If you don’t yet know, BBC Radio 4 have lined up a series of 8 interviews with the leading lights of the education world. In the second programme of the series, Sarah Montague interviews professor John Hattie on ‘what works’ in education. Here it is. Whatever your opinion of effect sizes and meta-analyses, Visible Learning has changed the way many of us think about teaching and Hattie has become one of the most respected and widely known academics in the field of education. For those too busy or too uninterested to invest 25 minutes of their lives actually listening to the broadcast, I’ll summarise it below:

Hattie is very clear that the biggest difference made in education is teacher quality and expertise:“It really comes down to expertise, teacher expertise… How teachers think; how they make daily decisions and judgements. It’s not necessarily what they do, it’s not necessarily who they are; it’s how they think.”

He acknowledges that there are many impressive teachers and his avowed mission is to make all teachers like the best. Presumably this means trying to change the way some teachers think about what they do. He cites an interesting sounding piece of research which recorded what teachers talked about in the staffroom. It revealed that teachers talk about the curriculum, the students, the assessments, but they only talk for 1 minute a month about teaching. And obviously, they spend even less time they talk about the impact of their teaching. Really excellent schools, Hattie asserts, create dialogues about the impact of teaching.

He also talks about that hoary old chestnut, learning. Learning, he says, is exploring what you don’t know – errors and mistakes are an absolute critical part of learning. He suggests that in a lot of classrooms, if children haven’t learned to be passive and listen by age 8 they’re in trouble. Instead he wants children to be active and to know what to do when they don’t know what to do. And that is what he considers the essence of great teaching.

Teachers communicate a passion – they make learning fun and exciting. Great teachers have higher expectations of you, than you have yourself. This is important because students learn their place in class – I’m a C student – and this sets their expectation. The role of teachers is to upset some of those expectations. If pupils what they did yesterday is OK tomorrow, this dampens what they could potentially do. Teachers should establish what pupils think they can do and then tell them they can do better. The worst thing you can say is, “Do your best.” Sometimes our best isn’t good enough. The job of teachers is to help them get there. This seems entirely reasonable. And the way to achieve this, Hattie suggests, is to turn kids on the passion and enjoyment of learning

Teachers don’t change how they teach when they go from classes of 30 to classes of 15, and perhaps it’s not surprising. You look at the top countries in the world, most of them are in class sizes of 40 to 50. Not that I’m advocating that at all, but they’ve learnt how to be an expert in those classes and here in England, may teachers have learned how to be an expert in classes from 25 – 30… so when they go down to smaller classes you just don’t see that effect.

When confronted with what parents consider most important about education: class sizes, homework, uniform etc. he dismissed these things as proxies. Unfortunately for parents, they’re not in a position judge what really matters – the quality of teaching. Parents choose proxies because they can’t choose teachers. Here are some of the rebuttals he made:

  • Free schools etc – are an irrelevance
  • Uniform – who cares? Just don’t make it an issue
  • Homework has zero effect in primaries which is why we need to get it right, not why we need to get rid of it. He described homework as a “low hanging fruit” that we should be looking at and ask whether it’s really making a difference. The problem with getting rid of homework is that many parents judge the quality of the school by the presence of homework. Instead we should acknowledge that it’s probably not making much of a difference as things stand and so we should think about how to improve it. He suggests that 5-10 minutes has the same effect as 1-2 hours, and the worst thing you can do with homework is give kids projects. The best thing you can do is to reinforce something you’ve already learned.
  • Homework has a higher effect in secondaries and he suggests that this may be because it tends to be more likely to be reinforcing something learned in lessons. This does however suggest that all those secondary schools switching to project based homework might be wasting their time.
  • Age of starting school: “It’s a pity we have a system that forces parents to send their children to school on the basis of their star sign.” He then went on to say that most differences seem to disappear within the first 2 years of schooling.
  • Setting and streaming don’t make a difference because it’s just fiddling with structures. He acknowledges that teachers think setting makes things easier for them, and it may. However, students, he asserts, get a lot of learning from other students in a class and increasing variability is the way to get more of that kind of learning. I would have like this point probed a bit as I’m not certain what he meant about variability here – I assume he means that the wider the range of backgrounds and abilities, the greater the potential for peer-to-peer learning. I’m not sure this is true, but he seemed pretty certain.
  • Curriculum doesn’t matter. As long as what children learn matters to someone, Hattie’s happy. But beyond the basic literacy and numeracy we’d expect of 12 year olds, what you learn, he reckons, is irrelevant. Instead he’d like to see much greater variability in what’s taught a secondary schools because this will lead to more challenge. I’m not sure how this works exactly, but it’s an interesting point.

Conversely, he identified the best predictor of health, wealth and happiness in adult life as being not academic achievement as we might have supposed, but the number of years children spend in education! If this is true, we should be delighted at how early we send our children to school in the UK. bet those Finns must be kicking themselves!

He was pretty damning about teacher talk. He says that teachers spend about 80% of their time talking and while it’s foolish to state how much they should be talking as a percentage of a lesson, he did say that it should be a lot less than 80%. “If you’re introducing a new topic with a lot of vocabulary, then teacher talk is not a bad thing, but as you get into deeper learning you want more student talk and more student language…. I don’t think it’s right that our kids come to school to watch us work.”

I think he’s got a point; I’d certainly agree that we reduce the amount we talk as we progress through a topic, and I completely agree with the need to develop pupils’ language and thinking through discussion, but I balk a little at the point about children watching teachers work. I mean, we’re getting paid, right? Doesn’t that mean we should be working?

Every child deserves at least a years growth for a years input. And to ensure this we have to look at the collective impact teachers have. Hattie was very clear that his work should not be used as a checklist of what works. Instead what he offers is a way of thinking which can be boiled down to know thy impact.

This has resulted in too many cruising schools; he suggests that we have focused too heavily on below average students at the expense of above average students and have allowed the more able to coast. He spoke a little about what is revealed by PISA and identified certain positives about Asian school systems where the ethos is, if you don’t succeed it’s because you didn’t put the effort in. In our society, if you don’t succeed it’s because you weren’t very able. One of the causes for this cruising is differentiated work, based on our expectations on pupils’ ability.

He went on to discuss how video games are a model for good teaching. Video games know exactly what you’re prior attainment is and set you a success criteria which is beyond that. This bar isn’t lowered even if we fail to achieve it – instead we get continuous feedback, some of good, some of it bad, until we achieve. It then raises the bar further. A great teacher knows exactly pupils are, knows how and where to set the bar, and refuses to lower it.

He finished by offering two pieces of advice to any politicians who might have been listening in:

  1. Stop collecting numbers, start collect teachers’ judgements. Good schools have good growth, not necessarily good attainment.
  2. We need a moratorium on what doesn’t matter. Let’s stop talking about new forms of schools, inspection and tests – let’s instead start talking about teacher expertise.

On balance, I found him sensible, thoughtful and clear. I’m sure some of my misgivings could have been cleared up with a longer interview and an opportunity to ask questions. I’d also be interested in finding out the provenance of some of the research papers he mentioned.