What works best for learning in schools

by Cassandra Davis,
Communications Manager, Directorate for Education and Skills

Professor John Hattie is held in high esteem as an education researcher and was called “possibly the world’s most influential education academic” by the Times Educational Supplement in 2012. He rose to international prominence with the publication of his two books Visible Learning (2008) and Visible Learning for Teachers (2011). Since March 2011, Professor Hattie has been Director of the Melbourne Educational Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Professor Hattie is also the Chair of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL). Communications Manager Cassandra Davis asked him about his research of what works best for learning in schools.

Cassandra Davis: Building a force of effective school leaders demands that teachers be open to assessments and professional development. How do you convince teachers to avail themselves of these opportunities – particularly those who may resist change?

John Hattie: Throughout Australia, we have teachers who are performing at extraordinarily high levels, which essentially means they are creating maximum learning impact with their students.

All too often, such high-impact teaching is almost invisible to the colleagues of those teachers and to the students’ parents. The doors literally close on those classrooms and the teachers just get on with their teaching at a high level, but largely in isolation. 

Despite this tendency, we do know what highly effective teaching practice looks like across a range of school settings. That high impact practice is described in the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. They set out clearly what the profession and the community should expect teachers to know and be able to do at different stages of their careers.

When teachers see that any evaluation of their work and impact is underpinned by a set of transparent standards that make sense to them, and where the intent (and result) of any such evaluation is improvement and professional development, I think that school leaders will find teachers are open, receptive and active in their own growth – certainly, that is my experience.

CD: On the one hand, your organisation strives to create competent, responsive school leaders – presumably also from the ranks of teachers – but you also stress the importance of keeping the best teachers in the classroom, free of school-management responsibilities. In your experience, what is the best way to encourage the most innovative and effective teachers to remain in the classroom? Is it largely – or even only – a matter of raising their pay?

JH: In the fairly recent past, it was all too common for excellent classroom teachers to be “promoted” into positions of middle administrative authority and divorced from what they were truly great at doing.

While it’s totally legitimate and desirable for some teachers to aspire to school leadership, we should not effectively penalise those high-performing teachers who wish to go on being superlative at what they do in the classroom.

The way to make the classroom into a real and viable choice for talented and ambitious people is to publicly accord high levels of esteem to the expert classroom teacher. In the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, there are four teaching career stages: Graduate, Proficient, Highly Accomplished and Lead. The first two are compulsory to achieve and maintain registration and ongoing professional status. The second two are voluntary, increasingly demanding and highly aspirational.

To be certified as a Highly Accomplished or Lead Teacher on the basis of explicit criteria and demonstrable achievement tells the profession and the wider community something quite profound about the nature of an individual’s talents.

It’s important to have teachers who are paid in accordance with their considerable skills and responsibilities. This is much more important and realisable than payment based on test scores.  The profession needs to be financially attractive enough to attract and retain talented people, so when it comes to salaries, relativities with other comparable professions need to be taken into account. The important issue is rewarding skills and expertise.

CD: Our latest TALIS report shows that 66% of upper secondary teachers in Australia work in schools whose principals reported that more than 10% of the students come from disadvantaged homes. How do you prepare teachers to meet this particular challenge?

JH: As educators, we cannot wave a magic wand over the problem of socio-economic disadvantage. Students do not leave hunger or poverty at the school gate. But what we can do is to help ensure that the principal who leads the school and the teacher who conducts the class are highly skilled and maximise their impact on these students.

AITSL’s work is driven by the knowledge that the greatest in-school influence on student achievement is the quality of teaching.

That might sound like the simplest truism, but in the absence of first-hand experience or knowledge about classroom practices, some parents tend to make choices for their child’s education based on obvious but relatively unimportant proxies, such as manicured grounds, whiz-bang facilities or social cachet.

The support of school leaders and the system for these skilled teachers is a must. A key is how to find time (and thus resources) for teachers to work together in planning in light of their impact, work together to evaluate their impact and collaborate in ensuring all students get the minimum year’s growth for a year’s input.

CD: You mention that AITSL is becoming increasingly engaged with your south and east Asian neighbours. To what extent do you believe that the methods and underlying policies you use to build more effective teachers and school leaders can be exported to cultures and education systems that are fundamentally different from Australia’s?

JH: I am put in mind of the famous opening lines of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That is to say, there are certain features that characterise successful schools, even while the challenges they struggle to overcome may be quite different.

Successful schools invariably have good leaders. They also have a preponderance or a critical mass of good teachers who understand their impact on student learning and work to become better practitioners. And those schools are led by school leaders who have the skills to raise discussions about what impact means in this school, how to evaluate the magnitude of impact and ensure that all students share this high impact.

Likewise, good schools have a preponderance of genuinely engaged students, supported by interested parents who value education. I suspect all this is true for “happy families” of schools from Australia to our high-achieving Asian neighbours and beyond.

While the “unhappy family” problems faced by other countries’ schools may well be radically different from those faced by Australian schools, there is nevertheless an essential and shared foundation required in the shape of superlatively skilled and high-impact teachers and school leaders.

New Insights from TALIS 2013
Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership
Education Policy Outlook Country Note: Australia
Photo credit: @Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL)

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