Tuesday, March 11, 2014

John Hattie in the news again! A contraversial conservative?

King of meta data!!!
This is my third blog featuring John Hattie – and each shows my distancing of myself of his findings.

 It is not that I disagree with all he says but I find him contradictory and very much in the conservative camp for all his criticism of current teaching. At times over such things as National Standards he seems to hunt with the hounds and run with the hares.

I however find myself in full agreement with the thoughts ofKelvin Smythe that Hattie is obsessed with teaching skewed to measurement, an impoverished view of education with no appreciation of the creative aspects of learning.  He seems obsessed with a technocratic dream of being able to measure what students are learning aligned with what teachers decide to teach. It is all about improving traditional transmission learning.
I was motivated to write this blog in response to an extensive article in the New Zealand Listener (Feb 27 2014). See this Californian response.
Hattie seems to see himself controversial, as a rebel challenging myths about learning. Along with colleague Greg Yates he argues that ‘children don’t naturally love learning to think’ – rather that they learn best socially when they ‘lock into other people and learn by watching, imitating and interacting’.  I disagree with the first and agree totally with second. Maybe the truth is they don’t always like to learn about what teachers determine they ought to be thinking about! The young are natural born learners – the issue is why do so many lose this innate capacity? Perhaps some students are unmotivated because they don’t see relevance in what being presented to them or because they don’t feel they have a say in what they are learning.  I wonder how many studentswho struggle academically have strengths we never see in classrooms.
I agree with Hattie and Yates that humans ‘are slackers’ and have an inclination to avoid thinking and ‘would rather fall back on what we already know’ by using our memories. This they consider powerful findings? I think to create we need the right environment and a little bit of both support and pressure. The writers central argument is that parents and teachers need to focus on building up and working with ‘children’s bank of prior knowledge’ and that the best way to do this is to challenge learners current taken for granted understandings. Hardly powerful or new findings. The answer might be to create classrooms as places that create a press to encourage learning – to develop classrooms as a mix of a museum, science lab and an artist’s studio. Learning would then be hard to resist. As John Dewey wrote the challenge is to catch learners’ attention andthen deepen it. This requires teachers who identify and build on studentstrengths.
Are they also not aware of the co—constructive and ‘scaffolding’ ideas of Lev Vygotsky or the, all but forgotten,   NZ Waikato University Learning in Science Research of the 1980s which explored how to recognise students  ‘prior knowledge’ and how to challenge it?. Are they not aware of creative teachers who have long made use of such ideas – nor the writings of John Dewey?  It seems they are more concerned with cementing their own place in the educational populist hall of fame.
Further on in the article Hattie says he is working on how infants start building their knowledge from day one – and that the nature and volume of that knowledge can set a child up for life-long learning, success or failure. Research, Hattie states that in reading the poor get poorer and the rich get richer. ‘If you don’t learn to read by age eight, you don’t to read. You don’t catch up’. Personally I wouldn't limit this to reading (indicating Hattie’s conservatism) but to learning generally. He ought to read Children as Scientists by Gopnik. It is nothing new to say ‘that five year olds enter school believing they are “the best at everything” and that they “don’t compare themselves to others”’
With this in mind I would question the common practice of ability grouping that primary schools use because about seven or eight children become aware that no matter how well intentioned the teacher, they begin to see themselves as failures. This is well covered in two recent books, one on maths the other about the negative effects of ability grouping /streaming generally. The destructive use of ability grouping/streaming is ignored by Hattie and Yates, and Hattie’s belief in National Standards and testing indicate their conservative beliefs. They seem wedded to a narrow culture of accountability and constricting standards – a culture of conformity that ignores creativity and imagination.
Hattie rightly believes that exposure to language from an earlier age is vital but I would go much further by emphasizing the need for a rich exposure to the sensory aspects of a child’s
First experience of sea!!
environment; that before the word comes the experience.
  I agree with Hattie that in too many students’ language experience is limited to instruction, ‘it was all “do this and don’t do that”’ with the result that ‘they come to schools with virtually no language’.
Impoverished early experiences seem to point to the need for the state investing in early education programmes and alleviating the debilitating effects of poverty. I agree totally with Hattie that parents need not only to read to their children but also need ‘to have  “rich conversations” with pre-schoolers.- reminding them of things they already know and asking them questions to slowly build on that – is even more important’. An interesting point was the advice to make use of gesture when talking with children.
Rich conversations need to apply to schools as well – something creative teachers, those who do their best to personalize learning, are well aware of.
Many children enter schools open to new experiences (and far too many it seems do not). Hattie writes that ‘well prepared children have an “incredible openness” to all the new experiences but unfortunately for others, who haven’t had that luxury in the first four years, it’s a closed world. They are very cautious about entering into any kind of learning.’ It is not surprising’ Hattie states, ‘that some kids who struggle with learning give up very quickly’.
Hattie rightfully says that real learning involves effort. Students have to learn to stick at worthwhile tasks and to assist in this areateachers would be well advised to read the work of
A must read
Carol Dweck or Daniel Pink
. I would place Dweck well ahead of Hattie and Yates in the educational learning stakes – they of course get no mention by Hattie. Dweck and others believe the important ingredient in learning is perseverance, ‘stick- ability,’ or ‘grit’ and that by persisting and achieving personal excellence students learn resilience. The best motivations are meaningful tasks – not necessarily teacher assignments. Dweck writes powerfully about the importance of developing a ‘growth mind-set’ – one based on valuing effort rather than relying on innate talent.
Hattie is also right to say that with excellent teachers in those first three years at school can make all the difference and also right that students can pick up on the qualities of excellent teachers and that what makes the difference are relationships with their teachers . They look for the way teachers ‘move around the room, how they use gesture, smiles and eye contact, and their tone of voice’. I think we have all known that teachers who value students identity and voice are respected by students – who listen to what they say and value their opinions. As Hattie says ‘it’s about warmth and openness’ and that children pick up on them right away’.
These have always been the qualities of creative teachers at all levels – it is the essence of personalisation of learning and the valuing of uniqueness.
Hattie, of course focuses on the importance of feedback saying (rightfully, and echoing environmentalist Rachael Carson) that ‘every child needs a significant adult to express positive regard about him or her.’ Feedback however has its dark side, if used too heavily it results in standardised results and demeans creativity. Too many current classrooms, influenced by Hattie’s formulaic teaching with its emphasis on literacy and numeracy, are narrowing students’ creative potential.
Good advice from Hattie is for teachers and parents, at all levels, is to listen to students and to value the learning process and not just the products.  He also advises the use of exemplars to indicate the kind of expectations required by students and to reduce variability. This is also problematic if creativity is to be valued above conformity. 

Hattie, it seems, lives with the belief that through his future research, teachers will be able to understand what progression looks like! I fear he is talking about literacy and numeracy (National Standards), and if so, showing his conservative colours. Does he envisage progressions for art, science, music, art….and if so how on earth would a teacher cope with the requirements of recording such progressions?
Hattie then criticizes the lack of ‘automatic learning’ in respect to such things as the time tables.  He believes that this automatic learning has been devalued and in this he may have a point. I, however, have less than positive memories of such rote learning from my own school days! I do agree with him that when processes are learned automatically it frees up the mind to attend to new learning.
And then he dismisses the learning style fad – and this I am in full agreement with him. Such categorizing of students is ‘mumbo jumbo’ – the truth is every learner has their own unique learning style but, as well, they share many learning approaches in common. He states that categorizing kids as auditory, visual or kinaesthetic ‘condemns some of those kids’.
He however has nothing to say about categorizing students by ability (cutting them off from his earlier ‘social learning’) which is the mainstay of traditional primary teaching and streaming in secondary. In fact Hattie has little to offer about how to transform the archaic teaching structures with their genesis in an Industrial Age based on sorting out winners from losers. A very tame rebel it seems!
Yates is ‘peeved’ about the idea of discovery learning that ‘children (or adults) learn better and deeper if they learn by themselves.’ He believes this approach is about ‘shallow, insecure and incomplete’ learning. Teachers I have worked with have long given up such nonsense and follow a co-constructivist approach (more guided discovery), valuing students’ prior ideas, and constantly providing sensitive feedback  believing in doing fewer things well – in depth. Such in depth learning is being put at risk by the current emphasis on literacy and numeracy. Yates believes that students, allowed to learn by themselves become slackers, ignoring the creative individuals that persist following up their unique passions with or without their teachers. Digging deeply into passionsand exploring unique talents has never been part of our archaic educationsystem.
If there are teachers still following a ‘hands off’ approach to learning then, as Yates says, it would result in widening the knowledge gap between low and high ability students.
Then Hattie attacks what he calls problem solving which he believes is not a good way to help people develop deep knowledge.  His advice is ‘to be careful when you’re in that problem solving mode that you are not overloading their memory space’.  His example is problematic and not what I would call problem solving – his example was school maths problems that are overloaded with words. Hardly problem solving based on authentic problems as written about by maths researcher Jo Boaler.
And then he turns on ‘the current buzz over 21st C skills’. I agree with him that information technologies allow access to knowledge but he recommends that teachers should focus on teaching children ‘how to best access and assess that knowledge’. It worries me also that many teachers have simply moved from copying from books to cutting and pasting from the internet.  Hattie is right to say that ‘it is important that children are taught the difference between cutting and pasting from Wikipedia and building genuine knowledge.’ Real research should indicate students’ prior knowledge and how they have modified their ideas and even indicate area that they have yet to sort out.

In the article little is said about the growing emphasis on literacy and numeracy, the use of ability grouping, the narrowing of the curriculum as a result and the lack of appreciation of creativity and talent development.   In my opinion failure of many students is the unintended consequences of ability grouping in reading and maths.
What next’ for Hattie is to research is wiring up minds of students to track student learning so teachers can ‘see where learning is happening and where it’s not happening’. This is Hattie’s new Holy Grail – sounds more like an Orwellian efficiency nightmare to me.
Who will choose the areas to be ‘tracked'? What will happen to areas neglected? Who will care about the unique interests, talents and gifts of individual learners that are already being ignored?
A lot to agree with but I am left with some worrying thoughts.
Hattie and Yates are at best very conservative rebels.


Anonymous said...

My thoughts about John Hattie exactly. A real curates egg! It seems only what can be measured counts. You are right he is indeed a conservative - bet he wouldn't like to be thought of as one!

Anonymous said...

Read the thoughts of Kelvin Smythe on John Hattie. Hattie is a charlatan whose obtuse "research" does not stand close attention.

Personally, I am inclined to think that Hattie does not have an original idea in his head.