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Research-based teaching

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.5, 13 February 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

I once went to the theatre to see the complete works of Shakespeare delivered in the space of a little under two hours. It was dazzling and in a bizarre way succeeded in getting across the essence of the Bard both in terms of language and the larger themes and concerns. There is something of a feeling like this in the release of John Hattie’s Visible Learning, and in trying to write about it in 1,000 words!

This book is a synthesis of more than 800 meta-analyses from the education research on effective learning and achievement. In short, it sets out to grapple with the answer to the question “What really makes a difference in helping learners to reach high levels of achievement?” It brings together a huge body of research – 15 years work as an educational researcher, 50,000 quantitative studies reworked in 800 meta-analyses and, the easy bit (I think not!), the writing of the book.

All of this seemed to matter very little to many of those who responded to early media interest in the book over the holiday period. The media, in their inexhaustible quest for the story and the controversy, highlighted the low ranking of class size as a factor and the stories focused largely on this. Hattie concludes that class size ranks 106th in a list of 138 factors that influence achievement. Cries of “rubbish”, “I know better!”, “we need more teachers” pretty well sums up the responses proving once again the desire of education to not be a research-driven profession in the way that characterises law, medicine, engineering and technology. Oh no! We know best! 

I have refrained from comment until I have read the book unlike all those who grabbed a radio opportunity.

It is easy to be impressed by the statistics of the study itself but that misses the point. This book deals honestly with the issues of meta-analysis and disarmingly sets out to be just that – a synthesis of meta-analyses. But this is exactly the process by which educational research can hope to have an impact. The world of teaching and learning is not short of research, it is simply ignorant of much of it and books such as this set up a group of professionals to engage with a body of research in chunks that can be understood and more importantly acted on by classroom teachers.

There seems both a degree of irony and appropriateness that I write this while the TV shows pictures of bush fires in Australia. A useful device in the book is a kind of Forest Fire Danger barometer, an arrow positioned over an arc that portrays the level of impact of a factor on student achievement.

So what does make a difference? The top five factors in terms of measured impact on achievement are:

Self-report grades

Hattie concludes that students have a “reasonably accurate understanding” of their achievement and that this is based on their experiences except for minority students who were a little less realistic in self reported grades. Do teachers, I wonder, inflate their assessment of minority students? But the message is clear, expectations are important so make sure they are right! Students need to know where they are, where they are headed and what they must do to get there.

Piagetian programmes

The conclusion is that Piaget got it right for mathematics and almost right for reading. The point is that there are stages and as teachers we had better understand them.

Providing formative evaluation

When I was doing my PhD at an advanced age I constantly asked my supervisor when he enthused about a chapter or something “But is this going to be a PhD? How am I going? Will I get there? Am I at the right place? Learners need to know where they are and who can tell them if the teachers can’t? A PhD candidate is in no different a position from a Year 3, Year 10, Year 13 student in this regard.

Micro Teaching

Goodness me, this seems like a theme from the past. But it is a wake-up call for teacher education. Teachers will become more effective when they develop their skills in a micro-teaching environment. This happens in some teacher education programmes but this begs the question of what happens with beginning and new teachers and too experienced teachers. Medicine wouldn’t risk it but we do in education. In at the deep-end depends entirely on whether you can swim or, perhaps even, whether you want to stay alive. Worse, while a lack of micro-teaching is not ideal for teachers, it is less satisfactory for students who clearly benefit in terms of achievement.

The challenge for schools is to organise so as to allow for micro-teaching.


When I got this bit I really could hear celestial choirs! At last, I thought, at last! The evidence is clear – that students should advance as quickly as they are able. But what do we do? Year by year, happy birthday by happy birthday, four seasons in a row, curriculum Year X to curriculum Year Y – the modern western education system is the myth of Sisyphus and we do untold damage to our best students. Perhaps we want to own them as slaves for our own gratification in the gladiatorial battle of assessment. 

Put more crudely and without the benefit of x studies and y meta-analyses – why do we restrict students to the lock-step system that is demonstrably in favour of teachers and schools. It is certainly not a reflection of what we know about learning. And NCEA gives us the ideal vehicle to achieve increased levels of acceleration.

So they are the top five factors (don’t forget that the book covers a further 133 factors that have varying degrees of impact on achievement.) Education research relies on such syntheses and analyses – there must be brokers who translate the outputs of research for the practitioner. They interpret, they generalise, they simplify, they turn a myriad of detail into a clear single command.

John Hattie is inarguably one of our best education researchers. This book should be read by each and every school. It should inform teacher education programmes. It should be an almanac of research evidence kept within reach and consulted.

Or we could ignore it and just carry on.

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