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Interview #11: Professor John Hattie
You were recently quoted in the Australian Financial Review as saying ‘if your kids are bright they won’t do well in Australian classrooms.’ Based on your research, what are your thoughts on accelerating gifted children and preventing underachievement?
(Question submitted by A O’Neill via Facebook)
That quote was based on the number of ‘cruising’ schools, and this prevailing myth that if you go to a leafy suburb school, you’re doing well. There are some great leafy suburb schools of course, but my analysis shows that one in three schools in Victoria are cruising, and that’s not good enough.
When kids are struggling in class, teachers have plenty of tools at their disposal. But when the children are doing well, the best tool we have is enrichment, which is essentially pushing the kids sideways.
Acceleration is the most effective program for above average kids, but hardly any schools allows their students to skip a year. But there are other ways to accelerate. My preferred method of acceleration is to take out half of the curriculum, giving kids a sense of mastery over fewer subjects. This is a much better way of accelerating above average kids.
I do worry when I ask students what it means to be a good learner, and they say ‘a good learner goes fast and doesn’t put in a lot of effort - it’s easy for them.’ Those are the exact opposite traits of good learners.
Take gifted students for example - most gifted students don’t become gifted adults because they’ve never been taught to fail. All learning is based on what you don’t know, so learning how to fail is important.
You’ve also been quoted as saying ‘the biggest mistake that teachers make is concentrating on testing, and placing too much importance on test scores.’ What impact do you think testing has in schools today?
Let me clarify that statement. I think there are too many tests in schools that don’t have much value in terms of their return. If you look at the number one thing in Visible Learning, it’s student self reporting. This means that if you ask a student to predict what they’re going to get before a test, their estimate will be pretty accurate.
My argument is that tests provide incredibly powerful assessment feedback to teachers. Therefore, the questions I would ask a teacher after giving a test are: What did you learn about your impact? Who did you have an impact on and about what?
Tests can make a difference, but currently they don’t because they’re so focused on telling students what they did right or wrong. Most students think that once they get a mark back, the work is over, but surely that’s when the work starts! Can tests make a difference? Of course they can. Are they at the moment? I am in despair.
We know what the distractions are and we know what it takes to embed a culture of growth in our schools, but how do we shift and empower the naysayers?
(Question submitted by A Caridi via email)
I had a Vice Chancellor who had a business background and had never been an academic, but he was stunningly good. I was talking with him about this very issue, and he said, ‘in business, 20% is considered a monopoly. Why are you going for 100%?’ That was a sobering lesson, that there’ll always be naysayers. You’ve got to realise that there are just some people you can’t change. But if I can get 50%-80% of teachers at my schools working in this virtuous circle, I am a delighted person.
If you look at research done on other workforce groups and why people come to work, they all have a common theme - they want to have an impact.
Therefore, if you can give teachers feedback on their impact - not what they think it is but what it actually is - then you can really make a difference. Then, when you feed the naysayers back their impact, you can start to make them uncomfortable.
What steps do you think we need to take to ensure that technology is used as an effective learning tool and doesn’t become just another distraction?
We certainly have to do something because the students are way ahead of us. Over the past 50 years there have been 134 meta-analyses on the effect of technology, and it hasn’t changed - it’s a very low effect, even though we’ve had massive changes in other areas over those 50 years. The real question is why it hasn’t had an impact.
The first thing literature tells me is that teachers are really big users of technology outside the classroom, so it’s not because they’re against it or see it is as an enemy.
The second point, and this is the most profound one, is that most technology doesn’t enhance the way they currently teach.
Thirdly, too much of the technology, given how we currently teach, is about knowledge consumption. For example we use Google now instead of an encyclopaedia. We use powerpoint and videos instead of paper mache. There’s no surprise that it hasn’t had an impact there.
But if you think of knowledge production, I think that’s where technology can make a difference. It hasn’t until now, but all the signs are there. This means that teachers have to think about their jobs differently. Their job is not to impart information, and talent practise and plug in and play. Their job is to produce knowledge with the students, and that’s where technology can help.
The other element that I think can make a dramatic difference, is making a class more dialogical. We know that on average, teachers ask between 250-300 questions a day, while students only ask 2, but you can change that via the power of social media.
There are many products out there that are like Facebook and encourage students to talk to each other and don’t exclude the teacher. That’s where technology is going to make a difference.
I get 3-5 emails every week from people asking me to look at a new educational app they’ve developed. My two questions to them are always; have you tried it in schools? And do you have any evidence of impact? 99% of them disappear after these questions. We’ve got to stop thinking that technology is going to solve the problem. We should be worrying about how teachers think and help them perceive their role in a slightly different way.
Is there such a thing as a digital pedagogy, and what might that look like?
Ask me in 30 years time and the answer will be yes. But from now until then there is going to have to be a massive disruption.
I know for example, that there are stunning virtual high schools, but there are also terrible ones and the terrible ones are simply ordinary high schools online. I’ve seen many universities transition to putting their books online, which is a huge waste of money.
A teacher’s greatest power is that judgement they make when they recognise that a student is not understanding something, and they are able to offer alternative learning methods or ways of thinking. That is very hard to mimic in a machine. Teachers also socialise you, helping you learn how to work together.
A slightly different example of that is teacher education. I think there will be a time in the near future where instead of sending experts out to schools to watch a teacher, it can be done from a central resource.
What is your view on how technology and data will impact teaching and learning?
Virtually every school I’ve been in is awash with data, but there is little or no understanding of what problem is being solved with this data. My emphasis is on interpretation, and I think the breakthrough will be when we can help teachers and schools better interpret their data. One of my worries with assessments like NAPLAN is that it’s just data pushed out to schools, compounded by this crazy notion that teachers need to be assessment literate. I have no time for that concept. Instead, we assessment people have to be teacher literate.
We still think that what we have to do is take raw data, massage it and throw it back out there, but that’s missing the point - it’s about interpretation.
In the education system there’s been a focus on performance, business and the evidence and use of data. How do you think the personal element of teaching and learning has been impacted upon by the emphasis on the business side of schooling?
We’re all in this business to make a difference to students’ lives, and that’s a personal relationship. If you ask adults to remember the teacher that had the biggest impact on them, it’s usually one who wanted to turn you on to their passion, or they saw something in you that you didn’t see in yourself. That’s personal, and that’s the essence of what it’s about
It always comes back to a personal connection.
Sometimes we overemphasise the wrong things in schooling. Take for example the work in high schools. If you sit down with a student, and talk to them for about 15 minutes about their school experience, that kid will never forget you, but no one does that. We have lots of people in schools in charge of failure and we do need them, but I also want someone in charge of success.
You’re in a fairly influential position at the moment, being chair of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL.) What do you see as the priorities for Australian education over the next 5 years?
(Question submitted by H MacDonald via email)
It’s about getting the right questions on the table. I really want to highlight the issue of expertise. The education system has a supply and demand problem and a payment problem. My argument is that there’s no need to have more pay for highly accomplished and elite teachers, but there should be more jobs available to more teachers. That’s where the expertise is paid, and that’s quite a different way of looking at the payment issues.
We do still have to convince our public that we have highly accomplished and elite teachers across the board, and in particular at our government schools. There’s a belief out there that all good teachers are at independent schools. Well if that’s true, then why are those schools still cruising?
There’s a problem in that you don’t want parents to be dissatisfied with a graduate teacher, instead of a more experienced teacher. How we manage this in a safe way and in a way that maintains trust in the school is the big question. Cruising schools are a consequence of this, but I wouldn’t put them at the top of my agenda even though the data suggests otherwise. The priority now is to figure out how we can have more discussion and debate around what impact looks like and how we can get some more consistency.
Michael Fuller claimed Victoria is one of the best education systems in the world not implemented. and that’s the other issue and that’s why I like Michael Barber’s work. How can we get better implementation of policies in this country?
If there was one thing you wanted to communicate to schools, what would that be?
Know thy impact. More than half the time, all we do is give schools permission to keep doing what they’re doing.
In the history of education we work on the assumption that schools are bad and we need to fix them, but I personally work on the assumption that there is incredible success out there, and I want others to be a part of it.
Missed Part 1: Politics of distraction? Read it here.
Patricia Curran - 17 Dec 2015
I agree, the impact of the teacher pupil is very important.
Personality, enthusiasm, motivation, encouragement and knowledge of your pupils all contribute to meaningful and enjoyable learning. Today's system of copying systems from other countries and adopting them relentlessly into our schools is not successful.
We have very good teachers here, but we undervalue them. Marie Clay was one such teacher - she was not only about Reading Recovery, but her ideas should have prevailed throughout the Junior School. The sad thing is that school used to be such fun and now it is full of assessment stress. There is a huge gap between those in charge of direction and the classroom.
Karen Lenk - 22 Dec 2015
I respectfully understand Professor’s Hattie’s dramatic impact on government policy and his commitment to education in general – but that is precisely what it is – general. His assertion that ‘a quarter of a billion students is not a bad sample size’ is true. Numbers are impressive. Hattie was, I believe, an ex-maths teacher, but I suspect he does not individually know a single one of these students. Hattie’s research is a synthesis of meta-data. It is not his own research – it is a blended interpretation of everyone else’s. It is number based – quantitative - reducing a student to a number on a scale, a graph or a chart and interpreting what that means collectively.
He admits in his book he has omitted any qualitative data which involves interview data where a real student or teacher voice is heard. His generalisations are meant to cover all subjects, students and teachers across P-12. I have taught English in Victorian secondary schools consistently since 1989, and although I agree with some of the issues Hattie mentions, most I do not agree with, and I feel they are insulting to my subject area and teaching practice.
Hattie states in his article that ‘teachers spending hours preparing lessons isn’t the best use of their time. You can name any subject in the school curriculum and I can show you 100 lesson plans on it. Why do we think we’re so unique?’ From a maths teacher point of view, to an extent, I get it. How many ways can you teach quadratic equations? How much preparation time does a maths teacher need? (Please understand that I have never taught maths myself, and I apologise if this is grossly insulting to maths teachers.) But I have taught Romeo and Juliet almost every year of my career – sometimes in multiple classes in a single year – and each time it is different. There are probably more than 100 different lesson plans on this play on the internet. Possibly even thousands, but that’s not the point. I don’t use lesson plans, per se.
Every time I teach the play, I need to re-teach parts of it to myself. What bits do I want to emphasise? Just the canon highlights? Maybe the humour? Focus on poetry or do a feminist reading of the play? I need to think about the end product of the unit of work. Will it be an exam-style essay, or am I teaching this as part of an oral presentation skills unit? I need to think about my cohort of students. Are they strong students, can I make assumptions? Should I expect them to dramatically perform excerpts? How much should they be expected to read aloud? Should I use more film clips? Audio clips? Visual stills? How good is this class in terms of group work? Is the class always on at the end of Friday afternoon, and I need to think about how I’ll address their lethargy? Am I in a science room that echoes and we can’t move furniture around or talk too much? Is the class mainly full of boys, so I should focus more on the action/gangs aspect of the play? What do I do with a particular student with specific learning difficulties? Do I have a student in my class who has been traumatised by a suicide and will find this aspect of the play difficult? (Yes, that actually happened to me one year.)
I could add many more things I consider whenever I teach any unit of work – and as I progress in a unit I am always evaluating what I do, asking students questions about the angle I’m taking and making changes as I see fit. Over the years I have had some classes write essays worthy of a senior literature class, while I’ve had other students, or even whole classes, retell the plot in cartoon form, and that was an achievement for them. I have run quotation quizzes, had students make board games, had other students design staging, costume and modern interpretations of the play in different contexts.
I feel I am a very ordinary teacher. I do not feel this is false humility on my part. I believe all English teachers who earn their pay do this. This is our job – nothing more, nothing less. If they don’t do this, and if they repeat the same thing over and over again, I believe they are in danger of being lazy and going stale. I feel this is what would happen if suddenly government policy was introduced in response to Hattie taking away teacher preparation time. To me, that preparation time is the heart and soul of secondary English teaching. I don’t know who Hattie’s ‘highly accomplished, elite teachers’ are. It’s not me. This concept worries me and I think is a subtle way of extending the concept of teacher bashing. It does not sound collegiate, but competitive and divisive – there will be the ‘highly accomplished, elite teachers’ and everybody else.
To me, the devil is in the detail – not sweeping statements and grandiose ideas. Maybe the ideals behind them are well intentioned, but we know all the old aphorism of ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’.
Please don’t go there.
John Hattie - 20 Jan 2016
Thanks for the response and always delighted to engage in healthy debate and comment.
Certainly ‘evidence’ is and should be a contested concept. There is evidence gathered from studies undertaken (noted that many are by teachers), and there is evidence that teachers see every day in the classroom. They do not have to be unique, they may be two lenses on the same matters, and in all cases it is the interpretation of this evidence that truly matters.
No, of course I have not met these ¼ billion students, and the folks who did the studies are more likely to have engaged with them. Is it my own research? – yes, as it required expertise to synthesize, and more importantly make meaning, out of the syntheses. It is number based – only that numbers were used, as teachers use numbers in their classes – but again, it is the skill in interpreting the numbers. As there is skill in interpreting student voice. I did not include qualitative studies and am delighted that there is an emerging discipline of synthesis using these studies. But it is not correct to claim that “real student or teacher voice” is only heard via these studies.
My work “is meant to cover all subjects, students and teachers across P-12”, BUT again - this is based on an empirical finding that the results from the different influences are not moderated by subject, etc. - with some exceptions that were noted.
Of course, you can disagree with my findings – indeed all research progresses via critique! I also acknowledge that you may spend a lot of time improving your lessons, but why do so many teachers make these adjustments individually and in isolation? Of course, you can choose to focus on different aspects of the play, and of course, there is remarkable variation in classes, students, your focus, etc. This, I would think is the norm...I am certainly not asking that the same lesson be repeated ad nauseum. However, I do want a profession that shares its success based on evidence of student learning. It does not make sense to me that such secrets are hidden behind an individual’s right to do as they wish. I also want your beliefs about how best to teach Romeo & Juliet to be critiqued; that there is evidence of impact on students (and I am sure you do too from the tone of your comments).
I certainly have never said that we should reduce teacher preparation time – but I have said that more of this time should be used by teachers to critique the impact of each other’s lessons. I have also spent a lot of time showing how this can be done (see Visible Learning into action for 15 examples, including some Australian schools).
‘I don’t know who Hattie’s highly accomplished, elite teachers are’ – there are so many, and again some are highlighted in our recent book. I have met and seen the evidence from some of our Australian Lead teachers - and certainly my mission is more related to collegiate learning and not competition and divisiveness. Australia has already agreed to distinguish between Lead, highly accomplished, proficient and graduate teachers, but no one has claimed this would be divisive or teacher bashing. Indeed one of the attributes of Lead and highly accomplished teachers is leadership - showing others how to work together.
I hope this helps answer your questions and I trust that the two papers in the Pearson series, the Politics of Distraction and in particular the Politics of Collaboration also explores and addresses your concerns.
I thank you for the comment.
Sharon G - 8 Jan 2016
Wow, just wow. Some big insults to schools thrown in there. Principals should focus less on the 'peripheries of schooling, like bus timetables' and more on 'what matters'?! A very condescending comment.
In one breath, Hattie says we should know what a 'year's growth' should look like, but in the next he blatantly states that he's 'not willing to say what a year's growth looks like'. Oh, but he can show it using tests and NAPLAN....But hang on, we also aren't suppose to be too 'assessment focused'.
Need to get your story straight, Hattie.
John Hattie has been Professor of Education and Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne since March 2011. He is also currently Chair of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership Board.
Since launching the 'In Conversation' series in 2015, we now have a collection of interviews to present, with more arriving each month!
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