John Hattie: Why are so many of our teachers and schools so successful? (Transcript)

John Hattie

Full Transcript of Professor John Hattie’s TEDx Talk: Why are so many of our teachers and schools so successful? at TEDxNorrkoping conference. This event occurred on September 22, 2011.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: why-are-so-many-of-our-teachers-and-schools-so-successful-by-john-hattie-at-tedxnorrkoping


Given what you often hear in the media from politicians and often from many parents, it can’t be that bad out there in classroomland. Certainly if I ask you to think about the teachers that had a positive profound effect on you, and you think of them, for me there’s Mr Tomlinson, Mr O’Neil, Rob Mc Donald. And if you actually look at what those people, what the attributes of those teachers were, it’s often because they had a passion that they wanted you to share about what they loved the most.

Or sometimes it was because they saw something in you that you didn’t see in yourself. Folks, the fact that you can think of some of those teachers there’s expertise out there in our business. There is a lot of that kind of expertise that’s going on. But at the moment, our politicians, our voters are saying, ‘we have a problem, we have to fix those teachers, we have to come up with teacher-proof ways so kids can learn, we have to find ways in which we can use carrots and sticks and performance pay and all these kind of things’.

Well, in one sense, the focus on teachers is right. Certainly the work I’ve been doing, and many others is that the biggest source of variance in our business that we have control over are the teachers. On the other hand, we have to be very careful that we don’t misuse that information and then focus on individual teachers as if the system is bad, they need to be fixed.

And my talk today is about identifying — the need to identify their expertise, the need to acknowledge that it’s out there. The need to steam and privilege it and the need to, certainly, find out and understand that notion of expertise. We have a strange profession and that, unlike many other professions, like medicine, engineering and painting and paper hanging, in our profession when people first start off, we expect them to be experts. First year teacher, actually they’re expected to be right and outstanding in their first year and in many ways we see them as similar to twenty year old veterans.

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If we look at other professions, like medicine, they start with registrations years, they have practices. They call it the practice of medicine. Painters and paper hangers, they go through an apprenticeship. And they have a series of steps before they get there and I think that is the kind of thing that we need to think about in our profession.

Now, certainly, what I’ve been doing is trying to say is, can we take all the studies that we know of in our business? And certainly, there are many and see what are the standards in terms of what influences student achievement, what’s the zero things: what makes no difference at all and what things decrease achievement. And what I’ve been doing for the last 25 years is screwing away collecting data. I have close to a quarter of a billion students in the database to try and say, if I could take all the influences from the home, from the family, from the principal, from the schools, from the finance, from the policies, from the curriculum: from the teacher, from the strategies, I’ve got them all.

And I’ve turned them all around and I say: what’s the effect? And I get a distribution like this. And you can see here: the zero point, the red zone. This is the kind of influences which negatively affect achievement. And here’s the good news: there’s not much we do to kids that harm them. 95 to 98 % of things that we do in the name of enhancing achievement does enhance achievement. All you need to enhance achievement is a pulse.

And so when politicians, parents and everyone gets out and says: “We know how to fix schools” They’re right. If they’re saying they can improve achievement, because everybody can. And that’s one of the problems of our professions because we have lowered the base so far to say “Can we improve achievement?” The teacher who comes and says “Look, this is the performance of the kids at the start of the year and this is the performance later, at the end of the year”, to me, they’re criminal. We need to get rid of those teachers because everybody can do it.

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But obviously you can see this average which I want to talk about today, this 0.4. The number is not critical, the relativity is. Because what I want to find out is what is the common story about what is out there in the green zone compared to what’s there in that yellow zone? And I’m sure every one of you here that’s listening and watching, who has a child in a school, if I said to you “Do you want your child in a school of a teacher that has a systematic impact in the green zone or the yellow zone? That’s easy.” Yeah? All right.

So let’s start and look at some of the effects. And I want to start with looking at structural things. I’m going to suggest to you that many of the things on this list dominate our debates about education. “We have to give more money. We have to fix the class size. We have to do ability grouping. We have to come up with different kinds of schools.” So what do you think the effects of those are? Do you think they are going to be above the 0.4 or below the 0.4?

I’ve got 200 different things, so where would they rank? Well, I can’t find a single structural effect that’s greater than 0.4. The majority of things that we debate in education don’t matter much. And I say “we” because I include teachers in that along with the rest of us. The structural things? Yeah we need to get them right. But in terms of the hierarchy of this business: no.

So what about these ones? What about some attributes of the students? We all know that if only schools had the right students life would be easier. So, you can see some of the attributes up there. So what do you think their effects are? Greater than 0.4? Or less than 0.4? Does it matter who the kids are? No. What works in our business, works for most kids, if not all kids. Very far and hard to find differences.

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What about programs? Now I say here, deliberately, “deprograms” because this is what you hear all the time. “You’ve got to have problem solving. You’ve got to have deep thinking. You’ve got to have individualized instruction. You’ve got to have problem-based learning. You’ve got to match kids’ learning styles with the teaching.” So what do you think? No, they don’t matter.

And I want you to remember this, because I’ll come back to it in a moment. Technology! Oh, come on. “All we need is to have is laptops and technology. And then things will be marvelous.” Now you know the answer, don’t you? No! And the interesting thing about technology is that we’ve been doing these researches now for almost 40 to 50 years asking the impact of technology and the common claim is, “Ah, but wait, technology revolution is re-coming upon us. This new thing is going to come out, this new app, this new internet, whatever” Well, for the last 40 to 50 years that effect size has not changed. Technology is the revolution that has been coming for 35 years and it’s not here yet.

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