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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Okay. These are the kind of things that I would argue are the politics of distraction. The kind of things we talk about in our business so often, which means we avoid addressing what really matters in schools. And I get so frustrated. When you read the media, when you listen to debates, everywhere, in classrooms, in staff rooms, in professional development sessions, particularly in the media, particularly amongst our politicians, they want to solve these things. Why? One reason, it’s simple: You can see a lot of these things. You’re not going to be able to see easily what’s on the other side of the equation.

And so one of my missions, in this TED Talk today is: Can we, when we hear these kinds of discussions, ask those people to go into another room, so we can talk about what really matters? Let’s get to the good story.

Now, the first thing in those numbers, you can see it dramatically different. And my point is that the biggest effect in our business is expertise of the teachers. It’s the teachers who work together. I’ll say it again: Teachers who work together, collectively, collaboratively to understand their impact. And that’s probably the biggest, the single most, fact in this business, that teachers and principals and systems they go into classrooms, they go into schools, they go into systems, who say “My job is to understand my impact” are the ones that have the biggest effect. Not the teachers who say “my job is to cover the curriculum, my job is to get kids through the exams”. It’s teachers who say “I want to understand my impact”.

It begs the moral purpose question: What is impact? And that’s a really critical question. It’s not just scores on tests. One of the things that I think is critical is: How do we get kids to reinvest in this business called learning, so they want to do more of it? Certainly if you look at the evidence of what’s the best predictor of health, wealth and happiness in our life, it’s not achievement in school. It’s more than years of schooling.

So how can our schoolings be inviting places to get kids to come back to? That’s a really critical part of knowing our impact. It is understanding very clearly, in every lesson, in everyday, what the students know already. Because that’s the starting point to then say: now we need to know what success looks like. So you don’t go in there and just create a set of interesting materials and hope every kid has some point a starting point. Knowing deeply where a kid starts. But it’s also showing the students upfront: what success looks like as they are beginning this task .

Could you imagine if I said to you: Now I’m going to take you out and I’m going to play this game. I’m going to ask you to play this game but I’m not going to tell you the rules. Now some of you would sit on the sidelines, some of you actually might get in there and try the game. But you could imagine chaos wouldn’t long be out of the picture. And certainly many of you would start to drift away from it.

Well some of our kids in the schools love playing that game, they’ll do anything we ask them to. But there is a large group of students out there, the ones that often question, the ones that we often call, sometimes, the “naughty kids”. Because they don’t play the games we want them to. The more you can show them what success looks like, as they’re starting, it’s a bit like a video-game, for those of you, like me who have been through the Angry Birds fetish, It knows exactly what your prior achievement is, you last score. It then sets a target. A goal, a success. Kind of using the Goldilocks principle. Not too hard, not too easy.

Then it powers in, feedback and information that gives you multiple tries. A lot of deliberate practice you put into it to reduce that gap. And then what happens? They increase the standard. They increase the success. And you ought to reinvest, and reinvest. It’s no different in our schooling. Except the critical difference is that so often in our schools the students don’t know what success looks like in a series of lessons.

Errors. Mistakes. What’s the point of going to school if you know it already? The reason you go to learning is because you don’t know. And not knowing is an incredible opportunity. How can we get our schools, and our classrooms to create climate with a lot of trust, so that it’s OK to make mistakes and errors.

Maximizing feedback to teachers. How can we get teachers to get feedback about their impact? That’s the point of assessments in schools. To help teachers understand their impact. And I mentioned before, about those deep programs, Well, I’m here. It’s simple. If you want to think, you have to have something to think about. It’s the proportion of knowing lots of stuff, and then moving on to relate and extend those ideas. And if you’re learning something for the first time here today, you need a lot of surface detail before I can get you to then start thinking of connections. It’s that proportion. And it’s knowing when as a teacher to move from knowing stuff to relating that stuff, is the key.

Then there’s that Goldilocks principle of challenge. Not too hard, not too easy. And then, asking the students, teaching them the learning strategies so they can deliberately practice with a lot of coaching from us, as teachers, to reduce that gap from where they are, to where they want to be. And certainly, my message here today is this notion of expertise that is incredibly powerful in our business.

Now, today, we’re in Sweden. When the peers are ranking, you rank in the Top 10-20 in the world, that means, there’s 150 behind you. My estimate here, in this country, using the kind of data that I have is, I would estimate around 50% to 60% at least. All your teachers are having the kind of impact in that zone I was talking about before. And so how can we acknowledge this kind of expertise that’s around us? How can we build that co-ownership of the willing and of the successful to help run and have a major say in our schools? How can we get a ladder of excellence in our business? How can we get away from this notion that unfortunately is common throughout education, that all teachers are equal? You know that’s not true. Every student knows that’s not true. Every teacher knows that’s not true.

But our business is already premised at the moment, on this notion that that ladder is flat. That the one-year out teacher and the twenty-year out teacher. I can assure you that expertise is not highly correlated with years of experience, so it’s not just years of experience I’m talking about.

And how can we get teachers on this right now? In other professions, our doctors, our engineers, painters and paperhangers they start at the bottom. We don’t say when we go to a doctor who’s reasonably new that they’re no good. There are minimum standards. They have to do, and agree to do no harm. In the same way many of our brand new teachers are passing their minimum standards, and many of those brand new teachers have an enthusiasm and new ideas, that gives them a heck of a good advance, compared to many others.

And how can we get, like in other professions, some steps in our ladder so that we constantly ask what is the impact you’re having? How do you demonstrate the impact you’re having? And as you do that and convince the profession of teachers, we can advance up that ladder. When we get to teachers who are near the top of that ladder, we get them more involved in giving back to their profession and being involved in helping others up that ladder and setting the standards of excellence. And trying to find ways in which we can convince our community that we do have a lot of excellence in our business. But not everyone’s excellent on day one.

And so my message here, in this TED Talk today, is that in the profession of teaching, we have inconsiderable amount of expertise. Bring on the debate about expertise and teachers. There are so many of those teachers who can participate and have a say in that debate. Thank you.


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