Education guru teaching to the converted

Opinion Article

2011 April, 30

The bucket of water came all the way across the Tasman from the frigid waters of Aotearoa and it was  cold. Not long into the meeting, the man pouring the thing over our heads was bracingly candid.  


"I'm not interested in stories about how well your education plans are going. I want to see your data  that shows how effectively you have advanced the children's learning. The first thing you should show  at a meeting like this is the evidence that shows the effect of what you're doing. If your effect size is less than 0.4 then you should pack up because you're not having a worthwhile impact on the children's  learning."  


John Hattie, the University of Auckland education researcher who now heads the Melbourne Education  Research Institute, visited Cairns this week. It turned out to be a most invigorating discussion.  


Hattie is internationally renowned for his landmark 2009 publication Visible Learning, a synthesis of more than 800 meta-analyses identifying the impact of a long list of variables on educational achievement. Though he would grumble at my description of a mega-study of what works and what  doesn't in education, Hattie's rigorous analysis of the international evidence is peerless. The Times Educational Supplement said Hattie "reveals teaching's holy grail".  


Hattie's ranking goes from No 1, student expectations (effect size 1.44), down to the bottom, No 138  mobility (-0.34), right next to television (-0.18). The reading wars should be over - the evidence in  favour of phonics instruction (0.60) v whole language (0.06) is stark. Standard public education lobby positions arguments in favour of reducing class sizes will be challenged by the limited effect of  classroom size (0.21), and the ardour of their opponents should be cooled by the limited effect of  charter schools (0.20).


Hattie's evidence takes a big stick to so-called learning styles and ethnic or other categories because of  the advantage of not labelling students (0.61). Along with the problem of labelling, Aboriginal  educator Chris Sarra's "stronger, smarter" philosophy runs counter to the relatively low effect attributed  to "positive view of own ethnicity" (0.32).  


Of course responding to such evidence involves interpretation. Different schools represent different  combinations of these variables. One variable may be useless by itself or within a certain combination,  but coupled with one or more variables in another combination may be positive.  


For example, the evidence of the impact of welfare reform policies is negative (-0.12). Yet, in our experience in Cape York, policies aimed at ensuring children are sitting in their seats are crucial in communities where school absenteeism is chronic. However, attendance is a necessary but insufficient condition for learning. If it is not accompanied by the factors crucial to learning then welfare reforms  by themselves understandably will have no positive effect.  


Which is why, along with welfare reforms in Cape York that mandate, among other things, school attendance and readiness, we have also introduced school reforms that respond to the needs of the  children who are now sitting in seats.  


The Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy operates three schools in Cape York in an innovative  partnership with Education Queensland. The centrepiece is the Direct Instruction program.  


Hattie's analysis confirms the strength of DI (0.59), including elements embedded in the program, such as "mastery learning" (0.58), "spaced practice" (0.71), "teacher clarity" (0.75), feedback (0.73) and  "providing formative evaluation" to teachers (0.9). Hattie writes that every time he presents student teachers the evidence in support of DI they are stunned because they have been systematically  indoctrinated by teaching faculties with the mantra "constructivism good, direct instruction bad".


The low value of teacher education (0.12) explains how student teachers can be so misled about what  works in education, and what does not.


Hattie advised our American partners (as he advised us this week) that the irrational aversion of educators to the label "direct instruction" might diminish if the name changed, but we will decline his  advice. We will not bow to obscurantism and instead point them to Hattie's research.  


Our metaphor for school reform is a stone archway with nine building blocks. One column of four blocks represents what we call the supply side of education: the provisioning of a good education to the children of a community by the teachers, who receive professional development and coaching, and a school governance that mandates the school leader as first and foremost a leader of instruction.  


The other column of four blocks represents what we call the demand side of education: students who  are ready to learn and supported by their parents and community to engage in learning, where school attendance is mandated through conditional welfare. 


At the top of the arch is the keystone, which unites the supply and demand. This keystone holds together the whole structure.  


It is the central organising principle of the entire door to success. Without it, the structure doesn't work.  


In our thinking the keystone is not the teacher, contrary to the preponderance of reform discussion in Australia and North America. It is not the student either. It is what goes on between the teacher and the student. It truly is the heart of the matter.  


There are many dimensions to the teacher-student relationship.


There is the personal connection and the pastoral support provided by the teacher to her student. There  is rapport and friendship. There is concern and commitment on the one side and respect and trust on the other. Yes, with the one or few special teachers in our education, there is indeed a kind of love.  


But while these dimensions are important, they are not primary. The degree of pastoral support and  rapport is by its nature variable: variable according to the specific relationships teachers have with individual students and variable between teachers. Some teachers are gregarious and warm, others are reserved and colder. The permutations of teacher-student relationships are diverse.  


Primary to our thinking is the quality of the instruction that passes from the teacher to the student. Effective instruction is the heart of the matter. It is the keystone to education. Reserved and less  expansive teachers can deliver effective instruction. Conversely, warm and generous teachers can fail to deliver effective instruction if unequipped to do so. Our reform mantra echoes Bill Clinton's 1992  presidential campaign argument: "It's the instruction, stupid!"  


We alighted on effective instruction from our experience with Kevin Wheldall, of Macquarie University, who developed the remedial literacy program MULTILIT. I came to understand the point  about effective instruction as the keystone of education when I first visited Schoolwise, the centre  Wheldall runs with Bill Crews's Exodus Foundation in Sydney.  


The need to improve teacher quality dominates prevailing education reform policy. Our thinking in  Cape York has a slightly but critically different emphasis. We say effective instruction makes quality teaching and should be the focus of teacher quality.  


This is consistent with Hattie's research insights: it is the quality of the teaching that makes the quality  of the teacher.  


It is good to get an intellectual slapping once in a while. Sometimes there's no way to make a leap in thinking without it.  


The clear learning Hattie imprinted on our brains this week is this: the size of an effect matters. Those  seeking a real education revolution should welcome this confronting but very intelligent Kiwi to  Australia.


Noel Pearson is director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership. His account of Direct Instruction with the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy is set out in an afterword to Radical Hope, now published in book form by Black Inc.

Education guru teaching to the converted