As educators, we know what gets us out of bed in the morning: the desire to make a difference to children’s lives. Yet as senior leaders, the reality is that it is all too easy to be distracted from those things we know make a difference by torrent of policy announcements and initiatives.
Professor John Hattie, the closest thing to a superstar in educational policy and research, recognised this in his hugely ambitious 2009 book Visible Learning. It gave educationalists and policy makers a new wide-angle lens on what works best in education, synthesising over 50,000 studies to show which approaches have the greatest effect on learning outcomes.
The book argues that most interventions ‘work’, inasmuch as they show a positive impact (“One only needs a pulse and we can improve achievement”). What we need to focus on, Hattie argues, is those approaches that show an above average effect size. This should be the benchmark by which we judge whether or not something ‘works’.
Professor Hattie has built on this argument in two new papers, published as part of Pearson’s Open Ideas series: ‘What doesn’t work in education: the politics of distraction’ and ‘What works best in education: the politics of collaborative expertise’. The two papers provide clear and compelling evidence for what really makes a difference in education, and what is, at best, a distraction.
The papers’ central argument is that what makes the biggest difference is what happens in the classroom. Within-school variation – the difference between the most and least effective teachers in a school – is much greater than between-school variation. The 2009 PISA results for the UK, for example, show a 24 per cent difference between schools, but a whopping 76 per cent difference within schools. There are many causes of this variance within schools, but Hattie believes that one of the most important (and one that we have some influence to reduce) is the variability in the effectiveness of teachers.
Hattie’s observations of political leaders in many different education systems, however, is that “they struggle to have the hard, somewhat uncomfortable discussions about the variability in the effectiveness of what happens at the classroom level and instead focus on policies which are politically attractive but which have been shown to have little effect on improving student learning.”
It’s hard not to notice how many of the ‘distractions’ Hattie lists mirror current educational policy initiatives in England: different forms of schooling, performance-related pay for teachers, privileging a few subjects, more assessments, greater school choice... Damningly, Hattie dismisses these as “typically expensive proposals, which the evidence shows have minimal effect on improving student learning” and which “distract us from implementing policies that can make a significant difference”.
So how, as school leaders and policy makers, can we avoid becoming bogged down by these distractions, and instead address the crucial issue of teacher variability? Hattie’s answer is that we must harness the power of collaborative expertise: “My claim is that the greatest influence on student progression in learning is having highly expert, inspired and passionate teachers and school leaders working together to maximise the effect of their teaching on all students in their care.”
School leaders can, and must, argues Hattie, play a major role in harnessing and spreading the expertise in their schools. He urges leaders to create a climate of trust within which teachers feel confident to work together to maximise each other’s success, and to seek the answers to two important questions:
What is the evidence that every pupil in your school is gaining at least a year’s progress for a year’s input in every subject? What is the school doing in light of this evidence?
It is striking to see the alignment between Hattie’s remarks and ASCL’s call, in our Blueprint for a Self-improving System, for imagination, courage and collective action, based around evidence-informed policy and practice. These papers provide a timely reminder that, if we have the courage to ignore the distractions around us, the power to make the biggest difference to children’s lives is in our hands.
See John Hattie’s papers:
‘What doesn’t work in education: the politics of distraction’
‘What works best in education: the politics of collaborative expertise’