, we see them as failing schools and they are not. 

Colin: Equity then is something else that you talk about and I suggest, although I suspect that this is where you're going with this, that we should be talking perhaps more about equity rather than excellence. They're big words, but essentially what we're saying is give each kid the chance to perform at their level and make a step forward rather than always talking about the top.

John: Correct.

Colin: Because I guess an excellence-based language immediately assumes that we're talking about kids who are excellent according to some atmospheric standard somewhere that no one really actually understands, but we're leaving those kids out. Is that where we're going with this?

John: Well, we are. Yes, but of course I want excellence too. But the way you get to excellence, the reason why teachers are employed, the reason we have schools is to help get kids on their growth, on their progress to it. And it's that progress on that growth that I think is a fundamental reason of schooling and what we should worry about.

I know there's some schools, because I've done the analysis of Noel Pearson's data in the far north of Queensland. They're making a one and a half to two years growth for every year of input. Now that's stunning. Are they at the national standards yet? No, they're going to have to do three to four years of input to get up there, but why would you denigrate schools like that who are not above a certain standard but still they're making a massive investment in those children's lives? That's the debate I want to have.

Colin: Okay, now we could talk for hours on distraction because I'm sure there are many, many more things.

John: That's the point. We do love to talk about distraction.

Colin: And we particularly like to talk about distraction with respect to our students, because we often say to them, "You're distracted," as in a classroom situation. But let's just focus on three before we start talking about collaborative expertise, because I think these are quite interesting.

A lot of people will talk about variance between schools - that's a good school, that's not such a great school or that's a well-to-do school and that's a disadvantaged school. Your report seems to suggest that that's less of a problem than the individual variance of teachers within a school, so that it's more of a vertical problem rather than a horizontal problem, if I can put it that way. Can you talk us through that?

John: Yeah, it's this obsession we have of talking about school differences - the private, the public. In many countries, we invent independent public schools, trust schools, academy schools, charter schools as if that's the answer. Now I have a secret that I'm going to reveal, that within six months of starting any of those kinds of schools, you discover you're running a school. They're schools.

Colin: Okay. Yeah, it's true.

John: That's what they are. There's nothing that's dramatically different because we label them different. And this constant belief that parents have the right to choose schools is a massive distraction because what truly matters is not the school you go to but the teacher you have.

We don't have a debate about parents choosing teachers and I kind of understand why, but it is the right debate because the variance in the business of making a difference to children's lives is a function of the teachers. And they are distributed across schools. So when we talk about the school as if it's an entity, it's just a false argument.

Colin: I can see why that would be seen from your perspective as a point of distraction, because whenever I've been involved in discussions of which student will have which teacher within a school, that's a very, very sensitive issue.

John: Oh, absolutely.

Colin: And all sorts of things come out, "Oh, that's a personality problem," or, "That kid can't go into that class because they don't get along with so and so and whatever." But really what we could be doing here is we could be short changing our students, because we might say, "Well, I don't know. Maybe there is a personality problem," or, "Maybe there is a personality clash." But that student may progress in that context.

John: But that's where I want to come...as I know, we're coming to in terms of the other paper of collaborative action. The way around this to me is to have a lot more collaborative action within a school. For example, one of the biggest problems that I see and certainly we showed this in our New Zealand studies that the single, biggest problem in the business is teachers do not have a common conception of progress, what it means to have a years' growth.

Now in schools where they have those debates and they're very, very important debates to have, then you don't see that within-school variances much. So I want to reduce the within-school variance. I don't want to allow parents to choose teachers, because there's all kinds of hiccups, as you say. So that's not where I'm going but I do want to reduce the variance within schools to have them all making that years' growth.

Plenty of data, not enough data interpretation

Colin: So I guess in each particular context then, in each school, that would involve data collection. It would being able to say, "Okay, this is where--"

John: Oh, don't get me wrong. We collect so much data already. It's data interpretation.

Colin: Okay, all right. Well, okay, how about this? So as teachers, we do give out assignments. We do give out tests and assessments and so forth, but what you're suggesting is that we should stop and take another look at those and then see if we can establish some norms, some basis and say, "Okay, in any given year, this is where we think that student should be."

John: That's right, and what's your perception, teacher, of how you interpret that data and what does it mean to be good at maths, what does it mean to be good at panel-beating, what does it mean to be a good Year 5 student. And having that debate because what you don't want to happen, which happens in many schools is the kid goes from Year 5 to Year 6 but the Year 6 teacher's concept of challenge and progress is lower than the Year 5 teacher.

Colin: Right, okay.

John: Ouch. Very common.

Colin: Yeah, so there's that individual variance coming out.

John: That's the variance we're talking about, and that's the variance I want to reduce.

434 programs of teacher education in Australia

Colin: Yeah, in the perception of what is in effect. Okay, well, let's talk about something a little bit more controversial. There's a section in your paper where you mentioned that teacher education in Australia at the moment is a little more than a cottage industry and perhaps more akin to doing an apprenticeship.

I need to just let you in on a little secret here. I actually printed that out, and I stuck it on our noticeboard wall. And I thought, "I'm going to conduct my own little scientific ethnographic experiment here." So I stuck it on the wall and then I just watched.

John: And?

Colin: Well, I got all sorts of responses from a blank look to a bit of a sneer to a bit of a half-closed eyes response to a...one person actually came up to me and said, "I read that thing you put on the wall." But no one came up to me and said, "Yeah, I totally agree with that." In that particular context, which is a microcosm, it was seen as being controversial. Do you stand by it?

John: Oh, look, I have done a pretty systematic search. Linda Darling-Hammond has. Betsy Becker has for the number of studies that have looked at the impact of teacher education on the learning lives of students. And between this, we can find 106 studies. There are 17,000 institutions running teacher education, and we can find 106 studies. We are the most bankrupt in terms of evidence. And when you look at the nature of the little evidence we have, it's not as healthy as we'd want it to be.

And so my mission is to not say teacher education is useless and we shouldn't do it. There are some excellent programs out there. The variability across them however is ginormous, and the whole move that we're trying to do particularly here in Australia at the moment is to build an evidence space about teacher education and its impact on the learning lives of students. The implications of not doing that are pretty diabolical.

Colin: You're not talking about standardisation though, are you?

John: No, not at all, because if I knew there was one way to do it, we'd all be doing it. On the other hand, certainly across Australia we have 434 programs of teacher education in Australia. And it is the case that they're all different. I cannot believe that there are 430 ways of getting it right, not one way, and one of the things we're trying to do is build some collaboration across those programs.

Isn't it remarkable across those 434 programs it's got no common assessment? It doesn't happen in each school program. There's lots of common assessments out there; not in the teacher ed sector. We have a lot of work to do to make sure that the quality of what we do to prepare teachers is really highly recognised and based on evidence of impact.

Colin: That's a fascinating insight. You've just mentioned that there's no form of common assessment for teachers amongst the myriad of teacher education programs. Perhaps the unanswerable question, how did we let it come to this?

John: Because we have a politics of distraction, that is we are autonomous. We are separate institutions. We have the right to interpret the world we see. We have the right to run our programs. We are focused on who teaches the courses. We're focused on the nature of courses. We are focused on the minutes they spend in schools and what they do. There's all the distractions. We've never focused until this last year on demonstrate the impact of what you're doing.

We've been asking teachers and schools to do that for the last 10 years. You have to demonstrate that you're having an impact on your kids. Why can't we ask teacher education the same question?

Colin: Okay, so let's shift this back onto the institutions.

John: Yes. Let's them ask. Put your evidence on the table that your graduates can actually change the learning lives of students.

Colin: And what sort of feedback are you getting from them?

John: It's mixed because some are saying, "Leave us alone." Some are saying, "You're asking too much of us." Some will say, "We have none of that evidence. We can't get it because we have to research it," which I find remarkable, given what they're supposed to be doing. And some are saying, "Yes, we're happy to have that debate."

I'm trying very much to say there's no one answer. You don't have to guess what's on my head. I want you as a community of teacher educators to get together and discuss what impact means. We have to convince our funders. We have to convince those who want to keep us going.

I don't want to go the English way where they've taken the money off universities and gave them to schools. It hasn't worked. It's been a massive failure for all kinds of reasons. I don't want to go the American money. They've taken the money off universities and said, "Let anybody come," and so private ventures have come in to run these courses.

They're no better than they're worse. I'm very keen that whilst we have it in universities, we use that other function of universities, the research function, to have research on our impact to demonstrate we can do it.

Colin: So perhaps people are a little uncomfortable about researching themselves.

John: Well, again if I ask my colleagues to name the institutions in the world that are famous in teacher education research, and no one's got past seven.

21st Century learning

Colin: Let me talk about a buzz phrase that I think is appearing more and more these days, which you mentioned in your paper, in the context of distraction, 21st Century learning. Now we hear that a lot. In fact, I was having a conversation with a member of a board of directors of an independent school in New South Wales just two weeks ago who said, "We're less interested in NAPLAN than we are in preparing students for 21st Century learning."

John: You better get busy with 16 years in.

Colin: That's right. But, to me, it seems like a bit of a buzz phrase, because certainly if we take NAPLAN just for a second, we've got demonstrable issues with literacy and numeracy. Forget the 21st Century learning part, because we've been writing and working with numbers for much longer than that. You talk about it in the context of surface knowledge and deeper understanding and the teacher being able to balance the need to be able to switch between the two.

So 21st Century learning, is that really a distraction?

 John: Well, certainly if you go back to Plato and Aristotle, they talked about the very same skills we're talking about now, so it really is 4th Century B.C. schools. It’s been around a long time. My worry with it is - as it's already happening in parts of the world and I hope it doesn't happen in Australia - that we add to the curriculum; we're going to have courses on collaborative problem solving and creative thinking and critical thinking. And so it's going to become an extra.

I've been spending the last three years doing what I did in the Visible Learning work. I'm now looking at the outcome of learning strategies. And one of the questions we ask is, "Can you teach them outside the subject domain? Can you teach them generically?" And the answer is an emphatic no.

Of course you can teach critical thinking out there, but it has no transfer into maths, English, chemistry or panel-beating. You have to do it with the subject, and it makes perfect sense why. If you look at any subject matter, no matter it is, there's a corpus of knowledge at the surface level, then there's relationships and extended understandings between those surface levels. And it's often those relationships that the 21st Century schools people claim.

You can't think unless you have something to think about. You can't do the resilience. And some kids unfortunately are incredibly resilient in keeping doing the wrong thing again and again. We just got to make sure it's in the context. So the idea I am very thrilled about is great, but that notion that somehow it can be looked at separately, I just don't think there's any evidence for that.

Colin: When we talk about thinking about particular things, are we talking about the actual content? The quote that I'm trying to recall from your paper is the one where you say, "It's very difficult to use critical thinking unless you have something to think about."

John: Correct.

Colin: So in that sense, are we are actually talking about the content today? The reason why I ask that question is because I'm trying to imagine someone who hasn't thought about this very much, then probably going, "Is he talking about content?"

John: I'm talking about content. Now here's the problem. When we go in and do classroom observations, when we do the analysis of what happens in classrooms, unfortunately 90% plus often is about the surface level facts. When you ask teenagers what does it mean to be a good learner, it means knowing lots. It means a hang of a lot more than that. 

Colin: Yeah, sure.

John: And it means that relationships. It means that willingness to keep going when you don't know what you're doing. It means that grit. It means all those things within those subject areas. But it's based firstly on that content. I think we overemphasise the surface, yes, but I don't want to introduce the deep notions of thinking outside.

I want to see them go together and great teachers to get that balance. They know when you have enough content to say, "Stop learning more. Relate them. Compare/contrast. Similarities. Transfer to new tasks." And they're all teachable skills within the context of various subjects.

Collaborative expertise

Colin: Switching over now to collaborative expertise, and I like the phrase, "Working together to bring the expertise of many people together to solve a particular problem or achieve a goal." Your paper seems to suggest though that we're not doing that enough. Are principals responsible for that or is it more of a collegial level? Where does this come from?

John: No, I think it's the school leaders. If I walk into your staff room, would I see teachers sitting together working alone? 

Colin: Yes, you'd see a lot of that.

John: When I go back to one of the biggest issues facing our business and that is the common conceptions of progress or understandings of what progression means, now that doesn't happen by setting alone. That happens by collaboration. That happens by building trust to say, "No, I don't agree with what you think appropriate work for Year 9 looks like. It's not good enough." That requires a lot of trust to have those discussions, and unfortunately we are very good at saying that the essence of my professionalism is my right to teacher as I like, which means, "Don't you touch me."

And how do we break that down so we get some better common understandings? How do we get it so we can say, "I implemented this and this is what worked and this is what not worked in terms of the barriers and enablers." What we've done is we do the opposite, we say, "Well, it's worked for me. You do it."

It's not as simple as that. It's the decisions you make as you do it, "How do I better understand how you make decisions?" That requires a lot of collaboration. It requires time. It requires resources. It requires incredibly good leaders who want to put that as the focus.

Colin: I'm glad you mentioned time, because coming back to the original point, "One year of input equals one year of progress," probably one of the first responses you'll get, and I'm sure you've heard this before, is, "That sounds great but I've got a curriculum to get through and I've only got limited time." But if we're talking about students making progression, then that doesn't seem to be able to fit in with "I'm in year 7" "I'm in year 8" "I'm in Year 9" model because that time is infinite, isn't it?

John: Well, yeah, but in terms of the first part of your question, certainly the thing that keeps me going is the incredible success out there in our school system. And certainly I start from the premise that there is success out there. I can reliably identify it's quite stunning. It's quite impressive.

And those teachers have the same time as those who don't involve in collaborative action. They have the same curriculum. They have the same assessments. They often have the same kids. I don't think they're good enough reasons. I think they're distractions. How do we better understand how to use the time we have?

Australia has one of the longest school days and school years in the world. 

Colin: Yes, I noticed that from a graph that you put in that report. As in we spend a lot of time in instruction.

John: Yes, we do and we also have quite a low face to face in many cases within our schools. We have some time and some schools are using it stunningly well now. Now I'm not pretending this is easy and I'm not pretending that maybe we should, as I want to do, spend the money on the expertise, which is much more expensive quite frankly than spending the money on the structural things that don't work.

But unfortunately we often deny our expertise as a profession. We say it wasn't us that made the difference for that kid. It was what the kid did. It's what the parents did. It's what the money did.

We have to recognise that expertise and that's what I want to see in the opportunities I have in Australia to extend the expertise in schools, see it's funded appropriately…and I'm not talking about performance pay. I'm talking, for example, about finding the time, helping the principal and school leaders to be better at getting that collaborative action.

Diagnosis, interventions and evaluation

Colin: So you've got a framework in your paper called diagnosis, interventions and evaluation.

John: Great acronym.

Colin: Well, yeah, DIE, teaching is to die for. I believe that's been said before. That, to me, sounds a little bit like a scientific model. What do you say?

John: Therefore?

Colin: Well, do you see a scientific model of education emerging out of this?

John: Oh, I think there is a science. I think there is a practice of teaching. I think we know a hang of a lot about what works and doesn't work on the basis of our science as a notion of using rigorous ways of finding it out.

Colin: Sure, but when I have discussions with colleagues, I don't find myself talking about the scientific model or I don't find myself talking about the progression of students in terms of data that we've interpreted as you mentioned before. It doesn't have a very scientific feel to it despite the fact that we think of pedagogy as the science of teaching.

But, to me, this framework seems to be a lot more specific. It's three points. There's a student. That's what they can do or that's what they can't do. Therefore I'm going to intervene. I'm going to teach them something and we'll use one of these-

John: Interventions. I'm going to have multiple interventions, because if the kid doesn't learn this way, I'm adept and skilled at doing something else.

Colin: Okay, so I was going to say I've got a range of things to choose from, so I can then go to the evaluation stage and say, "Well, maybe that didn't work so well based on what I've been able to identify or diagnose, so I'll try that again."

John: There's the key. You will try something different. Too often we say the kid didn't do it. The kid has to try something different. The kid made the mistake. The kid is the problem. And so I want to put the emphasis back onto the decision-making we make, which we're very good at in terms of those three processes.

And, yes, in your words, it is a bit scientific. I do want people to use evidence about what's the best programs to use, what's the best way of doing diagnosis, using the information from the diagnosis to make interpretations.

Colin: I'm going to be controversial. That sounds like hard work. Are we just tired?

John: Oh, look, teaching is hard work. You ask any teacher in this country, "Is it hard work?" "Yes, it is." It does require a passion. Certainly we don't get paid enough relative to the passion we put into it, and certainly if you look at those teachers in your school who are not having a great impact on kids, it's probably related to not being that hard work. It's a tough business to be in.

Colin: Sure. Do you think we talk about blame too much?

John: I think we blame the wrong things too much. 

Colin: It seems like we're just constantly playing a game of blame shifting, so it's a little like blame is a puck on the field and we just sort of move it around a little.

John: Well, it is. But this is where I do want to emphasise the success that's all around us. I've certainly said to every minister I've met in Australia, "The mark of your success in your term of office is not going to Finland, Shanghai and Singapore. Do you have the courage to recognise the success in Australia?" We're not very good at that.

Do you have the courage, Mr. Principal of your school, to recognise the success in your school? Are you prepared to build a coalition around that success and invite the others to come in? We can't get into the blame in saying these are good or bad teachers, because I don't believe we have lots of bad-bad teachers.

Colin: Sure.

John: We have variability and we need a better discussion about that success. And that's what keeps me going.

Colin: I'm very glad you mentioned the word coalition, because like I said, we could talk for a long time. We're in a conference, so our time is somewhat limited, but the coalition of the successful, I believe is the phrase, and I think it's a great sounding phrase. Let's say that I'm a teacher out there and I'm feeling a little bit disenfranchised. I don't feel particularly successful. I want in. How do I get in?

John: Oh, the argument in what we do and the programs we run in schools, it's a very interesting question to ask early on is a principal prepared to recognise the coalition's success when sometimes that success isn't your 30-year veteran. It's your three-year teacher.

That's a tough thing to do in a school, so you need a transparent, defensible way of doing that. And then you build the coalition by not excluding others but you build that coalition, so that they include the others. They create the debates. They lead the narrative. They are part of the success.

And if you don't invite all the people into that coalition, “You want to come in, you're welcome then,” then you haven't had the success on the kind of model we're talking about.

Colin: John, it's been an inspiration. Thanks so much for joining us today.

John: It`s a pleasure. It's great to be here.


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