The Hattie series Part 3: Visible Shipwreck
By Kelvin Smythe
The Hattie series Part 3: Visible Shipwreck
Dear readers, there are going to be some twists and turns in the education drama deriving from the power aspirations of John Hattie: professor of education at the University of Auckland, apparent confidante of the present minister of education, and writer of the just published book – Visible Learning. Hattie’s book is described in promotional material as education’s ‘holy grail’, and by Anne Tolley as sure to have a profound influence on New Zealand education. At the centre of Hattie’s presentation of his ‘holy grail’ is a process he has variously named as ‘feedback’, ‘self-reporting’, and ‘self-regulation’, I will mainly be referring to it as ‘feedback’. A prime argument in this posting is that Hattie has an unsure grasp of the teaching implications of the feedback process which, unsurprisingly, leads to confusion in presentation. As massively well-informed as Hattie is about the nature teaching, he still doesn’t quite get it. Both these characteristics contribute to his easy facility to bang on about teaching; to deliver at the highest level that most common of academic products: the prolix office concoction.
In earlier postings in this series, I said that the feedback process had a ‘curiously unattached feeling to it’. Well, after reading the book, I realise it is attached to something, it is attached to a teaching process Hattie calls ‘direct instruction’, which is his real commitment, the depth of which he obfuscates for his own purposes. His feedback process, which is focused on teacher-student one-to-one interaction, is dependent on his direct instruction for any degree of practicability, and is put forward as a Trojan horse. Also dependent on his direct instruction are his research results. It is a tightly technicist circular process. His direct instruction is really exact next step teaching, based on regular testing, and driven by objectives barely distinguishable from behavioural. His direct instruction and feedback, I can report, being both plausible but impossible, have the qualities necessary for success in contemporary education. Hattie’s ideas are such that they will soon be turned to reinforcing the pernicious education environment already established by the review office. At this stage it is Hattie’s feedback that has the limelight: the real star, though – his direct instruction – is waiting in the wings. Or to put it another way, watch that horse.
Parts I and 2 (‘Eliding on thin ice’; and ‘Eliding on’) of this Hattie series have been preliminary to a direct consideration of Hattie’s book – Visible Learning – which derives from the ‘school effectiveness and improvement’ category of research. This category of research, amongst other characteristics, de-emphasises the influence of socio-economic factors on learning, and bases its research design on quantitative research and innovation (which releases the Hawthorne effect). The first two parts in the series have concentrated on showing how such research is skewed towards a certain style of teaching and learning (learning set up for measurement), and towards appealing to conservative influences in education.
My university degrees are in history which may have influenced me to begin with two lead-up events, rather than going directly to the main event; also, to viewing human behaviour as being considerably motivated by an impetus for power. The two lead-up events were Hattie’s presentation of his book in a Sunday Star Times front page article (January 4, 2009), and his ‘Inaugural Lecture’ (available online) delivered on his appointment as professor at Auckland University, 1999. Of the two, the Sunday Star Times is the most revealing, particularly of his impetus for power. As for its education message, it shows Hattie purports certainty, but exhibits confusion. Indeed, as this posting will show, while the book provides an interesting turkey shoot, his Sunday Star Times presentation is so dysfunctional as to make it no sport at all. In other words, the book, as dodgy as it is, is better than its presentation in the Sunday Star Times.
So on Thursday, May 7, I was on my way to the university (from Cambridge) with the countryside waterlogged and the rain splodging on to the windscreen. After weeks of hinting at reading the book, I was on my way to Bennetts. And there was the book: my goodness – $95.50! It occurred to me that just sales from academics and others lining up to buy the book to criticise it, would, in itself, provide bumper sales.
I found the book: naïve (in his view of how education change occurs); manipulative (but with touches of redeeming candour); confused (which is a central theme to this posting); ideologically self-serving (an astonishing ability to suspend disbelief); disingenuous (in the way he attempts to disarm criticism by admitting research faults and limitations then proceeding as if the faults and limitations had been accounted for); comical (in its tendency to simplistic interpretations and its spurious decimal point pretensions); educational Janet and John (in its view of home life and classroom realities); dangerous (in the way education ideas are expressed in numbers, and his play to conservative influences and education authority); caught up in American concepts of education (what, for instance, has American whole language to do with ours?); an expression of a conservative educationist (but not an unrelenting one), prolix (all the flow of an education polymath who doesn’t get it); and somewhat sad (a combination of all the above).
Salvaging something that is pedagogically useful from the shipwreck that is Hattie’s research could be a sub-theme to this posting, but if it is, it is for others to discern.
The Hattie series Part 3: Visible Shipwreck
Hattie says in his book Visible Learning (p. 173) that after he completed his first synthesis of 134 meta-analyses it became clear to him ‘that feedback was among the most powerful influences on achievement’. He says, however, he has ‘struggled to understand the concept of feedback …’ It is a moment of appealing candour, but also a moment of revealing naivety. If the meta-analyses identified feedback as being so influential then, surely, if reality was being reported on, the nature of feedback and its processes would have been laid bare. They clearly weren’t, which makes suspect the research referred to, and the claims made.
The main argument in this posting is that the real implications for education, Hattie’s real message, is not his idea of feedback, but the direct instruction process he attaches his feedback to. It is argued that the narrow, controlled, teacher-dominated classroom practice on which his quantitative research was based delivered the results the quantitative research was devised to deliver – it delivered direct instruction, not the feedback process. It is also argued that Hattie does two tactical things: he provides the feedback process with all sorts of hierarchies and categories; and goes out of his way to obscure its dependence on his preferred teaching style (direct instruction). He does this, it is suggested, because direct instruction already has an assured place in teaching so does not bring with it the newness or status to ever be perceived as a ‘holy grail’; nor does it possess the potential to be spun out with ever increasing psychological complexity. A key argument about Hattie’s feedback will be that while that while he allows for a lot of possibilities in the way it can work, he really plumps for teacher-student one-to-one interaction: a form of feedback which is dependent on a highly controlled form of teaching.
If my argument about Hattie’s real message being about direct instruction is right, the question then becomes why has Hattie gone for feedback as a cover story rather than direct instruction as the direct story. Direct instruction can certainly be improved on in practice but, as a direct story, is an old one. More important, though, feedback as a process has particular appeal to education psychologists and Hattie-type researchers: it can be expressed in taxonomies, boxed categories, hierarchies, major questions, and ever more refined complexity. Direct instruction is something teachers are well versed in, is very much in their pedagogical and vocabulary territory; feedback, as a process can, with ingenuity, be somewhat separated from teaching, then presented as something fresh: as a ‘holy grail’.
As a response to the main argument referred to, this posting looks at a number of ways feedback occurs in New Zealand classrooms, not as something separate from learning, but as organic to it. (Three holistic models are discussed later in this posting.) Learning and feedback are shown as indistinguishable. Hattie’s feedback process is described as the epitome of how to gain ascendancy over classrooms (in the manner of the review office) – that is by imposing an education idea that is plausible but impossible; what is shown as occurring in New Zealand classrooms, is intended to support an education idea that is elevating but practicable.
As referred to above, Hattie’s feedback, to achieve any success, requires narrow teaching to tight objectives, thus making it easier to decide on exact next step teaching for children. I acknowledge there are times when such teaching is necessary, but for most curriculum areas, and for most activities, organising classrooms for exact next step teaching impoverishes children’s learning. In an holistic classroom, the teacher works to aims: aims to organise activities that allow children to respond at their level of cognitive and affective ability. It is argued that if learning can be expressed in next step learning then it is probably learning well short of what could be learned.
Below in this posting, I comment on Dewey’s famous dictum on problem solving, saying that this should not be interpreted as referring to prosaic problems but as ‘problems that are fundamental to the curriculum areas, therefore to life.’ These problems cannot be approached in exact next step learning, they can only be approached by children being involved in activities undertaken in a classroom as a learning community; that provide children with key knowledge, and space for creativity and imagination. Hattie shows himself to be an educationist who is uncomfortable with the affective: creativity, for instance, is reduced to thinking skills (p.155-6); drama is undertaken not for what drama can provide, but for cognitive skills (p. 143); and social studies barely mentioned. This posting is a plea for readers not to be drawn into the false precision and plausibility of Hattie’s feedback and exact next step learning. Teaching and learning should be seen as one activity after another to enlightened end, occurring in a classroom as a context for a community of learning.
Hattie says that he spent many hours in the classroom observing teachers who afterwards claimed to have used feedback constantly: Hattie, however, strongly disputes that he saw much feedback. He then reports how, on his own account, he tried various methods of providing feedback, but with little initial success. He said that it was only when he ‘discovered that feedback was most powerful when it was from the student to the teacher’ that he started ‘to understand it better’. This won’t come as a bolt from the blue to teachers. Observing and receiving such information is what teachers do, and what teaching and learning is about. It’s more, I suspect, that Hattie is uncomfortable with how classrooms really work. Whatever, the main point stands: if all those meta-analyses couldn’t make the nature and process of feedback clear to Hattie, and he is struggling with the idea, then some tentativeness in making claims for his teaching approach, and some humility in his response to teachers, wouldn’t be amiss.
Hattie is a tricky writer. He makes admissions about faults and limitations in his research, but they are always placed well away from the presentation of his main ideas. As well, while he casts a wide net for these admissions, he lets escape by calculation those ideas not consistent with his narrow research design. He refers to Dewey saying evidence does not provide us with rules for action but only hypotheses for intelligent problem solving (p 247), but this does not stop him from setting out his results in precise percentage points. Hattie also seems to criticise frequent testing when, in fact he gives sanction to it: ‘Another form of feedback is repeated testing, but this is only effective if there is feedback from the tests to teachers such that they modify their instruction to attend to the strengths and gaps in student performance.’ (p. 178). On page 4 he says that the model he presents ‘may well be speculative’; and calls on Popper for support ‘Bold ideas’ says Popper, ‘unjustified anticipations, and speculative thought, are our only means for interpreting nature …’ Except Hattie doesn’t present his ideas as speculative, if he did, for instance, why does he chastise teachers so regularly for not acting on research evidence (from his category of research it should be pointed out), or present his findings so trenchantly and with such mathematic precision. Anyway how can you accept the objectivity of an education researcher who repeats what seems to be a mantra to him that teaching has not changed much over 200 years, and criticises what he says is the ‘enduring focus of teachers on notions of “what works” ’ (p. 4) Also, Hattie is assuming far too much in taking on the mantle of someone who is presenting ‘bold ideas’; they are, at best, simply a tightening of the screws on a fairly ordinary and long-standing construction – bold in claims, yes, indubitably, brash, even.
A close reading of the book reveals that Hattie is really advocating his feedback teaching process in association with what comes through as his deep commitment to direct instruction. On pages 205-207, Hattie re-counts a description of what could be considered classic direct instruction. It moves from learning intentions, to success criteria, engagement, modelling and explaining, guided practice, closure, and independent practice. This is a process that has strong similarities with parts of everyday teaching practice, so it won’t come as something new to teachers. But this classic description is not an accurate account of the direct instruction Hattie is advocating. Throughout the book a much narrower and teacher dominated perception of direct instruction is provided. A chart in the Sunday Star Times article makes the nature of this perception clear – the components he advocates are: ‘Cognitive development: students given work one step ahead; Evaluation: test results decide next steps; Acceleration: work set ahead of age level.’
There is no doubt, as described in Part 2 of this series, that in his chart in the ‘Sunday Star Times’ Hattie lets the cat out of the bag, and elsewhere in the article makes a colossal ass of himself. The three components listed above show that Hattie’s main message is teacher-dominant, test-decided, age-year-test-decided, next-step, behavioural-objective type learning. (It is not strict input-output behaviourism but then, neither is strict input-output behaviourism in any classroom expression.) It is on this education ideology that Hattie is making a push to dominate professional development. In the New Zealand Herald (21 May, 2009), a spokesperson from the University of Auckland’s professional development arm, in an item on ‘plain language’ school reports, said that ‘it was important educators at all levels of the system provide feedback’. This professional development group, headed by Hattie, is clearly positioning itself for preferment. It should be noted in this respect that Hattie provided the research criticising the nature of school reports which has contributed to the so-called ‘plain language’ school report policy and its subsequent bureaucratic imposition on to schools. Hattie brushed over teachers’ pleas that school reporting was much wider than school reports. It should also be noted that the ‘plain language’ policy will undoubtedly increase sales of AsTTle – that clunky standardised testing system devised by Hattie. (I have commented elsewhere in this series how Hattie is agitating for performance-related pay to be introduced into the school system, and how I sense that Hattie, with Multi Serve, might well be lobbying to be the agency which provides the qualifying credentials for such a pay system. The pedagogical basis for this, if it did happen, would no doubt be Hattie’s feedback pedagogy.)
Hattie’s commitment to his direct instruction is evident on nearly every page of his book, and behind nearly every research finding, but he keeps himself in reasonable check by continually pushing feedback at us. By page 258, however, right near the end of his book, he can’t help himself and blurts out in emotive style his one true love, that of direct instruction and its place in a ‘60s project called Project Follow Through – as I see it, a project constructed in farcical manner on market-forces. Teachers and liberal academics are lashed for not seeing the Project and its ‘results’ in the way he does.
Hattie’s conception of feedback is both a commonplace and a phantasm: its plausibility and impossibility a toxic combination. There are two crucial points in appreciating Hattie’s conception of feedback: We now know from his explanation that feedback for him is closely allied with the review office’s conception of exact next step learning; an almost exclusive focus on one-to-one negotiations between teacher and child; and a concentration on testing. Hattie acknowledges there are other feedback mechanisms, for instance, with peers, but throughout his book, he dispenses with these mechanisms progressively by either neglecting or dismissing them. So it is next step learning, exact next step learning, and it is one-to-one feedback: an easy trick for a successful academic hand. On this phantasm, this impossibility, careers will be made, reputations burnished, but teachers’ credibility shredded. This is not to say, some classrooms won’t be declared as meeting the demands of Hattie’s conception of feedback, but that declaration, as occurs with the review office, will depend on the whim of those with the power to make such a declaration: those with the power to decide, for particular situations, the length of a piece of string.
Caught up in all of this is the vexed matter of evaluation (discussed in greater detail in Part 2 of this series). To understand where the New Zealand curriculum is today and where Hattie stands in relation to it, the contradictory nature of the evaluation statements in the revised curriculum needs to be grasped. The important thing with Hattie is not to be seduced or distracted when he puts forward a research finding you happen to agree with – in the end, it needs to be understood, it is his narrow view of the curriculum that prevails. Hattie is a ‘school effectiveness and improvement’ technicist who supports a teacher-dominated teaching style and a high degree of formal-type assessment. He supports the idea of teaching and learning being reduced in scope (in particular by eschewing the affective) in the belief that the learning that matters is that which can be made visible, in other words, measurable.
The revised curriculum carries two contrasting expressions of evaluation. The revised curriculum in one place says: ‘These expectations [referring to achievement objectives] should be stated in ways that help teachers, students, and parents to recognise, measure, discuss, and chart progress.’ (p. 39) In other words, learning should be set up for immediately observable outcomes and measurement. In contrast, on the same page, but under a different heading, it says evaluation is about ‘focused and timely gathering, analysis, interpretation, and use of information that can provide evidence of student progress.’ It goes on to say that: ‘Much of this evidence is “of the moment”. Analysis and interpretation often takes place in the mind of the teacher, who then uses the insights gained to shape their actions as they continue work with their students.’ The first expression is what the review office favours and where Hattie’s feedback would end up; the second expression is holistic and consistent with the idea of feedback being part of learning.
How then does Hattie present his feedback process? To consider this I go to the source that he recommends as being a fuller account than he could include in his book. That source is: Hattie, J.A.C., & Timperley, H. (2007). ‘The power of feedback’. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112. We really shouldn’t take too long over this feedback process because it is an education soufflé, a tantalising taste, but only meaningful in the context of something more substantial: in his case direct instruction. Hattie gives his feedback process a faux mystique as part of the plausibility but impossibility principle necessary for establishing academic and bureaucratic dominance over the school system. This principle is based on the idea that the way to flummox teachers and impress authorities is to is to promote education processes that are plausible in theory, but impossible in practice – as teachers find out to their cost, but can’t articulate because of the status of the academics or bureaucrats who promote these processes, the guilt they take on board, the power of the plausibility which moves to the level of truth revealed (‘a holy grail’), and the way plausibility keeps being spun to infinity.
The key issue for Hattie and his feedback is making it something distinctive. He weaves and dodges on this. As has been discussed above, and will be demonstrated below, this posting argues that feedback should be seen as located in curriculum activities and classrooms as learning communities: the most practicable way for teaching and learning (and feedback) to occur. All learning provides feedback; therefore, the issue is not one of feedback but of learning, and its value to the learner. As will be demonstrated below, sometimes something the teacher does directly with the class or a child will be what happens in learning because that is the most practicable and effective; sometimes the activity will be what happens in learning because that is the most practicable and effective. Feedback as a concept is a distraction from just concentrating on good teaching and learning. There is no need for the feedback label: the issue should not be how we can improve learning through feedback, just how we can improve learning. The concept of ‘feedback’ (as with metacognition) is education consumerism: an education product being promoted as something new when it isn’t and isn’t needed. The emphasis in professional development in recent years, linked as it is to this consumerism, is based on the principle of anything but the curriculum, thus we have formula like enquiry learning, WALTS, SOLO, the new Bloom, and now Hattie’s feedback.
Hattie provides a statement on feedback that is a key to understanding his idea of it: ‘… it is useful to consider a continuum of instruction and feedback. At one end of the continuum is a clear distinction between providing instruction and providing feedback. However, when feedback is combined with a more correctional review, the feedback and instruction become intertwined until “the process itself takes on the forms of new instruction rather than informing the student about correctness” ’ (pp. 1-2) Readers should note the use of the term ‘instruction’ and the way its repeated use in his writing serves to establish it as a metaphor, communicating his narrow, teacher-dominated pedagogy.
Hattie’s argument from his quote is that feedback and instruction are clearly distinct until his feedback is used in instruction to combine to form a ‘new instruction’. Even though Hattie does provide an opportunity for feedback and instruction to come together, he has created a separation that shouldn’t exist. In doing this he commits a serious pedagogical error, one he was bound to make, though, coming as he does from education psychology. Hattie says ‘feedback is conceptualised as information provided by an agent’ (p 1), but then so is teaching; he goes on to say that feedback provides ‘corrective information’, but then so does teaching; he says feedback provides ‘alternative strateg(ies), but then so does teaching. I’m not saying that Hattie does not allude to these matters occurring within everyday classroom activities, but in his continuum metaphor he puts a distance between instruction and feedback to achieve his purpose of embellishing feedback with a distinctive aura. He removes a good part of the debate about feedback away from matters teachers are expert in (curriculum activities, classroom functioning), to matters academics are expert in (high psychological theorising).
Then Hattie goes into detail with his ‘three major questions’: Where am I going? How am I going? What next? These questions are linked with the four kinds of feedback he proposes: feedback about task, whether something is correct or incorrect (which is described as the most common form of feedback); feedback to establish the process to complete a task; feedback concerned with self-regulation and self-evaluation (which is described as the most powerful level of feedback); and feedback directed to the child in the form of praise or criticism not accompanied by information how to progress or do better (this feedback level is described as the least effective).
The feedback described as the most powerful is the third on the list: feedback concerned with self-regulation and self-evaluation though, as presented in the Sunday Star Times article, ‘self-reporting’ is also used as a label. In one sense, I don’t have any serious concern with all this, after all, it is just another format, my concern, as detailed in this posting, is to do with the concept of feedback as a whole, Hattie’s concept of feedback in particular and the pedagogy that is wrapped around it. As well, if it was just another academic theory about to do the rounds it could be grudgingly accepted in that light but it is my hypothesis that Hattie is pulling out all the stops to have his pedagogy inserted into schools, even if that involves an element of imposition, or at least strong pressure.
Lurking in and around all this feedback discussion is the fiddle-faddle of metacognition, a construct of very recent origin designed by psychologists to add another complexity to confound teachers (amongst others) and to promote the status of psychologists. Hattie, in his book (p. 188), defines it as ‘thinking about thinking’; however, most thinking is about thinking, so that doesn’t get us very far. My view is that classroom practice is better served by detailing what has been thought by the child, how the evidence has been marshalled, and overall validity. In schools, the intention is, indeed, to get children thinking deeply, but a fancy word like metacognition is an obstruction to such thinking, a redundancy, a word for poseurs and poseur activities. The outcome has been children being involved in laborious goal-setting activities. In respect to Einstein’s theories, for instance, of one thing we can be sure, their departure was not from some pre-set formula. The pretentious attention to metacognition is another curriculum add-on; another example of anything but getting involved in the nature and subtleties of curriculum areas.
That really is that for Hattie’s article, even though his explanation goes on for many more pages of reporting results, and producing ever greater levels of complexity. The only question left to ask is how well, in a direct way, has Hattie’s idea of feedback been tested? It transpires that the most systematic study of feedback was undertaken 13 years ago (1996) and nearly all the 131 studies were clinically based. (p. 3) I am now inured to surprise.
Having made an argument against Hattie’s feedback and the way he manoeuvres to position it as distinctive from classroom practice, I want to now to make an argument for feedback as a natural part of teaching and learning. There follow three models for holistic teaching and learning demonstrating amongst other characteristics how, in an organic way, Hattie’s concern for such ‘feedback’ components as ‘corrective information’ and ‘alternative strategies’ are met.
The first holistic model is expressive writing. A feature of this model, as for all holistic teaching, is teaching to a main aim as against objectives, with what might have been expressed as objectives being expressed as criteria. This is the key structural characteristic of holistic teaching. Teaching to a main aim, which has affective, cognitive and skill references, provides learning cohesion, it also provides space for teaching flexibility and learning divergence. Technical and minor details of teaching and learning, if the activities have been well structured, are picked up and attended to in the course of pursuing the main aim; the criteria being there, though, to provide some kind of check. The teacher’s task is to construct a series of activities that provide a sense of momentum towards the main aim. They are set up so that expectations are clear, but opportunities for children to work things out for themselves readily available. Another feature is the way the teacher makes use of classrooms as learning communities: the carefully structured class sharing and discussions, allowing a gentle ebb and flow between individual activities and class ones.
1. Expressive writing: a model for holistic writing
The children in a Year 6 class are writing a description of a tree, a particular tree. The teacher has in her mind the main aim of children writing with honesty and clarity. Before writing, the children have been encouraged to think carefully about how the tree looked, how they felt about the tree. Some children might choose to write about a tree from memory; others might like to visit a tree in the playground.
The children form themselves into a circle to discuss the task ahead. In this discussion, the teacher, to avoid interfering with children’s imaginative processes, guides the discussion towards the nature of expressive writing, the demands it places on the writer, rather than the possible content of the writing. (A small group of children, however, who lack the confidence to come up with their own ideas, will be formed following this discussion.) The discussion draws on children’s previous learnings about expressive writing: how to write with clarity and honesty, touching on matters such as neatness, handwriting, capital letters, paragraphs and main ideas, rhythm in sentence structures and paragraphs, linking words, punctuation, choosing just the right word, and writing mainly with nouns and verbs. Also discussed is how the finished work might be used, for instance, reading to a group or the class for discussion, being made into a wall display, word processed for a magazine, associated with art work, read to another class, read to the principal or other adults.
The teacher is circumspect in making suggestions and comments as she circulates. She is aware that learning is best indicated when children come to it in a sense of discovery, not pressured into it (as often happens in WALTS and psychology-based teacher-child one-to-one feedback). Associated with this is a care not to take away discovery opportunities. She will, however, pick out children she deems ready for a little nudge: were the leaves only green?; she notes a child writing about a tree, rather than the tree – she checks to see if the child had a particular tree in mind; when you went outside, did you really see some leaves fluttering to the ground?; is that really how the tree was moving in the wind?; could you make that paragraph flow better?; what about using a colon and semi-colon for that list?; could you think of a verb to replace that verb-adverb combination?; you have said ‘One day I saw a big tree’ – could you be more specific: what day, what tree?
When the children complete their writing, or a good part of it, the teacher asks the children to form into small groups to share their writing. Two questions are used as a guide to the discussion: What did you like about the writing? What could have improved the writing? These groups then present their writings and findings to the class. The teacher lists their ideas on a chart. For art, the interest in trees is used as the basis for a painting of trees concentrating on how light can play on them. The completed work is formed into class magazine.
As for the implementation of the activities, to encourage creativity and individuality of response (and thus set things up for insightful evaluation), two kinds of space were made available: space in the form of time allowing writing to occur in a considered way, and space within the writing for children’s individuality of response. Prior to the writing, the teacher who took the expressive writing lesson did not contribute much detail, or allow the children to contribute much detail, about how the tree might be described. As for ‘feedback’, it was a mixture of feedback as part of the classroom as a learning community, and one-to-one between teacher and child. When the children and the teacher, prior to writing, discuss expectations for expressive writing, they were reprising ideas from other similar written expression episodes. As the children were doing their writing, the teacher did some one-to-one feedback, but it was done judiciously, the emphasis on allowing children’s individuality of voice to come through.
Then there was the obvious feedback involved in the sharing and critiquing of writing toward the end of the lessons. This was the chance for children to learn, often in a sensitive oblique way, by listening to the writing of other children, how words can be used, and how writing can be laid out with clarity: much better out of the mouths of fellow children, than directly from the teacher – though reinforcement and guidance from the teacher would, of course, occur. The teacher, for instance, would never mention metaphors before writing, because that would be counter to the main aim of writing with honesty – children should come across figures of speech in the course of expressing what they see and feel with honesty: however, when a child comes up with a sparkling figure of speech as an outcome of honest expression, then attention is directed to it – the class savouring it. On the other hand, if a child comes up with a figure of speech that is forced, based on false emotion, the teacher would sensitively draw attention to that as well.
The second holistic model is science. Once again, as for the holistic expressive writing model, it is beautifully set up for children to work out where they have come from in their learning, where they are, and where they are going. It provides a process with gentle child-centred flow. The entire process is about providing Hattie’s ‘corrective information’ and ‘alternative strategies’ but in a way that, guided by the teacher, gives children a sense of initiative and opportunities for making their own discoveries. As well, in contrast to the artificiality of the way metacognition is pursued in schools, the Learning in Science Project (LISP) model is based on a true scientific process occurring in the context of real learning.
2. The Learning in Science Project interactive approach: a model for holistic science
An important research finding from LISP is that children after being taught directly how, for instance, an electric circuit worked, indeed, given an experience of making a circuit work, often repeat how an electric circuit worked but, on closer questioning, found to have retained a strong belief in their original and erroneous explanation.
The interactive approach begins with the children presenting their ideas and questions, with the teacher demonstrating a desire to know what the child thinks and why. A genuine interchange of talk occurs amongst teachers and children who listen carefully to each other’s ideas.
The movement then is to providing children with stimulating experiences to confront or explore those ideas, which, in the process raises further questions.
An important part of this process is encouraging children to reflect critically on how they came by an idea and whether it is a sensible and useful one. (This gets to the heart of what has been described as ‘metacognition’.)
This process becomes circular as further and deeper questions are raised.
To set up further investigations, the children are helped to develop the ability to question, plan, and carry out investigations, and construct and communicate ideas.
The guiding philosophy for the LISP interactive approach is that explanations of why things behave the way they do are frequently not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ but are rather consistent with the evidence or inconsistent, plausible or not plausible, intelligible or not intelligible. (This gets to the heart of the philosophy of science.)
The third holistic model is topic teaching. This model encompasses all the characteristics described for the other two models. As for the LISP model, a child-centred teaching and learning process is provided that begins with gaining children’s interest, then ensuring children have gained sufficient knowledge for the topic to proceed and for the crucial duality between the cognitive and the affective to be formed, then opportunities for the children to use in a variety of contexts the knowledge gained. An argument in the model is that holistic teaching, to meet children’s needs, should be eclectic, this includes a reference to the need for teachers to include direct teaching in the range of approaches they draw on. A sharp distinction is made, however, between direct teaching as described in this model, and Hattie’s direct instruction, which is really a euphemism for exact next step teaching based on a lot of testing.
3. Topic teaching: a holistic model for topic teaching
Two writings are used to describe the holistic model for topic teaching: the first is an article I wrote: ‘Eclectic topic teaching as the larger set’, in Teachers and Curriculum. (2003) 6, 17-19, which advocates an eclectic approach to teaching and a commitment to the holistic philosophy. The second writing is from a recent posting on this web site: ‘Talk to Tokoroa Schools’. The ideas in the two writings intersect three ideas emphasised by Hattie: his direct instruction; the need for teachers to have a clear understanding of what they are trying to achieve in their teaching; and, the need for children to have a solid basis of knowledge if they are to succeed in their activities. It should be noted, though, that the article only advocates direct teaching as part of a varied pedagogical armoury; makes clear that this clarity should not be achieved by atomising what is taught in direct teaching; and emphasises evaluation based on ‘evidence of the moment’ and ‘analysis and interpretation taking place in the mind of the teacher’ which are quotes from the holistic evaluation statement in the revised curriculum (as against the review office-type evaluation statement). (p. 39)
Teachers and Curriculum
In the first paragraph I define topic teaching:
‘Topic teaching is the usual way children are taught in a particular grouping of curriculum areas – notably science, mathematics, social studies, technology, and health.’ This grouping, I say ‘is defined by the characteristics of the information drawn on for the curriculum areas – it is information that can confirmed by logical means and be definable in language; as against information the validity for which comes directly from experiences and feeling, and which may or may not be expressed in language – in other words, curriculum areas such as the [visual] arts, dance, music.’ (p. 17)
I make clear in the article that there should be an assured place for direct teaching:
‘I am definite supporter of enquiry learning and developmental learning … but I do not advocate their use in all parts of a topic, all the time, as a matter of course … The eclectic approach being advocated requires that the approach to be used not be prejudged – teacher decisions needing to be based on what is the most effective and efficient way for children to learn given the nature of the curriculum area, the topic, the children, and the general classroom circumstances.’ [The italics have been added.] (p. 18)
In the paragraph that follows I say that direction for learning is provided by an aim not objectives: the main intention being to make learning cohesive and to develop conceptual construction. The recommended stem for the main aim is set out as: Willingness and ability to … as this encompasses the affective, cognitive, and skills. Hattie acknowledges that his feedback only rarely reaches the conceptual level, attending more to the surface and slightly deeper levels. The approach described in this article has conceptual level development as its prime purpose.
This leads to a consideration of Dewey’s famous dictum about the need for children to be involved in problem solving; I agree, but I think the interpretation has been too literal and at too low a level. Children should be involved, I say, in problems that are fundamental to the curriculum areas, therefore to life. This means that children will not always be provided with a clear idea of the problem they are involved in exploring. After all, to have a clear idea of a problem is to be a fair way to a solution: if the problem is worth its salt it will often not be vulnerable to such clarity. Children will, however, find themselves caught up in activities that, in moving them toward the main aim (an expression of some significant part of that fundamental problem), provide a sense they are learning something important, clarifying, and satisfying.
Towards the end of the study an activity could well be to discuss and define the problem their study has helped to clarify. I would not want, however, to tell the children directly what I wanted them to learn; I would want to evaluate in all sorts of subtle ways what they revealed about their learning without overt pressure being applied. In social studies, for instance, a study of the differences and similarities between themselves and a group of people could help establish that the way to come to terms with difference is to recognise basic similarities in human behaviour.
‘How to move children toward the main aim involves the choosing of a series of activities which, as part of the eclectic approach, will be from a number of approaches – enquiry, developmental, behavioural, integrated, and so on … The next task is to place these activities in a topic planning structure based on a view of the best pattern for children’s learning within topics – Introduction; Developing understanding (that is gaining knowledge); Expressing understanding (that is using knowledge …); Conclusion.’ (p. 18)
To reiterate the point about the desirability of being eclectic I say ‘I am not advocating a lot of teacher direct talk to the class, though I’m not against it if it is effective.’ (p. 19)
I make a plea for the centrality of knowledge in topic learning:
‘An important matter for teachers to decide within topic teaching … is whether topic teaching is there for children to gain a grasp of process, or the understandings available. The difference in practice between the two can be fine, after all, process leads to understandings, and to gain understandings you need process, but where the emphasis lies does matter. I come down firmly on the side of valuing knowledge over process – my main concern in topic teaching is developing children’s understandings, with process a by-product of achieving that end. Understandings cannot be developed without process; therefore it is not being overlooked, just being assigned its proper place.’ (p. 17)
I go on to say that:
‘It is fashionable in these post-modern times to say that knowledge is transient and unstable, therefore we should concentrate on the process of gaining knowledge, rather than on the knowledge itself. In my view, though, we are what we know and knowledge is a lot more constant than many acknowledge. People act on the basis of what they know – in everyday life, we do not undertake research projects before making decisions …’ (p.17)
The developing understanding part of the process I suggest ‘is central to successful topic teaching’:
‘Children need to gain sufficient grasp of the knowledge concerned to be able to use it flexibly in the topic parts follow. And it is in the gaining of knowledge that the crucial affective part of learning is acquired.’ (p. 18)
‘A talk to Tokoroa Schools’
This idea is put even more forcefully in the posting ‘A talk to Tokoroa Schools’ (p. 13):
‘The affective only occurs with genuine effect … when it is grounded on detail, information, and reality – so I’m not talking about airily effusive teaching.’
And a little further on:
‘The key stage is Developing understanding – this is the stage at which teachers stay until a strong affective response is evident. (Don’t put the steak in the pan until it’s hot.) In social studies, the affective response I look for is a feeling for the people in the human situation under scrutiny (an intimate tone in children’s voices when they speak of the people involved can be an indication); in mathematics, a keenness and ability to apply ideas gained from their learning to a range of situations; in science, a compelling curiosity to push on.’
‘The affective is crucial to learning in the topic process, both in developing curiosity and motivation to learn, a commitment to seeking the truth and, where appropriate to a topic, a feeling for humanity. The affective, though, is not developed necessarily by attending to highly-charged information, more by the build up of information, often prosaic in itself, relative to the main aim.’
‘As well, to encourage imagination and creativity and to increase the opportunity for it to be displayed for observation, space should be provided in activities for children to come up with ideas that had not been prefigured by the teacher in the form of objectives or prior discussion. The best way to leave space to encourage imagination and creativity is genuine open-endedness in the setting up of activities. This also has the benefit of providing, in a holistic way, for the range of abilities in a class. For instance, sets of three pictures relevant to the topic, chosen at random and the children knowing this, could be displayed around the room for the children to give their ideas on the odd one out. All children could come up with something, but the brilliant child could come up with something brilliant, to the benefit of all children.’
(While Hattie might say his feedback theory encompassed such a process, it is not where he is coming from: he is coming from research based on measurement, restriction of variables, and narrow objectives; he is coming from an academic and clinical perception of learning; he is coming from the quick result Hawthorne effect learning; he is coming from a pedagogy of direct instruction. I am coming from the reality of how classrooms actually work, especially making the best use of classrooms as learning communities; I am coming from the pedagogy of holistic teaching and learning, and from a deep interest in the nature and subtleties of curriculum areas. And as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Hattie often refers to how peers can provide feedback, only to undermine its worthwhileness, usually by citing the research of Nuthall who says peer feedback is mainly destructive. In contrast, I believe that with careful structuring peer contributions can be of the highest value to children’s learning.)
This posting has agreed with some of Hattie’s research advocacies, for instance, the need for teachers to have clarity and purpose in their teaching; also the intentions he sets out for something he calls ‘feedback’ and I describe as just a natural part of teaching and learning. I do not, however, want Hattie to gain recognition as the point man for these advocacies, because they are advocacies we should all be recognised for. In respect to these advocacies, I want what he wants, but I want them pursued in a holistic way; in a way that has children learning from activities in which a sense of narrative is established – in other words, children learning from activities about where they have come from, where they are, and where they are going; in a way encompassing the cognitive and the affective as a duality; in a way that leaves spaces for children to discover things for themselves; in a way that is practicable and consistent with how classrooms work; in a way that makes best use of classrooms as learning communities; and in a way that draws attention to teachers as a prime source of ideas.
A useful way to sum up the differences between Hattie’s exact next step, test-based, and teacher-dominant style of teaching, and holistic teaching is to compare an approach to language teaching he describes; and the teaching of language described in the language model above. Hattie (p.170) discusses the use of learning intentions and how they require ‘success criteria’ to enable their ‘performance’ to be ‘judged’. There is a need, he says, to ‘state as exactly as possible what the students and teacher will want to see’. He provides an example: ‘What you’re looking for is that you have used at least five effective adjectives’. As I transfer these ideas to paper I am possessed with despair that this level of thinking, this kind of barbarism, is the probable future for our classrooms, when these same classrooms have available, from the present as well as the past, inspirational models of the highest quality: but this is what happens when education becomes a series of add-ons at the expense of substance; or a series of formula that have had their meaning dissipated; monopolised by overseas ‘experts’, politicians, education bureaucrats, computer futurists, and commercialised academics. This is what happens when teaching and learning is reduced so it can be set up for measurement, exact next step learning, and for formula like Hattie’s feedback. It is also, I should remind listeners the kind of teaching on which Hattie has based his research.
This is the last posting in the Hattie series. As you will have realised I am deeply unimpressed by what Hattie’s dominance over New Zealand education might mean. He has, as far as I’m concerned, a free pass to produce his research as one-eyed as it is, but he will have no free pass to pass it off as a blueprint for education and, complicit with conservative education influences, have it monopolise professional development in New Zealand. Overhanging this whole series, indeed the motivation for its development, has been the certainty that if Hattie gets into a position to dominate with his pedagogical ideas, those ideas will soon conflate to reinforce the pedagogical ideas of the review office. And then where would we be? Research has its place but our professional lives are more enriched when academics create education ideas greater than their research. Hattie, sadly, has managed the considerable feat of producing education ideas even more dismal than his research. There is a specious prolixity to his writing that indicates the possession of a critical intelligence which can operate with no fixed connection to the reality of classrooms or their social context. There is one exception to this, though: his ability to connect to the reality of the academic market. Visible Learning might be a book on research, but Hattie has a way of presenting findings that make it seem as if he is angling, as well, for a ministry contract. (Mind of the beholder, of course.) As I find my education world of the holistic diminishing, I still gain strength from the existence, against the odds, of strong vestiges of the imaginative and the creative in our classrooms.
So that silence is not mistaken for acquiescence, I urge you to make your voice heard.