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The implementation of the high impact findings from Professor Hattie’s seminal work “Visible Learning – A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement”

Craig Parkinson

“It is perhaps education’s equivalent to the search for the Holy Grail” commented Warwick Mansell on 23 September 2009. From here came the arrival of, for some people, an age of enlightenment in education. The movement from habit, tradition and superstition toward being evidence informed had begun. So six years on, just where are we in this brave new world?

A profession has become mobilised. The status quo has, for now, been disturbed and we know that during times of change, the opportunists emerge and cash-in. They take advantage of the flux and restate priorities that benefit themselves at least as much as those who deserve to be the beneficiaries. It is for this reason that this blog has been written. Who should be the beneficiaries of the findings contained within “the Holy Grail”?

There is no doubt that teaching increases the probability that learning will occur but children learn when they learn, not when a teacher teaches

The title of Professor Hattie’s work is “Visible Learning”. Not teaching or leading. To what extent was this as a result of the focus of Hattie’s work? Unashamedly, Visible Learning looks at the impact that a host of factors and interventions have had on student learning. The fundamental purpose of a school is surely as a place of learning. It is at this point that the first key message needs to be stated; people will state that teaching is the primary cause of learning taking place. There is no doubt that teaching increases the probability that learning will occur but children learn when they learn, not when a teacher teaches. The conversation in the many UK schools that are implementing Visible Learning moves away from how the teacher teaches toward how and when the learners are learning. Therefore the intended beneficiaries of Visible Learning are the students, not the teacher. However the teacher receives significant secondary benefits (e.g. engaged pupils, reduced behavioural problems, and increased professional competence).

The development of a collaborative spirit between teachers, a redefining of the purpose of systems and policies toward enhancing student learning, and evaluating the impact of teaching are perhaps words that can be readily spoken but their implementation requires effort and commitment. The ‘White Book’ (“Visible Learning – A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement”) might be seen as the Haynes manual for our profession. If you have a query regarding, say, homework then the book has the research findings coupled with the reasons for variance between primary and secondary and sometimes between one subject area and another. But key message number two is that generalities seem to be the order of the day. There is concern from some quarters that meta-analyses over-generalise the position. That would be a valid concern for those who choose to see the relative listing of 138 interventions and factors as the end point of Visible Learning. The list is, however, only the starting point. That many different factors have various levels of effectiveness attributed to them should make us think that not all things are created equally in education.

Which brings me to key message number 3: the way that pupils are currently learning may not be the best way. Only an evaluative teacher can move forward here. It has the power of three associated with it: Define your starting point, implement your intervention, and evaluate your impact. It makes sense. Unlike my story:

I drink Benecol. It has, as we all know, cholesterol reducing properties. But here’s the thing: I have no idea what my cholesterol score is. I’ve never had my cholesterol checked. The reasons I drink Benecol are that it tastes nice, it’s buy-one-get-one-free and it probably does me no harm. Without have a baseline to reference against, we can never evaluate the impact that an intervention has had.

The Visible Learning research findings can tell us how to start thinking about improving student learning but until our profession becomes evaluative and responsive (in my opinion we don’t need teachers as researchers) we won’t see substantial changes in student learning. The hinge point of Visible Learning is 0.40. This has moved very little in over 15 years.

Are we a profession subconsciously intent on maintaining the status quo or can we stand on the shoulders of giants, accept that improvement is possible and then use a robust evaluative process to know and grow out impact?