Ask not what works; instead ask: what works best?
‘Perhaps education’s equivalent to the search for the holy grail…’ (TES)
“It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, 1885
A casual glance through John Hattie’s CV shows just how prolific an educationalist he is. By 2007, he was on 8 editorial boards, including the British Journal of Educational Psychology, had written 12 books, supervised 168 PhD theses, published 546 papers, given over 700 public talks plus innumerable professional development sessions since 1989, and run workshops for thousands of teachers in thousands of schools.
Hattie has also collated the largest ever collection of evidence-based research in the educational world. In Visible Learning (2009), he drew on 800 meta-analyses, capturing 52,637 studies and providing 146,142 effect sizes about influence of education practices on academic achievement in school, encompassing about 236 million students in total (15). He includes a 54-page appendix on meta-analyses alone.
His next book, Maximising Impact on Learning (2012), the biggest ever research project on teaching, took the numbers to over 900 meta-analyses over 18 years. Hattie’s studies included a quarter of a billion children in his search for an evidence-based answer to the question: how do we maximise achievement in our schools? So, what does visible learning mean, and how do we put it into practice in the classroom?
One of the problems with Visible Learning is that to the extent that it serves up a massive slice of the vast evidence base, it correspondingly becomes less appetising and digestible, a bit like having far too much food on your plate. Ironically for an author whose main message is finding what works best, his books seem almost completely unworkable. At 378 and 286 pages long, which teacher has the time to slog through 660 pages of text?
To distil the evidence base, I take Nietzsche’s advice: to say in ten sentences what others have taken entire books to say. So I summarise John Hattie’s ideas in a few sets of ten sentences: in his own words; in ten of his most helpful checklist points for teachers; and then ten of the most useful classroom insights he calls ‘signposts’.
“Now you see it…”: the magic of direct instruction and feedback.
Ten sentences in his own words:
1. Would it not be wonderful if we could create a single continuum of achievement effects, and locate all possible influences of achievement on this continuum? (6)
2. Almost everything works. Ninety percent of all effect sizes in education are positive… setting the bar at zero is absurd. (15)
3. The major message is that we need a barometer of what works best, and such a barometer can also establish guidelines as to what is excellent. (ix)
4. A major purpose of this book is to generate a model of successful teaching and learning based on the many thousands of studies… it could be claimed that this is the epitome of evidence-based decision-making; but it is the story that is meant to be the most compelling contribution – it is my lens on the evidence. (237)
5. The major part of this story relates to the power of directed teaching, enhancing what happens next through feedback to inform the teacher of the success or failure of their teaching.
6. Visible teaching and learning is where the teacher and student both seek to ascertain whether and to what degree the challenging learning goal is attained, when there is deliberate practice aimed at the attaining mastery of the goal, when there is feedback given and sought. (22)
7. The story is about the power of passionate, accomplished teachers who focus on students’ cognitive engagement with the content of what it is they are teaching… monitoring, assessing and evaluating the progress in this task is what then leads to the power of feedback to students and from students.
8. Effective teaching occurs when the teacher decides the learning intentions and success criteria, makes them transparent to the students, demonstrates them by modelling, evaluates if they understand what they have been told by checking for understanding, and re-telling them what they have been told tying it all together with closure. (236)
9. Too often direct teaching is portrayed as bad, while constructivist teaching is considered to be good… This is almost directly opposite to the successful recipe for teaching and learning. (26)
10. These results show that guided instruction is much more effective than unguided, facilitative instruction… the rejection of direct instruction is a classic case of an immature profession, one that lacks a solid scientific base and has less respect for evidence than for opinion and ideology. (258)
Ten checklist points:
- Use CPD to enhance their deeper understanding of their subject.
- Use CPD to understand how to provide effective feedback.
- Use backwards design from success criteria to learning intentions then activities and resources.
- Provide multiple opportunities for practice.
- Teach students how to practise deliberately and how to concentrate.
- Teach students how to ask for, understand and use feedback.
- Recognise the power of peer feedback, and deliberately teach students to give each other appropriate feedback.
- Monitor the progress of students regularly throughout the year.
- Use this for planning and evaluating.
- Evaluate the impact of their teaching based on evidence of student progress, and strive continually to maximise their impact.
Takeaways for classroom instruction:
The most useful signposts are that teachers need to:
- be directive.
- clarify the learning intentions and success criteria of their lessons until they are explicitly understood by all students.
- understand that students’ effort, not their interest level in the activity that is important.
- be aware of what each student is thinking and knowing.
- realise the amount and quality of feedback is vital to the learning process.
- develop proficient knowledge and understanding of their content to provide meaningful feedback.
- know how well they are attaining these criteria for all students.
- know where to go next in light of the gap between students current knowledge and understanding and the success criteria.
- take on board the major message of the research: know thy impact!
“Why is a raven like a writing desk…?” The Mad Hatter’s riddle
Admittedly, capturing decades of research across millions of students in a blog post of a thousand words is far more subjective than objective. In any case, as Hattie points out, ‘evidence is never neutral’. As Andrew Old remarks, ‘the trouble with Hattie is that, while his methodology is a bit dubious, nobody’s got a better one.’
Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned from educationalists’ quest for the Holy Grail of what works best for academic achievement. One of the most sobering is this: in Hattie’s words, ‘the closer an innovation gets to the core of schooling, the less likely it is that it will influence teaching and learning on a large scale.’ In other words, despite Hattie’s best efforts, why aren’t we applying the success of direct instruction in teaching and teacher training? In education, just as the Holy Grail symbolises elusivity, success eludes visibility.