Experiment: Explain an example of when the “worst case scenario” actually happens — the reality of “postivism” — sounds great, right?
I believe that one of the reasons John Hattie’s “visible learning” research isn’t a “big hit” with teachers is that his view of reality is very different from that of a teacher’s. He believes that we can find the answer to the problem of school and then simply fix school. This fits into a certain set of beliefs that are (often derogatorily) called “positivist“. This view of reality is based on the idea that we can come to understand the world through observing it rationally. Positivists believe that we can be objective and find out exactly how to solve a problem. Findings can be disseminated and we can fix all the problems of the world!
As cute as that sounds, I think teachers are often a bit more realistic in their views of the world. There are classroom situations that could cause even the best teacher to fail. The best possible curriculum could be an ill fit for a school. Students who come to school with emotional issues, learning disabilities, or hugely advanced skills may all interact with the expectations of a classroom differently. And having a classroom mixed up of all those different kinds of students could be a complete mess!
Administrators may latch on to positivism as an optimistic view. “Let’s find out what works and then do it!” sounds so great in theory.
Unfortunately, this unrealistic view of reality is dangerous. It is a distortion of what truly occurs in classrooms. Reducing a classroom down to what is measurable and labeling learning as only what is visible trap schools and teachers into cycles of failure. Interestingly, John Hattie agrees that his research is based upon an unrealistic foundation. It is schools that distort the findings into a purely positivist reality. Again, this may be overly critical but, because of the way his work is presented, the limitations of his work are not well understood by those who attempt to implement it.
So, let’s check out a few of the positivist aspects of Hattie’s research that make it so easy to distort.
This sort of meta-analysis has an extreme focus on the measurable, completely forsaking unmeasurable qualities of classrooms (e.g vibe, fun, curiosity, all those silly things). John Hattie admits that there are many other extremely important variables that can’t be measured or cannot be controlled across the studies that make up his research. This means that the effectiveness of a single facet may be limited in contexts that have many external forces such as high poverty, high numbers of language learners, or special education students. It also means that this research does not explore whether or not there is an additive effect to combining all of the top effect size interventions. For example, it is possible that peer feedback and direct instruction combine ineffectively.
John Hattie explains that, because of the limitations of the research, he suggest his research be used as a toolbox of “what works” and he is sensitive to the problem of increasing the burden on teachers (2009, p. ix). Perhaps he does think school should be fun, even though it is not included in the research! Hattie’s purpose and idealistic hope was to help teachers make clear choices based on research. A great example is that ability grouping seems to have a negative effect. Hattie’s conclusions about ability grouping should probably be discussed in schools that are still basing their practices on it. It is possible that it is less detrimental in certain school settings, but it shouldn’t be assumed to be effective and then implemented without discussion about possible negative effects. He does not suggest that schools use these findings as their overall guiding principles, ignoring all practices that come up with an effect size of 0.4 or lower (those still technically have a postitive effect!). Unfortunately, this is exactly how some schools implement the research. An example of this type of distortion is in one of the forthcoming chapters.
Most shocking is the value placed on what is visible. This it the title of the book! It begs the question of what are the invisible elements? Why don’t we care about those? Making learning visible to teachers, students, and stakeholders seems like a sales pitch, as if we have to prove that schools are legitimate and that learning is a real thing. In my experience as a teacher, I would argue that the invisible learning is the most powerful. It is the slow and steady understanding that students gain through what they do in the classroom. It is the way my son blossoms into a new version of himself when we travel to a new place. It is the way young brains react to new situations, special challenges, and conflicting information. Perhaps these sorts of learning activities are not (immediately) visible. Positivists would discount these experiences as less valuable, especially if they cannot be rationally observed. Teachers who put incredible effort into classroom community building and conflict resolution may have little observable evidence that it works because they have created a wonderful place to learn! Would it have happened without the hard work of the teacher? There may be no way to know because it is not visible. It is a sort of a “lighthouse argument”; it may be impossible to know how many people are saved. But should we turn off the light to see how many crash?
Well, there may be some schools that do just that. Stay tuned!
Hattie, John. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers. Routledge. Retrieved 6 January 2016, from <http://www.myilibrary.com?ID=363783>
Hattie, John. (2009). Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses related to achievement. Routledge.