How often do you question your actions or methods as a professional? ‘We have always done it this way’ is often noted as one of the most dangerous phrases in our language and for us, as educators, it is a threat to our progression as a profession. The establishment of the Chartered College of Teaching is a welcome step towards making teaching a genuine profession; by this, I mean a collective effort made by educators to be knowledgeable, to inquire, to collaborate and to evolve, thus gaining the respect of the communities we serve. We can only do this, however, if we are comfortable with the idea of evaluating our actions, from the big schemes of learning to the small way in which we move around the room. Why do I do it this way? Does it work? How does this impact on the quality of teaching and learning in my classroom?
Through his refreshing approach to educational research, John Hattie does not promise in his article the golden ticket of ‘what will work’, but instead looks at the things that teachers are doing every day in this country and elsewhere around the globe that are simply not working. I strongly believe that, as a profession, if we were to have the courage to research our actions and scrap the things that are ineffective, we could solve many of our ills — cut working hours, save time on marking, plan lessons without second guessing our choices; all of these are possibilities if we commit to evaluating our actions.
John Hattie’s What Doesn’t Work in Education reminds us that the focus on international comparisons is distracting us from the variation in the quality of education within the UK. What he wants us to be aware of is that, although 2009 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) data for the UK shows a variance in reading outcomes of 24 per cent between schools, we can have a gap of 76 per cent within the walls of a single school. This means that there are varying degrees to which teachers can have and are having an impact in their schools on a departmental level.
‘We can only find a solution when we recognise within-school differences as the fundamental problem.’ (Hattie, 2015, p.2) We are warned in the article about the politics of distraction. Hattie tells us that many of the things that schools deem to be important are not, in fact, helping us, but rather distracting us from looking deeper into what really makes a difference. Hattie goes through a number of distractions in the current education system. I am going to summarise the first three, as these are the areas I believe that we could take on board today and use in our roles as subject teachers or leaders tomorrow.
Distraction 1 – Appease the parents
Reducing class sizes is an action that is popular with both parents and teachers. Smaller classes ensure that parents feel their child is getting more attention, and I convince myself that my marking is better when I have less of it to do, or that I can have more of an impact on a child’s learning if they are in a smaller group. According to Hattie, this is not the case. Instead, what happens is that the additional expense of these smaller classes can detract from the money that is going into great teaching. Hattie paraphrases PISA guru Andreas Schleicher, who says that when there are choices to be made between great teaching and smaller classes, great teaching must win out (Hattie, 2015, p.10).
This information can have a substantial effect on the way that our schools approach after-school sessions. According to Hattie, there is no evidence to support doing the same thing again, but this time after school with a smaller group will help. Teachers spend hours planning extra lessons and we all stay late to attend them, but rather than repeating a lesson in the second year of a course and washing our hands of the whole thing, we can use this information to revolutionise the way in which we intervene with pupils’ progress. Rather than repeating the content and hoping for an improvement, we can use the information in ‘Distraction 2’ to plan meaningful, effective extensions of classroom learning, perhaps even making our lesson-planning so effective that there is less of a need for extra lessons after school at all.
Distraction 2 – Tinker with the curriculum
There is an argument about whether subject knowledge or higher-order thinking skills are needed in lessons. We need both. Hattie gives us a guide to use when considering the variety of abilities our children will have by the time they reach us. The number of years the children in your class have been in school will reflect the variety of ability levels and experience within your group. ‘A better interpretation of the “5” in “Year 5” is that there is likely to be five years’ spread of performance in that year.’(Hattie, 2015, p.13) As a secondary school teacher, this means that there are 11 different levels to the class sat in front of you on a daily basis. A curriculum that focuses either on surface learning or just deeper-level learning will limit our children. A history teacher cannot focus on deeper-level understanding of the cultural and political significance of the Norman invasion without first telling students that it all started in 1066, who the Normans were and how they invaded. Hattie reminds us of how SOLO taxonomy can guide us to find balance when planning our curriculum. (For a quick and easy guide for how SOLO taxonomy can improve your planning, visit http://www.hattonteachingschoolalliance.org.uk/research/research-in-brief/.)
Distraction 3 – Fix the students
Teaching to learning styles such as kinaesthetic, visual, audio, etc., as Hattie tells us, needs to end. I know that most of the people reading this will be aware, but believe me, there are still classrooms in which pupils’ work is based around their specific ‘learning style’ according to VAK (visual-auditory-kinaesthetic). This is not conducive to a good education. Labelling a child as entirely kinaesthetic gives us an ‘out’ when they are unable to write an essay, but it does not improve their learning; it only makes us feel better. If something does not work for your pupils, change it, but do not limit the experiences they have in your subject by matching them to a particular learning style, which is entirely unsupported by research.
The inspiring Mary Myatt once said that the most important question we can ask ourselves and our leaders is how does this improve the quality of teaching and learning? (For more information, see Mary Myatt Learning). The arrival of the Chartered College and the wave of teachers on Twitter, reading and continually learning, cry for an end to ineffective practice and a revolution towards evidence-based teaching.
Hattie J (2015) What Doesn’t Work in Education: The Politics of Distraction. London: Pearson.
Hatton Teaching School Alliance (2017) What is SOLO taxonomy and how can it help me plan my lessons? Available at: http://www.hattonteachingschoolalliance.org.uk/research/research-in-brief/ (accessed 30 March 2017).
John Hattie’s influential review of educational research offers further insights into his thinking on what factors make a difference to learning and performance: Hattie J (2009) Visible Learning. London: Routledge.