What works in education?

With the arrival in the UK of John Hattie and his Magnum Opus "Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement" (2008) and "Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximising Impact on Learning" (2011) it is only to be expected that the interest in effective teaching has been renewed.

In a very short period of time the educational world has gone from receiving an invitation from Hattie to consider what works best in education to teachers and leaders looking at Visible Learning through their own eyes (either through the books or via the OSIRIS courses) and twittering teachers (tweachers) looking at setting up their own conferences.

The post title "What works best in education?" needs unpacking before trying to answer it. If not, it's possible that people will be answering different questions. This skill is learned in the classroom of P4C children. The need to check for clarity is crucial and stops the rush for the right answer (which is very subjective!)


The WHAT needs us to look at the factors that are at play:

Is it what the teacher is? or what the teacher does?
Is it what the student is? or what the student does?
Is it where the student lives? or where they were born?
Is it what the school does? or how the school does it?


The WORKS needs us to understand what successful outcomes in education are. It was Every Child Matters that once defined the purpose of a school but there is a move toward helping children achieve more.

It is perhaps the majority decision of citizens in the UK that schools exist to educate pupils. The main job of a teacher/headteacher/etc is to remember what their main job is. If we consider the idea of marginal gains, well that's what you do when you have done everything else. If you have maximised the learning potential of a pupil, THEN you start employing marginal gains, not before. Therefore what primary outcome do we choose to measure in education? If it isn't the amount of learning that pupils have achieved then I don't know what it is.

At a recent meeting with Headteachers I was told that a school should be "a silver spoon for all pupils". We must give opportunities to children that they didn't receive from their home life. I would expect that to be the opportunity to learn with inspired and passionate teachers.


The question is "what works in education?" Not what works because of education, or despite education. The impact of a teacher should be measurable in a classroom setting initially but if we are focusing on the correct parts of teaching - if the curriculum has the right moral purpose - then what we do now should have positive effects for the rest of the children's lives. The following analogy should help. 

When a golfer is addressing the ball, ready to send it 200 yards forward they use a simple visualisation technique. You look for where you want the ball to land. Draw a line back from there to the ball, taking into account such things as the strength of the wind, etc. Find a nearby item (a leaf, a worm cast, etc) that is on the imaginary line. When you send the ball, you aim for it to pass over the item that you have selected. If you get the initially direction right, the trajectory will hopefully be the right one.


What is education? Is it the sole preserve of a school?

Geoff Petty describes education as the drawing out, not the putting in (from Latin: Educare). This means that pupils with less within themselves have less to draw out. So without some level of input from us, we have a difference between pupils; those that know stuff already and those that know less. 

Should we address this in class? or do we think that pupils are just different and no amount of social engineering on the part of a school will remove this difference?

The challenge for our profession is to use sophisticated methods to try to answer "What works in education?" We can't just assume that our own personal methods are unbeatable. They might be easiest for us, but that is no reason to ignore the call to reflect on your practice. 95% of what could have an impact on achievement is positive. However some things are more effective than others. You can guarantee that if you want a wheel reinventing then just ask a teacher. They will merrily go away and create a similar thing to the other creators but, due to artistic preference, will want to use their own construction. As a profession I'm not sure that we're very good at standardising our practice. The opportunity afforded by Hattie's work is a great one. I just hope that teachers take the time to consider not only how to measure their impact on achievement in the classroom but also how to maximise it.

Isn't it time to work SMARTER, not harder?