Professor John Hattie - The Politics of Distraction (Part 1) 


Few people have generated as much conversation and interest around what works in education as Professor John Hattie.

As a proponent of evidence-based quantitative research methodologies on the influence of student achievement, John’s research work is internationally acclaimed.

His passion for research and education led him to undertake the largest ever meta-analysis of the effect of different factors on educational outcomes, the result of which was his acclaimed 2007 book, ‘Visible Learning’. 

John recently contributed two papers to Pearson’s Open Ideas series, both of which have attracted much comment and attention from the education community. The first of these papers, ‘What Doesn't Work in Education: The Politics of Distraction,’ reviews the billions of dollars spent by governments on common policy fixes, and questions their effectiveness. The second paper, ‘What Works in Education: The Politics of Collaborative Expertise,’ discusses potential solutions to the problems.

Garry Putland, sat down with Professor Hattie to explore his thoughts on collaboration, impact and expertise in schools, and to share with him some questions put forward by the wider education community.

What were the key aspects of the ‘Visible Learning’ approach that you hoped would make a difference in schools?

My passion is that very question - what is going to make a difference in schools? It may seem obvious that teacher expertise and school leadership are the most influential factors but there are many times where you’d never know that from the way we - politicians, parents and school communities - create distractions.

My passion is to say - and I think I have a fair amount of evidence to say this - that success is all around us. We do have some stunningly successful teachers and schools. Have we got the spine to acknowledge that? Can we dependably identify them and build a coalition around those successful teachers and schools?

That’s all I want to do in this business. It sounds pretty straightforward but it’s really tough because we deny all the time that that’s the issue.

Many schools have taken up just two or three of the strategies that you mentioned in Visible Learning.
What are your views on an approach like that?

John Hattie

It’s probably my fault because I created an elite table and a list of variables. There is a temptation to tick off the top 10 and just not bother with the bottom 10. But sometimes that isn’t the best method.

The reason it took me 15 to 20 years to write ‘Visible Learning’ was not because of the data or the list - a quarter of a billion students is not a bad sample size. The hard part was working out the story around that data and how it influences what goes into those lists, and it’s that story that I want schools to look at. 

The one thing that I have moved from the original book is the notion of ‘know thy impact’. I really want schools to have a conversation about what they mean by impact and the evidence of impact. And that list helps you get there, but it’s not the final say.

So what would success look like if they were to implement say, two or three of these strategies within a school?

The thing we’re paid to do in this business is to add value and growth. So no matter where the student starts, you want to see growth and at least a year’s progress for a year’s input. That’s something that schools should have a firm grip on - of course you want evidence from the student voice, but you also want evidence from students’ achievements.

What drove me when my kids were in school was Henry Levens' research; that said the best predictor of adult health, wealth and happiness is not achievement at school, but the number of years of schooling. In this way, we need to make schools inviting places for students to learn.

We know that one in four kids who start high school in Australia don’t finish. In Victoria, I’m told that 97% of adults in prison did not finish school. The cost to them and to society is enormous.

Schools sometimes are not that inviting. So rather than blame the kids, let’s look at what we can do in schools to change that and make them more inviting.

A lot of people are now suggesting the 25% of students not finishing school shouldn't be encouraged to stay. Doesn’t that go against what you are saying?

Quite often the students simply don’t want to be there, which means that the schools are not that inviting to them. I’m sure if you think of some problematic kids, there is a temptation to say that teachers don’t want them, but I see teachers and schools that are stunningly good with these kids.

It takes expertise to deal with problematic kids. We have that expertise in our system, although maybe not as much as we want. The schools that are saying that they don’t want these kids obviously don’t have the right expertise. We have to find ways to help kids understand what the learning process is, and teach them how to learn.

I’m not saying that they all need to go to university- I wait kids to go to school to be an excellent panel beater, or an excellent barista, as well as an excellent physicist. That’s what we have to solve.

I want to go back to the papers that you wrote for us in ‘Open Ideas’. In the first paper, ‘What doesn’t work in education’, you talk about the ‘Politics of Distraction’. I’m curious to know, why did you call it the ‘Politics of Distraction’?

When I travel, I have the privilege of meeting senior politicians and senior leaders of education systems. In general these are smart, passionate people who want to make a difference. So why do they do such silly things?

In the Australian education system, we know that every structural change that we make to a school has a very limited effect and that changes in the curricula and more testing have a very limited effect. But these ideas still seem to dominate. I wrote the paper to try and understand the four or five main reasons that we are spending billions of dollars on things that don’t have an effect.

John Hattie

I think the best example of a distraction is the debate that we’ve had about school choice, and the right that parents have to school choice. Thirty years ago we ran schools to enhance education, now we run them to appease the parents - that’s a massive shift.

One thing that would really make a difference is to let parents choose the teachers. We don’t allow that, and I’m not saying we should, but what a distraction it is to focus on what doesn’t matter when we should be focusing on what really matters.  

So what advice do we need to give politicians about their involvement in education?

What I’d like to get them involved with is promoting expertise. I’m very keen, here in Australia, to develop an organisation of highly accomplished, elite teachers and principals, which you can’t belong to unless you are one. This group will play a part in helping understand how we can help make a difference inside the classroom.  

Let’s move on to your other paper, ‘What works best in education’, where again you mention the politics of collaborative expertise. We’ve just spoken about expertise; why collaborative expertise, and what does that look like if it’s working well in and across schools?

You can go into any school and identify teachers that have an incredibly high impact, and they’re often passionate people who put in a lot of time and effort. If you go to the classroom down the corridor, it’s not always the same.

At the moment, we work on a model that allows outsiders to come in and fix things for us, but that doesn’t always work. How do we get those successful teachers to become part of the solution?

The Visible Learning model works on the notion that there is success all around us. We should be prepared to build a coalition on that success, because it happens best at the school level with those teachers already out there. 

At the moment we tend to leave those great teachers alone. The hardest thing is recognising the evidence of their impact, and we can make that happen by giving principals the courage to do that. It can be done but it takes a lot of spine, a lot of trust and a lot of collaboration.

How do you think teaching systems should scale that kind of innovation?

That’s the core problem and that’s what drove me from the very beginning. And yet I struggle to find more than two articles that have ever been written on scale and education.

Next year in Australia and New Zealand there’s probably half a million five year olds who are going to start school. We work on the assumption that they are all unique, and that there’s half a million different reading problems, but that’s simply not true. Every country argues their curriculum is best, and yet they’re all different.

The fundamental problem we have to address in our business - how to scale up. 

John Hattie

If you look back on the last 50-100 years, there have been some stunning innovations that have failed to scale. Take Michael Fulton’s argument for example, where 9 of 10 policies are not implemented. You can look at Sir Michael Barber’s work. How many models do we have of implementation fidelity and success in schools?

Virtually none, except for his.

And the fact that we have no discussion on the degree of this is the biggest issue, and is why I keep pushing collaboration.

One interesting concept around collaboration is, do we make assumptions that people collaborate naturally? How do you get people to collaborate?

Naturally some people do and some people don’t. It’s a time and focus issue. Teachers live in the present, but collaboration requires looking to the future. Teachers don’t talk about teaching when they go to the staff room, they talk about curriculum, kids and assessment. 

The other problem is that we have this crazy notion in our profession that the essence of your profession is the autonomy to teach as you wish.

Collaboration is tough, and I want to replaced that with the concept that the essence of your profession is your collaboration and success. 

In your papers, you suggest that we should expect at least a year’s worth of progress for every child. With this, what are the implications for the curriculum, assessment and teaching, because I think there’s an implicit assumption about this becoming personalised learning for students.

You mention curriculum, assessment and teaching, but frankly it’s none of those. When I did analysis in New Zealand, I found that the biggest problem was that teachers didn’t have a common conception of progress.

Every time you see a new teacher, it’s reasonably random whether a child is going to go up or down depending on that teacher’s perception of progress.

In our workshop sessions, we found a Year 6 teacher who had a lower idea of a year’s progress than a Year 5 teacher did. That’s a serious problem, and when you point that out to some teachers they are quite confronted by it.

Curriculum is so packed as it is, and as I go around the world and look at hundreds of curricula, I’ve found that there’s no one best way to teach. So any country who claims they have it right clearly hasn’t. I’m delighted someone cares about it, but I don’t.

John Hattie

I’m much more interested in the teacher’s conception of what a year’s progress looks like. While effect sizes can be used, a better method is getting a teacher to bring along 2 pieces of work, one from now and one from three months ago, and discussing it with other teachers to see if it’s sufficient progress for three months.

Creating moderated discussions like these does require a very good school leader and a high level of trust, because you’re challenging the essence and core of what a teacher thinks and what their judgement is. But let’s get real - it’s that teachers judgement, minute by minute, that makes a difference to the life of your child. That’s why I’m much more interested in the mind frames and how teachers think.

And let’s be clear - we’ve got some stunningly brilliant teachers out there who have a very clear understanding of what a year’s worth of growth looks like, but we also have other teachers who say it can’t be done.

I’m not willing to say what a year’s progress is. I can do it using numbers, or Naplan, or tests, but I’m more interested in discussions in schools.

We have to solve this problem as we can’t have teachers going back to classes with inadequate measures.

What role do you think parents play in that concept of a year’s growth?

I don’t think that a child should be disadvantaged by their parents. We made the decision 100-odd years ago to make schooling compulsory on the basis that teachers were better at doing it.

I’ve virtually never met a parent that doesn’t want to help their kid, some just don’t know how. So that’s our job. If parents can assist then I’m delighted, but when they can’t, we can step in.   

I think Australia is the only country in the western world that for the last 15 years has been going backwards in reading, writing, science and maths. Others like John Ainley, Patrick Griffith, and Barry McGore, have looked at the reasons for this, and it’s not because of immigration - they actually out score the locals. It’s not low socioeconomic status or those parents who can’t - we’re actually better with those.

We do however, have more ‘cruising schools’ than any other western country, with kids that are above average but not getting a year’s worth of progress.

That’s why I like that notion - no matter where they start, every kid deserves that year of growth.

So what’s holding us back from achieving this ‘one year’s growth’?

It’s because we’re not prepared to acknowledge the problem, we still think it is between schools and creating different kinds of schools.

There’s so much rhetoric around charter schools, independent schools, private schools and Catholic schools. Australia has one of the lowest variances between schools in the world - they can take two kids of the same ability and it doesn’t matter what school they go to. Until we’re prepared to accept the right problem, it will continue to be the politics of distraction.

The OECD have just released a new report, called ‘Schooling Redesigned; an end towards an innovative learning system’. It’s a paper that suggests how to bring schools, classrooms and teachers out of what they call ‘a default state of seclusion,’ and into an expanding network of global and diverse learning systems. What are the roles of leaders in effecting change?

There are very few great schools that don’t have great leaders. Certainly Visible Learning for teachers implies that it’s for teachers, but they need leadership, focus, resources and time.

Most of all they need the courage of a principal who’s prepared to build trust in the staff room, and ask the right questions about the impact they’re having. It’s a lot easier to worry about the peripheries of a school, like bus timetables, but it’s more important to focus on impact.

It’s that notion of recognising great leaders, whose role it is to carry everyone in the school. That’s where the challenge and the expertise come in.

How important is it for leaders to create other leaders, and empower their staff to come with them?

At a very large high school, the biggest power that the principal will have is the choice of narrative in the school - what are we going to talk about? This is where principals earn their keep, focusing on what really matters.

If you go to a smaller school, the principal might have a more direct say in what happens, but whichever way, it always comes back to that choice of narrative.

John Hattie

Here’s the dilemma: education is a resource hungry business and it does require time. We know that teachers in high schools have about 19 contact hours per week, but can’t account for the rest of it. I’m not saying that the rest of the hours should all go towards collaborative expertise, but some of them should.

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? I would love it if instead there was evidence and information about impact. We’re getting smarter with that and there’s going to be a big revolution coming, but at the moment it requires cost and research.

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.

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