John Hattie: fashionable teaching methods are a distraction

Focus on impact and deep evaluation far more important than whatever is in vogue, renowned education researcher says 

March 6, 2023

Academics should resist being “seduced” by whatever teaching method is in fashion and instead focus on evaluating their impact on students, according to one of the world’s most widely read education experts.

John Hattie, emeritus laureate professor at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne, releases his new book Visible Learning: The Sequel on 20 March, a follow-up to 2008’s Visible Learninga highly influential text that spawned a series of books that have been translated into 29 languages and sold more than 2 million copies. 

While his original work was based on 800 meta-analyses to judge how teaching styles influence learning, the new book is based on 2,100 – and Professor Hattie has put all the data online to “challenge his critics to come up with a better story”.

But he said the new work is less focused on the data and more on the bigger story, which he summarises as: “It is not what you do, it is how you think about what you do.”

Professor Hattie said the “politics of distraction” was often at play in discussions about teaching methods, and almost any technique can be shown to have an impact on learning – but this often missed the point.

“I want to look at those instructors who are having a really positive effect and use them as the bellwethers of the university system,” he said.

“We have excellence out there but often we hide it behind: ‘You are not using this particular method.’ I’m not a fan of debating what the method is; I actually don’t care what method is used.

“I care about the impact of it and the evidence of this; on all students and different kinds of students. Let’s get away from our current debates about teaching methods and structures and start talking about impact.”

Flipped learning – the idea that students should learn basic content prior to class to allow more time for “active learning” – was the latest technique to be scrutinised by Professor Hattie in a landmark analysis published with Manu Kapur, professor of learning sciences and higher education at ETH Zurich, last year.

They found many of the studies that purported to show the benefits of flipped learning did not involve any active study at all and where there was an effect, it was usually down to increased exposure to course materials. Academics should focus on course design, not mode of teaching, they concluded.

“The spirit is hardly ever implemented but the name is seductive,” said Professor Hattie of flipped learning.

“People implement it in 1,000 different ways but hardly ever as intended, so who can be surprised that you get massively variable results? The trouble is people pick out a model and say: ‘I’m doing that.’ I argue you need to go to the next step, and ask what was the impact you had.”

Impact, Professor Hattie said, cannot be judged solely by student evaluation. “I was in the business 50 years. If a student didn’t say: ‘He spoke too fast’, I didn’t believe them.”

It should also consider progress over time, how assessments are working and the stories that are being created, he said, adding that academics’ peers should be recruited as critics to help with such evaluation.

Another problem with focusing on teaching methods, according to Professor Hattie, was that they tend to prioritise either surface-level content – such as facts – or the deeper learning around concepts and relationships, when what is needed is both.

“Instructors say: ‘We want you to think like a historian or a statistician’, but students know it is the facts that are really valued – 90 per cent of our assessments are about the facts.

“I have no trouble with that, but we overemphasise it. I want the facts and the deeper stuff. The argument in the book is that maybe we should think about giving them two assignments: one about the facts and the content, one about the writing.

“We need to be much more specific to our students that we value both. Most of our teaching methods are all over the place in the eyes of students, and we need to be smarter about that.”

Professor Hattie – who described himself as a “nerdy researcher who sits in the back room playing with data” – has now notionally retired and has left much of the implementation of his thinking to consultants. Ten thousand schools are now adopting his visible learning techniques across the world.

Universities, he said, were a lot harder to work with, especially as “people in universities who worry about teaching are usually already good at teaching. The others it is hard to get them to take this on.”

That will not stop him trying, of course, and he said the main difference between now and pre-retirement was “I’m still doing a lot of the things I was doing before but not getting paid for it.”

The book has been described as not about providing “easy hacks” to help students get good grades but about “changing the culture of education”. Achieving that, you sense, would be reward enough.

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Reader's comments (2)

John's work has always been outstanding and his commitment to evidence and open debate admirable. In recent years there has been a cottage industry set up in most Universities that variously go under names such as Centre for Academic Teaching and Learning. My many years of observation about such units is that they are "blind faith" driven and not too fussed about evidence. Indeed, try to engage with them about evidence and benefit, you mostly don't get a reply. Provide them with evidence that the research on the modern pedagogies reveals: (i) it's usually poorly designed; (ii) when properly designed at best its no worse than what has gone before; (iii) when there is a reported benefit it's often difficult to interpret as the study design fails to take into account " time on task". The startling conclusion is that the more students study the better they do. Universities blindly support and fund "teaching and support" units without ever looking for the return on investment; in other words do they make a difference to student outcomes? Funding more, within discipline, research engaged academics instead, will make a difference as research quality and student experience correlate at both the individual and academic unit levels. Students are motivated by and benefit from studying with passionate creators of new knowledge.
John Hattie has done a great service to education studies by advocating for evidence-based work and by using meta-analyses. And I completely agree that the important thing is not the particular style of teaching but the impact on students (although we still need to agree on what outcomes we want to measure in order to assess that impact).All the same, the generaliser in me has to ask - if you then look at all those studies or examples where there is indeed an impact of teaching on students (once we agree on what the outcomes are that we value), then surely there must be some common factor? If not, aren't we back to saying there is no science of teaching?