Much of Hattie's work has focused on what exactly in schools has the most impact on student learning. He developed a continuum on which the effects of schooling on student learning could be measured, either in positive or negative terms. He conducted and synthesised massive amounts of research to determine specifically the size of effect of different initiatives and factors. He also produced benchmarks of normative effects (such as student maturation, a teacher present and innovations in schooling) in order to more accurately compare the effects of other influences. As a result he has produced a comprehensive analysis not only of what factors affect student learning but also to what extent they do so.
From these comparing these effect-sizes, he found 5 themes:
- critical innovation (a constant and deliberate attempt to improve teaching and learning)
- feedback (providing information, knowing how and why the child understands or misunderstands, and what directions the student must take to improve)
- setting appropriate, specific, challenging goals
- it is teachers that make the difference
- structures and policies merely provide the opportunity and alter the probabilities of improvement being made in the above ways.
- teaching and learning is enhanced to the degree that students and teachers set and communicate appropriate, specific and challenging goals
- that achievement is enhanced as a function of feedback
- that increases in student learning involves more that surface and deep learning but also follows a reconceptualisation of deep learning
While this may seem rather obvious to us in theory, it amazes me how little this actually happens in schools still. In particular, meaningful goal setting and effective feedback still seem to be left out of teaching - I suspect because the mindset of teachers is still very much about what they know, rather than what they don't know and about planning what to teach rather than thinking about what the students need to learn and how they are going to help them learn it. This is a seismic shift in all of our thinking and behaviour that still needs to happen.
Hattie's work has also identified that most of the factors that have the greatest positive impact on student learning lie in the hands of the teacher, and has used this as a base for his ideas about the development of teacher education and ongoing professional learning. He argues that the real answer for improved student learning lies with the 'the person who gently closes the classroom door and performs the teaching act - the person who puts into place the end effects of so many policies, who interprets these policies and who is alone with the students during their 15.000 hours of schooling'. He argues that teacher excellence 'is the single most powerful influence on achievement', with expert teachers able to produce student who differ in profound and important ways from those taught by less proficient teachers.
He's identified 5 dimensions/ 16 attributes that distinguish expert teachers from other teachers, highlighting three in particular in their importance
- they have deeper representations about teaching and learning
- they are more adept at monitoring student problems and assessing their level of understanding and progress and they provide much more relevant, useful feedback
- they provide appropriate, challenging tasks and goals for students
This has important implications for teacher education. Whereas previous reform approaches to regulating teacher quality have been to devise so-called ‘idiot-proof’ solutions where the proofing has been to restrain the idiots to tight scripts - tighter curricula specification, prescribed textbooks, bounded structures of classrooms, scripts of the teaching act, and all this underpinned by a structure of accountability, this has encouraged exactly the opposite of what we need in teachers if we want them to be experts.
So what's needed - of schools, of teachers, of leaders?
Teachers need to be able to evaluate their own impact on learning. They need to be able to listen to what students can and can't do, through observation and dialogue and then provide the teaching that is needed in response to that. That, in turn, requires teachers to be flexible and problem-solvers; it requires them to embrace challenge; it requires them to have a deep understanding of the processes of learning and understanding and to be passionate about making a difference to those processes; it requires them to have the social and emotional skills to create a classroom environment and student relationships that encourage risk-taking and mistakes among their students; it requires them to believe in their own power to have an impact and be change agents; it requires them to see feedback as an opportunity not a challenge.
Just as the classroom is an environment within which the student learning depends on the teacher and the skill of the teacher to create the right environment, where it is safe to admit things you don't know, to identify things you're not good at, to make mistakes and learn through error, to trust each other enough to feel safe doing this, where there is dialogue and responsiveness to learner needs, where feedback is a way to improve, where positive relationships support the achievement of challenging goals and where everything leads towards doing more than we thought we could do - so is the school as a whole. This requires teachers to become learners and leaders to become learning leaders, making schools places of trust, collaboration and change.
As Hattie points out, 'we've spent almost a millennium in schools, protecting teachers from discussions about their impacts as teachers. We have a profession that ties its sense of professionalism to its notion of autonomy . And so we've not been very good at these discussions.'
Are we ready for this fundamental shift? My experience is that when teachers really start to engage in honest evaluation of their own impact, despite initial discomfort, once they see the potential for improving student learning, they can't get enough of it. After all, that's why we're teachers isn't it? To help students fulfill and even exceed their potential.
The thing is, as John Hattie (2013:5) points out, 'virtually everything we do enhances achievement to some degree. Now we have to start evaluating ourselves not just by asking 'have I had an impact on student learning?' but by asking 'how much of an impact have I had? What's the evidence for that?' And 'How can I do more?'.
Until we, as teachers are prepared to ask that of ourselves, how can we expect it of our students?
Hattie, J., 2003. Teachers Make a Difference: what is the research evidence? Australian Council for Educational Research.
Hattie, J., 1999. Influences on Student learning. Inaugural Lecture: Professor of Education, University of Auckland.
Know Thy Impact: teaching, learning and leading - an interview with John Hattie. 2013. In In Conversation, IV: 2. Accessed at http://visiblelearningplus.com/