John Hattie’s Visible Learning

The discussion about the quality of education in England has recently focussed on form and structure. The recent report by the Expert Panel to the National Curriculum Review seemed to be at its most controversial when it strayed from discussion of curriculum and structure to that of teaching and learning in classrooms. We’re happy to talk about the best textbook, we’re happy to discuss whether KS3 should be three years or two, or done away with altogether, and we love fighting about privatisation and academies. In some ways this discussion ignores the goings on inside the classroom, treating it, as Black and Wiliam wrote in 1998, as a black box, into which are fed textbooks, funding, ICT, curricula, pupils and teachers, and out of which spring results. In this model teachers are just one more ‘input’, and as Black puts it on the SSAT CD ( are a ‘commodity’.

It turns out that this thinking might be holding us back. Instead of asking whether our KS3 is the right length, or whether our house is in the right catchment area, it looks like we should be asking about whether our school has the best teachers, or even whether our children are in classes with the teachers with the best practice. John Hattie, in Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement argues forcefully that teachers aren’t a commodity, in fact, teacher practice accounts for “the greatest source of variance in our system” (p.22 Hattie).

However, we teachers don’t always feel that we can make the difference that this suggests. Hattie identifies a teacher ‘discourse of disadvantage’ (p.5) (he cites a study of teachers of Maori students who identified home and culture as the determining factors in the attainment of their students) that sees deficit thinking, ability, ‘independence’ used by teachers as reasons why students don’t attain. Sometimes I have found myself indulging in similar thinking, feeling distraught because nothing I do seems to help some students learn, or to want to learn. We’ve all heard our colleagues (and sometimes ourselves) saying things like ‘give me the child until he’s 7 and I’ll give you the man’ as a reason to think that there’s little we can do for some students we find in our classes. So to an extent there’s an agency gap. Teachers matter, but sometimes we feel that we don’t.

Having outlined the scylla of a lack of agency, Hattie also points out the charybdis of professional isolation; ‘We seem to believe that every teacher’s stories about success are sufficient justification for leaving them alone’ (p.1) supported by the suggestion that ‘everything seems to work’, that most teachers can find evidence that what they do has a positive effect on their students. For Hattie much of this improvement can be put down to development, to students getting brighter as they get older and more experienced. “When teachers claim that they are having a positive effect on achievement or when a policy improves achievement this is almost a trivial claim” (p15). This led Hattie to a undertake a meta-study that attempts to find those factors that have the best effect, which in turn led him to call for ‘visible teaching’, or for us to focus on innovations and pedagogy which can be shown to have an effect size of .40, where ‘the effects of innovation enhance achievement in such a way that we can notice real-world difference’ (17).

In chapter 3 Hattie outlines ‘visible teaching’. teaching and learning occurs when learning is the explicit goal, when it is appropriately challenging, when the teacher and the student both (in their various ways) seek to ascertain whether and to what degree the challenging goal is attained, when there is deliberate practice aimed at attaining mastery of the goal, when there is feedback given and sought, and when there are active, passionate, and engaging people (teacher, student, peers, and so on) participating in the act of learning.” (22). So far so good, you might say, but what does this actually mean.

For Hattie the central theme seems to be that of feedback, and here’s where his ideas were especially challenging to me. I’ve long been a fan of Black and Wiliam’s work on formative assessment and giving students formative feedback. The excellent DVD cited above, the studies ‘Inside the Black Box’, ‘Working Inside the Black Box’ and [the one on implementation] are really inspiring and offers a coherent and clear set of ideas on which a good formative assessment policy can be built. I had assumed that the major effect came from getting students to engage with the feedback that is provided by teachers. Over the last two years at Little Heath we’ve been building a policy and practice based on this beacon idea – that the more students understand how to do well, and the better there’re guided in that direction by us teachers, the better they’ll understand, learn and achieve.

However Hattie brings a new emphasis, on feedback to the teacher – “rather than feedback from the teacher. it is the feedback to the teacher about what students can and cannot do that is more powerful than feedback to the student, and it necessitates a different way of interacting and respecting students” (3). Even ensuring that the teacher gets more feedback will not be enough – “It is important to be concerned about the climate of the classroom before increasing the amount of feedback (to the student or teacher) because it is critical to ensure that “errors” are welcomed “(4) and the quality of that feedback depends on having “appropriately challenging goals as then the amount and directedness of feedback is maximised” (4). Hattie’s study suggests that what the teacher does with that feedback is crucial “The art of teaching, and its major successes, relate to “what happens next”—the manner in which the teacher reacts to how the student interprets, accommodates, rejects, and/or reinvents the content and skills, how the student relates and applies the content to other tasks, and how the student reacts in light of success and failure apropos the content and methods that the teacher has taught” (2).

This is where mimetic isomorphism comes in:

“Mimetic isomorphism occurs if the organisation is aspiring to mimic the performance, structures and practices of other organisations. This is a response to situations of uncertainty in which management is under pressure to improve performance, but does not know how to reach this objective.” (Caemmerer, B. and Marck, M. (2009) The impact of isomorphic pressures on the development of organisational service orientation in public services –

Education has seen it’s fair share of mimetic isomorphism, three part lessons, assessment for learning, academy schools, two stage key stages, national strategies, synthetic phonemes, literacy hours… I could go on. In the current discussion and debate around structures and curricula we should remember that it is what happens inside the classroom is more important than the textbook, than the scheme of work, than the legal status of the school in which we teach, than whether it’s a mixed ability or ability set and more important than the labels we give ourselves. In the (otherwise excellent) DVD cited above, Dylan Wiliam says that instead of helping teachers think in a new way we should be getting them to act in a new way. On the one hand Hatties’ book is a powerful rebuttal of this idea – however, the concept of ‘visible teaching’ is surely one that will lend itself to ‘mimetic isomorphism’.

Hattie avowedly avoids the temptation to present a ‘how to’ guide. Instead he presents “a barometer of success that helps teachers to understand which attributes of schooling assist students in attaining [goals]”. The barometer sets out three zones of positive effect; a zone of developmental effects – “what students could probably achieve if there was no schooling”; a zone of teacher effects – “influences in this zone are similar to what teachers can accomplish in a typical year of schooling”; and zone of desired effects – “the influences that have the greatest impact on student achievement outcomes” (19). What follows is the presentation of barometers about the effect of contributions to achievement from the child, home, school, curriculum, teacher and teaching approaches. Hattie does take great efforts to help teachers avoid leaping in and in a mimetic way taking an aspect that seems to offer great benefits and adopting it unthinkingly. In The section on ‘direct instruction’, for instance, Hattie points out that “instruction has a bad name for the wrong reasons, especially when it is confused with didactic teaching” (204). If they didn’t read the commentary provided, I can imagine that some in education (and perhaps many in the Department of Education) might clutch the barometer showing an effect size of .6 for ‘direct instruction’ as a talisman for more teacher talk from the front.

In the final chapter Hattie outlines six signposts towards excellence in education. In many ways they’re a call to arms to teachers, a plea for active and interventionist teaching. The longer I teach (and I’m only just starting to understand what it is I do!) the more I agree. What we need are teachers who are empowered, in the sense that they are educated about how learning is best achieved, enthused about their position and responsibility in helping students achieve this, and that they have a powerful sense of personal agency, a belief in their ability to intervene and make learning happen.

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