Hattie’s research: Is wrong Part 4 – a kind of Svengali

There is not, of course, the evil intent, but with John Hattie we have an academic in overdrive –  manipulating and controlling against what as I see as the freedom to be creative.

The epitome of Hattie can be reviewed in the Sunday Star Times (4 January, 2009). National had just come to power, with Ann Tolley minister of education. In the front-page article, Hattie’s research was called the ‘Holy Grail’, the now notorious quote from the Times Education Supplement, and the article goes on to provide what would prove a preview of the way he was to manipulate and control in neoliberal style, New Zealand school education, especially primary education.

I predict the Holy Grail label assigned to his research will, given his personality, prove the death of his reputation pushing him on, to ever extreme expressions of arrogance and wrongness. If he claims to live by academia but does not act on it, only great harm will ensue, in the short term, though, that harm has first fallen on schools.

As detailed in past postings, with further devastating ones to come, Hattie’s research can be declared rubbish, beyond merit, deep into negative territory. The difficulty in conveying this truth and having it accepted is that his research is so wrong as to be difficult to encompass and for readers to believe.

In the Sunday Star Times article, it is nearly all there – his manner of proceeding, his uber claim on the education world, the political savvy, and the sense of certainty, most without a sound research foundation, some beyond the rules.

He was to claim in the Sunday Star Times article that class size made no difference to learning; that poverty made little or no difference (used by teachers he said as an excuse for their laxness); that teacher organisations were obstructive; that performance pay had substantial benefits; that education performance was nearly all about teacher quality; that teachers tended to proceed on myth and not on research-based evidence; that education needed not more money but better teaching; and he knew with certainty what worked in teaching and what didn’t.

Anne Tolley told the Sunday Star Times that ‘Professor Hattie’s research will have a profound influence on how the new government approaches education.’

And so it came to pass.

John Key said in parliament that John Hattie had suggested national standards to him.

Now we need to be clear here, everything Hattie stated in the Sunday Star Times he was to repeat and act on in the future, but, as well, everything he stated in the Sunday Star Times he qualified or momentarily controverted at one time or other – but the Sunday Star Times’ statements remain the rock-solid expression of what John Hattie is.

He has been all over school education. In a posting to follow Hattie will be seen presenting his perverse education rankings to the treasury, the controlling government agency. This presentation will be described as an extreme example of academic extravaganza of excess.  Hattie has been a major contributor to every education debate from early childhood to tertiary, the go-to person for the media, and the touchstone for politicians and bureaucrats. His toxic pottage of how to organise teaching down to the obsessive detail has been adopted by the education review office and unrelentingly imposed on the classrooms of New Zealand schools. One could say that in every New Zealand primary school classroom, every minute of every day, whether consciously or unconsciously, Hattie has been there.

Hattie & kids

Bombing it.

(You may like to read a major article of Hattie’s which I take to pieces, bit by bit, indeed, so methodically that by the end I come to pity him as you may. I feel no animosity to Hattie at all beyond the harm he is doing in the primary school classrooms of New Zealand. I genuinely feel he is trapped by his transcendentally undeserved reputation:


Horizons, whirlpools, Sartrean secrets, John Hattie and other symptoms of the continuing education tragedy)

Hattie has held quantitative academics in thrall. I could speculate why, but I will leave that for them to explain in the future. Hattie has, of course, been powerfully positioned to award academic contracts and preferment.

I will conclude with the latest example of the outrageous chutzpah of this big education macher. Take a deep breath.

In the Times Education Supplement, Hattie is introduced as the world’s most widely quoted education academic. Well OK.

Hattie criticises an England policy for classroom teachers to become researchers.

Now are you ready for it?

He says: ‘Researching is a particular skill … some of us took years to gain that skill.


‘… the whole research side, leave that to the academics.’

How altruistic!

‘… there was a danger that schools were trying to become too theoretical.’

So the theories they are acting on are too cold, the ones of other academics are too hot, and his are just right.

‘They are more obsessed about how to ride a bike than whether they can ride a bike well.’

So translated: teachers are more obsessed about how to teach than whether they can teach well?

I thought the two went together. And the use of obsessed? He usually goes on about teachers being lax. It is my view that Hattie’s cognitive abilities don’t extend to constructing a consistent narrative,

Oh boy!

Here is a researcher parading something he calls ‘research’, indeed, if you don’t look too scrupulously does bear some semblance to it, but which, deep down, isn’t research; but if generously, for the sake of argument, allowed that status, that ‘research’ then moves to having a claim on being the worst research ever to stain Western education – and here he is saying leave research to the likes of him.

If his ‘research’ was developed in association with teachers, it would never have seen the light of day, and Hattie would be where he deserves to be, in some downstate American university churning out the kind of rubbish that quantitative academics produce for the next transitory headline.

You see, Hattie had just been stung by ‘globally respected education academic, Professor Dylan William’ who ‘warned that the idea of teaching as a research-based profession was never going to happen.’

He then said what we on the creative side of New Zealand education have been saying for years, ‘It was unrealistic for teacher to ever expect to find credible research showing what action would lead to better outcomes for their particular group of pupils.’


In New Zealand, Hattie has been invaluable to the neoliberal expression of education, and to politicians and bureaucrats and some teachers and principals, who have used Hattie’s nonsense to fill the philosophical vacuum created by their rejection of teachers having the freedom to teach imaginatively.

Hattie then continued his outburst. But enough (for the moment) of this discredited individual.

Please note, the basis for the meeting: a meeting organised by Pearson in London. Researchers like Hattie are the foundations of the dystopian influence of multinationals in education.

No Hatties, no multinationals.

That will be the next battleground.

In the next posting: why Hattie’s concept of feedback while not entirely wrong, is nearly so, and has mightily interfered with crucial and highly sensitive classroom practices.

Bombed them so to speak.

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9 Responses to Hattie’s research: Is wrong Part 4 – a kind of Svengali

  1. larasyddall says:

    Removing myself from your mailing list.
    Argue the research… don’t attack the person.

    • Helen says:

      I actually thought this was entirely about attacking the research. The point that Hattie is unprofessional and unethical enough to pass his fiction off as research, and to abuse his position by persisting with it to the detriment of a whole country’s education system, and for his personal gain, is an indictment on his character. His ‘person’ is certainly deserving of being attacked, but there is no need to – he does that all by himself. Since his notorious holy grail was published I haven’t found or read of a single academic, researcher or educator outside Auckland (or Parliament) that gives his ‘research’ any credibility.
      Well done, Kelvin. You’re right on the mark, and I appreciate you fighting this battle.

  2. Kelvin says:

    With much research and nearly all websites – the person is a big part of the argument. My task is to analyse, fearlessly and honestly, how such terrible research has come to be such a huge part of teachers’ lives. I suspect it is something I have argued about in respect to the argument that has upset you.

  3. John Carrodus says:

    My observation is that Hattie undermines his own credibility with a slightly aloof woffterish style of delivery, especially attractive to politicians who like to measure inputs because they don’t know how recognise or measure MEANINGFUL educational outputs.

  4. I have not yet read your argument however I speak as an Oz teacher. However Hattie is the most quoted ‘authority’ in education circles these days. His name is always part of the discussion. He is currently heading up AITSL http://www.aitsl.edu.au/ – so Helen I was wondering if what you are stating is the case, that ‘no academic, researcher or educator outside Auckland (or Parliament) that gives his ‘research’ any credibility.’ Do you know of any other critical sources?

  5. Thanks Kelvin, I have just read the opening pages and I can only say thank you. As overworked and harassed teachers we are not given the space or the voice to think through counter-arguments. You are most certainly correct as to the effects on teacher moral and the dehumanising of school life. Principals love to quote back at ‘opinionated’ teachers, ‘class size does not matter’ and are happy to leave it at that because, ‘Hattie says so’. That is the end of any chance of discussion. In fact his rise appears to be built on the back of this claim. The point is, as you know, that any teacher knows that class size does matter in so many ways. The most destructive argument I know is that of teacher quality as the panacea for all manner of social ills. I agree that teachers are critical, and good teachers are always concerned about quality, but the measure of quality is what? The democratic classroom, student, and teacher agency are not even thought about anymore. We have generations of teachers, and leaders who will have never heard of Dewey, Freire, Iliich, Holt, Postman, Kozol, Niel, Bowles and Gintis and I could go on. That this is the case demonstrates the radical change that occurred over the past 30 years as we are driven by hook or by crook to accommodate the demands of corporate capital’s need to expand and accumulate, all at the expense of our and future generations well being.

  6. Kelvin says:

    Thank-you for your response – it will be read and greatly appreciated by the readers of this site.

    Helen I suspect writes as an academic or someone close to them.

    He has some support amongst quantitatives throughout New Zealand, but they keep their heads down – from self-interest and shame, I suspect. His support amongst academics is now low with a good number detesting him. The days for accepting his research as anywhere near acceptable are numbered.

    The demise of John Hattie, researcher, is at hand.

  7. Sarah says:

    I’ve only just stumbled on this criticism of Hattie’s work. I have read his first two books and I finished them both with the feeling that everything was too nicely wrapped in a ribbon and that the hype surrounding his work was negeleting to address some fundamental questions about his work. I am glad someone with the skill and knowledge is asking the question and finding the answers that made me feel so unsure about his work.

    Thank you.

  8. Kelvin says:

    Thank-you Sarah – if I was writing them for anyone, it was you. There are two more postings to go. I think you will find they finish the job off nicely.
    All very best.

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