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Book review: Visible Learning by John Hattie

13 February 2013

Dr Nick Grindle discusses whether Harry Potter's idea of what makes a good teacher concurs with that of John Hattie.

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One of the most compelling moments in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix comes when Harry and his loyal friend (and complete swot) Hermione Granger argue about who is the best teacher: the popular and enthusiastic but hazardously disorganised Rubeus Hagrid, memorably played in the film by Robbie Coltrane, or the cheerfully competent and effective Professor Grubbly-Plank. In a book on the war between good and evil, the episode is notable because it says it is not who the teacher is, but what the teacher does, that matters.

‘What the teacher does’ is the theme at the centre of John Hattie's much-discussed book Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to student achievement. Hattie's aim to find out what works is immediately offset by the admission that pretty much any innovation taken by a teacher can be shown to produce positive effects in student achievement. Almost anything works, it seems, and Hattie warns against confusing the correlates of good teaching (such as giving feedback, or keeping eye contact) with its causes.

So, the vast amounts of data collected together have to be read in the light of the argument presented in Chapter 3, which is that what the teacher does is effective because it brings them to review how they teach: “The remarkable feature of the evidence is that the biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers” (p.22). Hattie characterises this reflexivity, when it is clear that goals have been set and learning is taking place, as 'visible learning'. As a concept of excellent teaching he cites teaching people to do things, where (among other virtues) he notes that teachers have to be very adept at evaluating their own teaching. Visibility fuels the motor of reflexivity.

Four of the top five factors relating to student achievement, Hattie argues, are about self-conception. Students' estimation of their own abilities and prior achievements are the most important influence. Presage factors, he says, are reliable predictors of product, and his analysis here echoes what people like Graham Gibbs have argued for higher education. It follows that accelerated learning can have an enormous impact (the fifth on Hattie's list). In the same way, formative evaluation of programmes, and formative evaluation of individual teachers through a review of a single teaching session, are the third and fourth most critical factors. This was something of an epiphany to Hattie, and his words are worth quoting in full:

“It soon became clear that feedback was among the most powerful influences on achievement […] The mistake I was making was seeing feedback as something teachers provided to students – they typically did not, although they make claims that they did it all the time […] It was only when I discovered that feedback was most powerful when it is from the student to the teacher that I started to understand it better. When teachers seek, or at least are open to, feedback from students as to what students know, what they understand, where they make errors, when they have misconceptions, when they are not engaged – then teaching and learning can be synchronised and powerful” (p.173).

A striking instance of the latter is when good ideas fail to make an impact because teachers don't change their approaches. For instance, smaller class sizes don't always improve student achievement because teachers often continue using the strategies and techniques that worked well in bigger groups (p.95).

Hattie's work focuses on the teacher, making them the most crucial part of student achievement. His argument that learning should be visible sits uneasily with recent discussion of tertiary education, which implores teachers to make themselves as small as possible.

Hattie opens and closes his book with the observation that constructivism is a theory of knowing, not of teaching. While he draws on the work of important figures in adult pedagogy like John Biggs, his unequivocal plea for deliberative practice, those “opportunities to not only enhance mastery but also fluency” (p.26), helps us remember that if we believe that it is 'what the student does' that leads to learning, it is what the teacher does that creates those conditions in the first place. Moreover, the thrust of his book is that it is teachers who need to place themselves as the beneficiaries of this practice, seeking to enhance not only mastery but fluency of teaching itself.

I suspect most students, much like Harry Potter and Hermione Granger, would welcome a greater visibility of learning in their studies. Too often it is obscure, implied, there on the fringes. I suspect this is because our teaching is often invisible, something we do but rarely discuss, or whose aims we fail to make explicit or evaluate. John Hattie’s argument for more visible teaching is not a spell – there is no magic in it, he argues – but, like the Harry Potter books, it is a story, one of teachers becoming learners.

Under review was:

Dr Nick Grindle, CALT, UCL

Dr Nick Grindle works in the UCL Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching (CALT) as a School-Facing Teaching Fellow, providing guidance and support to SLASH (the School of Laws, Arts and Humanities, Social and Historical Studies and Slavonic and Eastern European Studies).

Page last modified on 13 feb 13 14:53


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