Professor John Hattie - The Politics of Distraction (Part 2) 

John Hattie Banner


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?

Used in this way, tests can have a very powerful impact. Unfortunately though, you end up creating a different test, one which looks to address this issue. At the moment we don’t do that, we create the test to see how spread out the kids are in a distribution.

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.

Hattie quote 1

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?

 Hattie quote 2 

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.  

Hattie quote 3 

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.

Enjoy the full interview with Professor John Hattie on the Politics of Distraction (44 mins) below:



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