Distortion – Chapter 1

Experiment: Explain an example of when the “worst case scenario” actually happens.

Research is a tricky field. I recently criticized an article for its findings being easily distorted to fit an unintended agenda. The author was very reflective about the limitations of the research, but the paper contained numerous sections that could have been quoted as if they were proof of something that the author would not have claimed to prove. I expected the author to write up his findings in a way that could not be so easily misinterpreted. This may seem like too much of a burden on the author, but I recently encountered an example of how potentially helpful research was misunderstood and then terribly implemented into a school setting in a way that may have infuriated the author.

There are several parts of this analysis. The research itself is controversial, the methodology is suspect, the findings are limited, the way it has been interpreted by the school is objectionable, and the effect on the teachers is oppressive.

Since this is chapter 1, I’ll introduce the author and explain the research.

John Hattie is an accomplished educational researcher and ardent supporter of improving education, especially for under-served groups like aboriginal people and English language learners. He has had a distinguished career as a professor, journal editor, consultant, and author, including a series of books about “visible learning”, for which he has conducted perhaps the largest ever meta-study of educational research.

Hatties’ book Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses related to achievement (2009) was revolutionary at the time. His meta-analysis of thousands of pieces of educational research allowed teachers and administrators to clearly see the pattern of successful interventions for improving academic achievement in students. Normally teachers are bound by time, resources, and subjective experience to make up their own conclusions about what actions to take. As Hattie commonly states, “everything seems to work” (2009, p. 1). Students always make gains in their social, physical, and mental development because they are constantly aging and learning. This would happen no matter the actions of their parents or teachers. The intent of this meta-analysis was to find the particular interventions and attributes that had the most effect on students and guaranteed the best results. Topping his list are feedback, students’ prior cognitive ability, instructional quality, direct instruction, acceleration, remediation, and many others.

This book and his subsequent publication, Visible Learning for Teachers (2012) have had an empowering effect for teachers. The findings show the most effective, research-based practices for schools. Most of the interventions are teacher driven and instruction based. The teacher has an incredible power to ensure that students make significant gains. This is a huge win for schools, they are able to focus their efforts, resources, training, and practices into only the most effective and proven interventions. Administrators are able to steer their school and their teachers in the direction of best practice rather than relying on the subjective experience of teachers. New teachers can be informed about the expectations of the school immediately rather than having to wait until they have experienced a significant range of interactions with students.

I’ll delve deeper into the specifics of the analysis and my criticism of this research, but this single point requires a little bit of immediate attention. Any findings that are this “empowering” to teachers are also worrisome. Teachers can become the sole focus of blame, rather than simply the source of possibility or opportunity for students. Teacher actions are labeled as the singular influence on student lives and those actions come under increased scrutiny. If teachers are the key factor, then schools need not worry about anything except the teachers’ instructional capacity in a few specific areas. Even framed as an empowering activity, this type of change in mentality can lead down and incredibly scary path.

Personally, I have sat through this “empowerment” talk and the reaction from the teaching staff was not glee about feeling important but shame of not living up to (what I perceive as) an impossible expectation. The administrators feel relieved; They have found the key to success! It seems simple, easy, and cheap! But teachers take on more blame, more shame, and more responsibility. An already impossible job has just become absurd.

Stay tuned for more!

Hattie, John. (2009). Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses related to achievement. Routledge.

Hattie, John. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers. Routledge. Retrieved 6 January 2016, from <http://www.myilibrary.com?ID=363783>

Photograph: “Kertesz distortion 1933” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kertesz_distortion_1933.jpg#/media/File:Kertesz_distortion_1933.jpg

5 thoughts on “Distortion – Chapter 1

  1. Pingback: Distortion – Chapter 2 | winchip

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