I’ve been ill this week; so ill in fact that for a couple of days I could not stand up. But I could tweet and read and so thankfully, I had a chance to start reading the latest book by John Hattie, written in collaboration with cognitive scientist Greg Yates. It is a hefty tome. Well, it would be if I hadn’t bought it on kindle. I’m a fast reader and I’ve had time on my hands. But I’m still only half way through. What is without doubt though, is that this will be a seminal and important educational text. And wide reaching as it is, I’m going to review it in sections, following the structure of the book.
These are chapter summaries with little personal comment. I think every teacher ought to read this book for themselves, if only to ensure that my interpretation is accurate!
Chapter One – The Willingham Thesis.
Dan Willingham’s work has gained significant attention in recent years and he is one of the names frequently quoted by Michael Gove as justification for his educational policies. This has led to a fracturing in education of being pro-Dan or anti-Dan which is grossly unfair. The fact that Michael Gove has been highly selective in using Willingham’s ideas should not put us off engaging with what is important work.
Hattie summarises the ideas of Willingham simply – our brains are not designed to think. They are designed for moving, learning words, reading people and social situations, recognising objects and other human beings’ faces and holding conversations with a focus on either getting from here to there safely or figuring our whether we are safe in the company we hold. They are not good at organising, retaining and using the kind of information that we value in school. This thesis leads people to shout ‘of course our brains are made for learning – children learn to walk, talk etc…’ but the thing is we’re brilliantly good at processing sensory stimulus and not so good at acquiring and using the kind of knowledge required to become academically successful. We have to understand how the brain uses information in order to help the brain to store and use it effectively. Hattie uses Willingham’s thesis to draw some conclusions:-
1. Thinking is hard – it is not perceived as ‘fun’ by students because it requires effort
2. Thinking requires a belief that one can succeed – we are programmed to be risk averse and so need to believe that the effort is worth the risk. In short, we are motivated by knowledge gaps but not by knowledge chasms.
3. Thinking requires knowledge and the knowledge needs to be available – it needs to be stored and easily accessible. This requires a complex process of laying down memory; a process that Hattie and Yates go into in greater detail in future chapters.
4. Once stored the information can acquire the level of automaticity allowing the brain to be freed up for higher order activities -deep learning
5. Deep learning – i.e. the application of knowledge takes much longer and requires deliberate practice which will eventually lead to mastery.
6. Being a thinker requires an effort that moves us beyond our natural state – a state that simply processes and responds to the information given. It depends on being exposed to information and then being expertly guided to assimilating and using that information. It requires being taught.
This thesis is well summarised by Hattie and indeed has led to a strong movement in education in support of a core knowledge curriculum – i.e. that the ‘answer’ must lie in giving children knowledge and then making them practice that knowledge. This is a gross simplification as Hattie goes on to explore. For we cannot ‘educate’ children without building confidence, enticing them into being interested in that which is being taught and crucially, building strong, positive and healthy relationships. These are themes he builds on in future chapters.
Chapter 2 – Is Knowledge an Obstacle to Teaching?
Hattie engages with the subject knowledge debate here and points to surprising evidence that suggests that highly knowledgeable experts in a subject tend not to make the most effective teachers. In fact, being an expert in a subject has no impact whatsoever on attainment. In acquiring mastery of our subjects, we tend to lose touch with the difficulties we encountered on the way and to gloss over crucial steps in the learning process. He is keen to stress however, that the teacher’s subject knowledge still needs to be secure, but not so secure that it creates an ‘empathy gap’ in which the teacher simply cannot understand why students might struggle. As he says ‘it is not the case that one can be a reasonable teacher when ignorant about what is to be taught.’
What is of critical importance is being able to view learning through student’s eyes and being able to explain with great clarity the steps required to become skilled. It is therefore important to note that being an expert teacher requires not so much expert subject knowledge as expert pedagogical knowledge.
It’s also worth noting that students value the appearance of teacher knowledge highly – this is a key factor in them developing the confidence that they are in ‘safe’ hands. It is important that we appear to be competent and skilled to our children. I’d add (and this is not from Hattie) that this doesn’t mean that we should never admit an area of ignorance or a gap in our own knowledge – we shouldn’t pretend. But we can offer useful modelling if we say ‘I don’t know’ and then show students the process of how ‘we’ can find out.
Chapter 3 – The Teacher-Student Relationship
In this chapter Hattie and Yates go into the idea of the ‘empathy gap’ in much greater detail. In short, the conclusion to this chapter is that the relationships between children and teachers are the bedrock of learning. Absolutely critical. Of course, on top of bedrock, you have to have soil and so on, but without these good relationships, learning will not take place:-
1. Expert teachers can empathise deeply with their students
2. Pupils read very quickly and with remarkable accuracy whether or not their teacher is to be trusted
3. Expert teachers avoid negative escalations in the classroom
4. Expert teachers avoid coercion and maintain rich social relationships
5. Improved relationships have been proven to raise achievement, but this can be a deferred rather than an immediate effect – in short, they take time to build and impact.
6. It is hard to avoid emotional leakage – teachers’ underlying emotions are very quickly picked up by children.
7. Tactics like shouting, sarcasm and belittlement may secure superficial levels of student compliance but breed long term conflict – ‘compliance is not a strong educational goal’
8. Teachers can provide the only working examples of positive child-adult relationships that a child will encounter in their life; providing positive relationships with the child can have a moderating effect – literally setting them off in a new direction. Even short amounts of one to one attention can have significant impact. Every child needs a significant adult.
Chapter 4 – Your Personality as Teacher – Can your students trust you?
Building on from the empathy gap chapter, Hattie and Yates expand on the importance of trust in the learning process and link this to brain science. Effectively, children need to feel that they are safe and can trust their teacher before their brains can be open to learning. Time spent in building these trusting environments is never wasted.
However, there is no evidence to suggest that a particular personality type makes for a better teacher. It is much more important to be congruent in your behaviour. Being congruent means ensuring that your gestures, expressions, tone of voice and actions match what you are saying. Children are experts at recognising incongruence, even if they can’t articulate it. It is important to be warm, compassionate and competent. These qualities build trust.
It is important to know the children as individuals with histories, interests, names and personal goals. Expert teachers know their classes as human beings, not simply as data. I added that bit, but this is essentially what Hattie is saying! Having said that, we don’t pick out lying very well. Teachers who say they can always tell if a child is lying are wrong. We don’t quite know why, but it may be that wanting something to be the truth leads to similar cues as something being the truth, or that telling the truth when fearing that you won’t be believed leads to the signs of discomfort that we might associate with lying.
Being able to ask for help is essential in learning. In order to feel confident in asking for help, the student needs to be able to trust the teacher. Teachers can build this trust by being open about their own learning as teachers – sharing reflective practice helps students to see how reflection is an important part of mastery.
Chapter 5 – Time as a Global Indicator of Classroom Learning
Effective learning takes place when time is managed effectively. Good leadership systems in schools will maximise the correlation between the allocated learning time and the actual time available, building in for example change-over time between lessons or limiting interruptions of allocated time with other activities.
Once in class, time can be broken down into components of instruction, which involves engaging children in the information to be learnt and academic learning time. In general, we are trying to maximise academic learning time by limiting distractions and interruptions. One critical skill a teacher needs in being able to do this, is being able to observe and judge what individual students need at any one point in time. As Hattie points out in later chapters, it is a myth that human beings can multi-task – instead we switch from one task to another quickly, usually with detrimental effects on concentration. This suggests that a teacher cannot both talk effectively and observe who is learning at the same time. I’m bringing together two chapters here, because there seemed to be a fracture between the two. However, I think that what is being said is that the expert teacher will expertly switch between talk and observation, scanning classes regularly to assess levels of engagement.
What Hattie brings to the fore here is frustrating paradox that while we can scan for impressions, there ‘is no mechanism in the mind that could enable a teacher to continuously monitor and tally individual rates of engagement.’
If we think about that in terms of lesson observations then, it may be that an observer, not being distracted by the action of teaching itself, may be able to notice things that the teacher cannot, but in not knowing the children, the observer cannot be sure whether the child is learning or not. What we can do is provide the optimal conditions for academic learning time to be utilised; building in deliberate practice, reflection and feedback. Knowing whether children are actually learning is impossible in the present. To do that we need constant, reflective feedback – a past – present – future loop and this is the subject of another chapter.
Of course, what Hattie doesn’t engage with at this point is the effect of time on distractions – the impinging of the future and past on the present as diversions to learning. For example the child distracted by the smell of food coming from the canteen – the future promise of food, or the one distracted by thinking about an argument they just had in the playground. Time impinges in many ways and is one of the reasons that Hattie describes the time spent actually learning as ‘hidden’.
In another section, Hattie explores the impact of teaching topics or subjects in short or long time frames. Studies show that whether a unit lasts for 4 or 12 weeks has little impact on achievement in surface learning testing – all pupils perform equally well on factual recall tests. But the longer one spends on a topic, the deeper the learning – on more sophisticated tests which require thought, synthesis and analysis, the longer the time spent, the better. In short, deep learning takes time.
Chapter 6 – The Recitation Method and the Nature of Classroom Learning
Hattie looks at the criticism of Recitation method, alternatively called the ‘sage on the stage’ method of teaching and asks why it has been so pervasive over the past century in spite of evidence to show its lack of effect. He notes that a particular feature of this type of teaching is IRE questioning – initiation, response, evaluation in which the teacher is focused on a single student at the expense of others. A typical lesson consists of the teacher talking to the class and then using IRE questioning as a means of assessing whether they have learned what has been taught.He notes that the problems with the method have traditionally been a low level of closed questions, lack of participation from the majority of the class and a passive mode of learning. He describes the resulting lesson as ‘sterile, non-emotional and rule-bound.’ He offers the suggestion that such learning is designed to suit the logistics of mass education rather than having pedagogical value. Instead it gives ‘the illusion of teaching success.’
Hattie is at pains to point out however, that the role of the teacher is critical and that an expert teacher makes a considerable difference to children’s lives. He points to the importance of the teacher taking children through worked examples of concepts and ideas, but points out that although these have been shown to have significant impact on learning, teacher explanations add very little to impact. He seems to make a significant distinction between explaining/telling and analysing/breaking down.
To this end, he points to the lack of evidence that discovery learning is any better. I wish he had gone into the same depth of explanation about how he would define discovery learning as he does about IRE. Reading between the lines, he seems to suggest that this mode of learning is one where children simply learn all alone with no guidance from an adult. When I was a drama teacher, I used to describe this kind of teaching as ‘radiator drama’ – not in the Hywel Roberts sense, but in the sense of the teacher sitting warming her backside on the radiator and telling the kids to go and make up a play with no scaffolding or guidance, but this is not what I know many teachers would think of in their definitions of discovery. Words matter and I wish there had been more written on this.
Perhaps the lack of explanation is justified in his observation that in spite of the impression that progressive or discovery led learning is dominant in education, evidence suggests that it is in fact not true – that conventional direct recitation (CDR) methods dominate classrooms around the world. Progressive teaching methods are simply not enacted out in classrooms in most settings. One reason Hattie suggests for this is that they don’t work, or at least are not perceived to work, whereas teachers perceive their impact to be more effective in CDR. This perception is flawed. Hattie is not so much arguing for middle ground as new ground here. He wants us to move beyond this binary and build classrooms based on what we know to be effective. This means taking a new look.
What we know is not effective is too much teacher talk. Hattie points to research showing that teachers tend to talk for 75% of a lesson. It may be that the teacher is brilliantly engaging and entertaining and that students could happily listen for hours, but being entertained does not necessarily constitute learning. He points out that:-
* In order to learn, children need to actively participating in the process
* Listening can be highly active, but our brains can only take in so much information before going into cognitive overload
* Active listening works best in conjunction with socratic questioning
*Observing can be highly powerful and memorable so there is a distinction between teacher talk and teacher do
* The teacher’s role is to ‘invite and induce’ children into learning
* Expert teachers can explain even complex material well in 5-7 minutes. Clarity of explanation is key.
* Mental focus drops off after 10 minutes (thought there are large individual differences) – unless there are opportunities to stimulate and re-engage, attention drops off throughout a lesson.
* If you want them to know stuff, you need to communicate it within the first 15 minutes of the lesson.
Chapter 7 – Teaching for Automacity
Understanding is built on knowledge. Knowledge needs to be stored and then retrieved. One goal for knowledge which is likely to be needed as a foundation for future concepts and understandings is to move it to the procedural memory where it becomes automatic. Doing this allows us to achieve automaticity. We reach automaticity when we can read without the need for decoding, when we drive, when we walk etc. It’s being on automatic pilot so that our brain is freed up for bigger stuff – what do the words mean? Where am I going? What a lovely view!
Adults and experts underestimate their own automaticity and tend to forget that children need to process the information incrementally in order to achieve this. Developing automaticity can justify forms of rote learning – times tables, decoding etc, but it should be remembered that this is a surface learning goal. Without it, however, it is harder to build and develop deeper learning. Automaticity is dependent on memory and in future chapters, Hattie explores memory in much more detail.
Hattie looks closely at reading as an example of moving to automaticity, stating that doing this leads us to a natural reading speed of 300 words per minute. The ideal is to get the brain to leap across the text rather than focusing in on it word by word or sound by sound, but that this is achieved by building up from the units to the whole. He does not advocate a particular form of reading instruction. Nevertheless, phonics (or what Hattie calls recognition at word level) are an important part of the process of moving towards automaticity and are an important part of a step-by-step approach. Hattie points to successful interventions in Australia similar to the Reading Recovery programme in the UK which have successfully led children to reading automaticity – a crucial foundation for learning other material. Once fluency is achieved, however, it is confusing and detrimental to a reader to be artificially slowed down – something that here in the UK, the phonics tests does and perhaps this offers an explanation for reports from teachers that some high ability children did not respond well to the test.
Hattie points to similar parallels in Maths – that basic principles need to be in place and learned to the point of automaticity in order for more complex ideas to be developed. In short, some stuff just needs to be learned and learned well. Without it, children are simply overloaded with the sheer effort of processing low level information and can’t move on. For these foundational elements of knowledge, rote learning need not stand in opposition to deep learning, but can be the start of the process. It is not, however sufficient on its own. And crucially, in the chapter summary, there are these words:-
‘Development requires time devoted to practising lower order skills under conditions of relative ease, enjoyment and strong motivation.’ In short, acquiring automaticity should feel easy and enjoyable!
Chapter 8 – Feedback.
Feedback matters a lot. It should always focus on next steps. It is a critical part of learner agency and development. You really need to read this chapter for yourself – it’s too critical to summarise. But in a quick fire list:-
1. Knowing what to do matters more than knowing what your grade is.
2. Understanding what to do is greatly helped by worked examples which are analysed.
3. Great feedback provides a map – it is a mode of processing but also motivating and ensuring that a knowledge gap is bridgeable and does now become a chasm.
4. Praise is potentially damaging. Teachers should use praise sparingly and sincerely so that students know it is genuine. Praise can encourage ego or performance orientation which undermines attempts to strive to achieve a goal.
5. Feedback is as much about reflecting on your own effectiveness as a teacher as it is about pupil learning. Ideally the two work in tandem.
Chapter 9 – Acquiring Complex Skills through Social Modelling and Explicit Teaching
Instead of thinking of the teacher as an instructor or facilitator and arguing between the two, it is far better to think of the teacher as an agent of change. The teacher fails as a facilitator if they don’t provide the knowledge required and fails as an instructor if they don’t allow children to engage with, process and practice the knowledge. Neither definition is helpful. It may be better to think of the teacher as a coach. A coach will model good practice, teach critical skills and crucially intervene to tweak student progress though a relay between observation and intervention. A great coach breaks down skills into component parts to build a whole. A great coach will know how to nudge progress forward incrementally. Rather than simply facilitating, the teacher-as-coach is an activator. Rather than instructional, teacher-as-coach is reciprocal.
A critical part of this process is breaking things down into step-by-step units of analysis. Hattie and Yates offer some concrete examples of this in practice across a range of subjects. This is simply explained as moving from ‘this is’ to ‘if then’ language. If this is done, then…or if this happens then what are the implications of… and so on. It seems that ‘if’ is a big word in learning.
Elsewhere in the chapter Hattie questions the wisdom of the idea that children can just acquire knowledge by themselves – he speaks of the dubious value of this and sees it as time wasted. While enquiry, he says is highly engaging, it adds little to the learning process. It’s a little disappointing that he doesn’t explore the possibility that enquiry in conjunction with teacher directed knowledge building might be both beneficial to learning AND motivating. And in future chapters he describes the idea that small groups perform far more effectively on deep learning, problem solving tasks than individuals do. So to be fair, I expect that he means that in the initial stages of gathering knowledge, it is better done under the careful expertise of a teacher.
He is clear to point out in this, as in other chapters, that any kind of effective teaching can only take place if attention is captured. Boredom does not make for effective learning.
Hattie picks up again on an idea mentioned before that doing does not necessarily equate with learning and that observation can be a powerful tool of learning. He is careful to ensure that activity is as much about focused observation as it is about anything else and so it is perfectly possible for students to be ‘doing’ while being still. It is balancing this finding with the difficulties of cognitive overload and attention spans that makes it so difficult to implement in the classroom. Knowing that the child is actively engaged is difficult without action and evidence.
He ends the chapter with a reminder that knowledge transmission is a deeply social experience and rooted in positive relationships and modelling.
Chapter 10 – Just What Does Expertise Look Like?
Throughout the book, Hattie is attempting to ensure that teachers are focused on becoming expert and so this chapter explores what expertise actually is. He identifies seven traits:-
1. They excel in their own domain but not in others.
2. They see patterns whereas novices see knowledge largely in units which are not linked
3. They work quickly and with little error whereas novices make mistakes and need more time
4. They have remarkable short term memories in their field of expertise whereas novices find it hard to hold much information
5. They see deep implications to their work whereas novices only see superficiality
6. Time is spent analysing problems carefully
7. They monitor themselves well
Hattie distinguishes an expert from a novice in this quote:-
‘You will have noticed how uninformed people are inclined to jump to conclusions, become opinionated, when more knowledgeable people shy away from such views.’
A lesson for twitter bloggers including myself, perhaps
Hattie noted in Chapter 2 that experts in subjects do not make the best teachers, but makes the case here for teachers to become experts in teaching. However, care needs to be taken to keep analysing and breaking down your performance. One of the weaknesses of expert teachers is that they don’t know what it is they are doing so well. Keeping an eye on the steps is important.
Chapter 11 – How does Expertise Develop?
Hattie picks up on themes already widely shared in books like Bounce by Matthew Syed in looking at how superlative performance is created. He connects this to the idea of deliberate practice – the sort of practice that works at the limits of what you can do and which has an element of challenge involved. He argues that this type of practice leads to both automaticity and development of new skill but I felt that both of these issues of practice and automaticity had been well explained elsewhere.
The chapter also looks at how parental involvement, dedication and commitment contribute to excellence in the fields of music, sport, chess and so on. A sort of Talent Code approach, which is fine, though I found it to be interesting but irrelevant to my classroom practice.
One strand I did find useful to bear in mind though was that these masters of their field rarely started out marked as child prodigies – they became brilliant. That’s an important lesson for us all.
Chapter 12 – Expertise in the Domain of the Classroom
This chapter becomes more relevant, applying the nature of being ‘expert’ to the classroom. Hattie is clear to point out that being experienced does not necessarily equate to being expert. Doing the same thing badly for 20 years does not make you an expert! But he also reminds us that expertise takes time – some studies suggest a minimum of 5 years and on average between 5 and 10 years.
On the whole, studies in secondary settings found that expert teachers:-
1. Tended to be so in their own curriculum area but not in others. This study did not examine primary practice.
2. They found different ways of achieving the same goals, building in sequence and variety.
3. They can explain things quickly and with astonishing clarity.
4. They ignore irrelevant details but focus on the most important things happening in the classroom – they may not notice for example things like clothing (uniform) but are highly attendant to learning.
5. They diagnose learners’ needs and offer detailed and appropriate feedback.
6. They know their stuff, have researched it well and use pedagogical knowledge innovatively and flexibly.
7. They allow students to think about a problem before offering a solution.
8. They set worthwhile challenges quickly moving students on from surface to deep learning.
9. They stop and start lessons efficiently.
10. They keep momentum flowing while being able to improvise and adapt on the spot.
11. They read classroom life to a remarkably high level; reading cues from students such as gesture with great sensitivity.
12. Expert teachers depend on strong relationships and moving towards goals together – placing an expert teacher in a novel class with unknown students undermines their expertise.
13. They engage, challenge and intrigue students without boring or overwhelming them.
14. They know why a student has or has not achieved.
15. They are passionate about their work.
Hattie describes such environments as places where ‘students are too busy and goal-orientated to act out, and where misbehaviour occasions disapproval from other students.’ In saying so he seems to suggest that engagement and challenge are the key to classroom and behaviour management.
‘High quality teaching cannot be seen as a mechanical exercise. Instead, it hinges on developing a relationship with a group of young human beings who have come to trust and respect the goals their teacher has set for them.’
And that’s the end of the first section. Phew!!! In short, as if you’ve not read enough – there is much here to challenge our binaries of traditional versus progressive. We need child centred learning mediated by a skilled adult. We need knowledge and instruction, leading to deep learning. We need to be a little more clever about how we think about labelling teaching and learning. It’s a really important book. There endeth the lesson.