The Lab Interview Series: An interview with John Hattie
The Lab Interview Series features interviews with the Lab Expert Advisors and other internationally recognised experts working in education and assessment. The Lab is committed to providing a forum for dialogue across diverse perspectives on international large-scale assessment and does not necessarily endorse the positions taken by interviewees.
Laureate Professor John Hattie is Director of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, the University of Melbourne. He is Chair of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL), the past-president of the International Test Commission and Associate Editor of the British Journal of Educational Psychology and American Educational Research Journal.
1. Could you tell us a little about your background and your interest in education? What attracted you to working in education, and how has the nature of your interests changed over the years?
I was raised in a small NZ town where the horizons were close; the limits were the town boundaries but the advantages were wonderful naivety (no one told us we could not do anything), loving parents, great schools, but few opportunities. I started my career in painting and paperhanging, but thank goodness that training to be a teacher was a paid course (they actually paid us!). I taught for a year in an intermediate school (Grades 7 and 8) and for 9 months in a high school and loved it. I then moved to Canada for a few years to pursue a Ph.D in Canada, knowing that if it did not work I could return to teaching with pleasure.
I completed undergraduate study in history and education, with statistics and math – and found the study of education fascinating. It combined my interests in statistics and teaching – so off to Toronto for a Ph.D in psychometrics. I was blessed with great supervisors, and they saw something in me I could not see in myself – thanks Rod and Ross! I have pursued my interest in applying measurement solutions to education questions across my career, have been President of the International Test Commission, Head of one of the largest measurement departments in the US (albeit still few of us), and completed many studies in this area.
I have always been fascinated with meta-analysis as it started (1976) when I became an academic (1977). Similarly, I have been fascinated that everybody in education (teachers, researchers, politicians) has answers they are passionate about – and can find evidence to support their passions. But the answers dramatically differ – how come everything seems to be supported? Hence, asking the question: Is there a ‘What Works Best’? And are their moderators that affect What Works Best (e.g., does age, subject, country, background make a difference)? This led to a hobby of synthesising many meta-analyses. Collecting the data was the fun part, but creating the story about these data took close to 20 years. Hence the Visible Learning story.
I have also enjoyed being Head of School in 3 universities (for about 15 years), appointing some brilliant colleagues, aiming to make a difference, and spreading the good word about the fun and importance of studying education as a discipline.
2. What do you believe are the key challenges facing education at this moment in history, and what are the most important agendas to promote?
The greatest risk is the demise of expertise as the core agent of excellence in our business. We seem to prefer the structural solutions, the amateurs (note the massive increase in teaching aides to replace expertise), debates about school choice and so many distractors. Instead, the phenomenal expertise that is critical to successful teaching tends to get downplayed (e.g., with claims like ‘all teachers are equal’). We often fail to understand how to use this expertise in our schools and we fear losing it. Too often even teachers deny their expertise and find it hard to say (and be proud) that “I cause learning”. We currently have so much expertise but the key challenge is losing it. Hence, we (in the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership and others) are promoting Highly Accomplished and Lead Teachers, creating debates about how to harness the expertise we have to lead collaborative teaching efficacy within and across schools, exploring networks of schools to focus on this expertise, and asking about expertise among school leaders.
3. What are the biggest mistakes being made in education? Which investments are most wasteful?
I wrote a paper on distractions we love to have in schooling debates. I outlined many distractions, such as: our obsession with misleading narratives (e.g., achievement standards, tails, gaps, and flat lining); our obsession with poverty as a barrier (when here in Australia, schools in lower SES areas are actually more effective in raising achievement compared to schools in higher SES areas) that leads to ignoring our expertise; tinkering with the curriculum; emphasising either surface or deep learning (we need both); exaggerated claims about the importance of buildings, smaller class sizes, creating new forms of schools (e.g., charter schools), ‘technology as the answer!’ and asking for more money (as opposed to spending money wisely to and within schools); and believing that appeasing parents is more important than teaching students (not the absurd debates about school choice when the between school variance is tiny compared to the within school variance).
Instead, the plea should be for a Politics of Collaborative Expertise, such as: teachers developing a common conception of progress within and across schools (why should a child’s progress be a function of each teacher’s expectations?); understating what a year’s growth for a year’s input looks like (by students, teachers, and parents); understanding the mind frames, the ways high impact teachers think and make moment-by-moment decisions that advance learning; focusing on the meaning of expertise in our business (of teachers, leaders, teacher education); providing resources to schools to help everyone understand their progress and impact; changing the narrative in schools from teaching to learning and what it means and looks like; and making schools inviting places for students to be so that they invest in their future.
4. What is the role of large-scale assessments such as PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS in education policymaking in Australia and in different countries and regions?
One of the major advantages of these systems is that they allow each country to be more realistic about their investment in schooling. It shows the relative position of a country’s performance and helps ratchet up expectations that “good is good enough”. Further, as a measurement person, it has dramatically increased the quality of assessments, particularly cross-country measurement.
Yes, it often leads to a one-day flurry in the media, and sometimes it is hard to make Australians realise that they are the world’s fourth biggest losers (in that the average performance has slipped dramatically over the past 16 years). And it is hard to make Australians realise that most of this backward slippage is among the top 40% of our students such that we have more ‘cruising’ schools and students than almost any country. So they serve the measurement community, but are too easily ignored by the cacophony of local debates (too often about the distractions I noted above).
5. What research questions can large-scale assessments help us answer to and what are their limits?
Their greatest limit is that they are too narrow – I do not want to replace them, I want to widen them. We need to consider a “basket” of measures. For example, I would include: problem solving, wellbeing measures, health and fitness, innovation, and achievement and attitudes to more than math, reading and science. Indeed, I located these data for over 80 countries and when combined the ranking of countries are dramatically different from when they are based on math, reading and science.
Many of the top PISA countries (e.g., Korea, Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan) all have much lower rankings on health, equal opportunities, safety and security, governance and innovation, and quality of life. On my ‘wider basket’ ranking, the ‘top five’ overall are Finland, Denmark, Norway, Ireland and Sweden. So we must be careful about wishing to be in the PISA ‘top five’ when such a narrow perspective is considered. Instead, we need to aim broader and higher. At least have a debate about the ‘basket of goods’ that forms the indicators of success, and perhaps allow countries (and researchers) to weigh up the attributes in the basket to explore possibilities.
6. How could these assessments be improved? How could they benefit research and education further?
Making the data from PISA available for research is a major contribution and PISA needs to be congratulated for this; as is their involvement of younger researchers in their work.
7. There is now a deep push and an urgent need to improve education outcomes for millions of children in low-income nations – what is your advice on how this can be accomplished?
I am no expert on these countries and always wary when we make such judgements from more affluent countries. I would suspect a major push in advancing the quality of teacher education, providing resources for enhancing the quality of teaching, removing the barriers to attendance at schools, and international aid to fund these countries would help.
8. What are the three most interesting and important education research questions that you feel need answers today?
The single greatest issue which drives me right now is to understand how to scale up excellence in education. We hardly have a literature, we rarely have a narrative (we prefer to study failure), and we continue to believe success is rather random! But we have so many excellent teachers and schools and surely the major question should be how to scale up the current levels of success. Bring this debate on.
Second, we need to bring back ‘learning’ as our focus (more than ‘teaching)’. What does it mean to learn, which learning strategies are optimal (when, how, and where), how do we assess and evaluate how a student learns (wow, we have so many measures of achievement but how many measures of learning do we have!), and how do new advances in the science of learning help make the difference (nb. I am co-chair of a Science of Learning Centre, so this is mission-specific right now)?
Third, how do we move policy makers, parents, and principles towards a politics of collaboration and away from the politics of distraction?
To reference this interview: Hattie, John. 2017. The Lab Interview Series: An Interview with John Hattie. The Laboratory of International Assessment Studies Interview Series (Interview 1). Accessible at http://international-assessments.org/the-lab-interview-series-an-interview-with-john-hattie/