Hattie’s research: Is wrong Part 5 – this should clinch it

At some time in the future, Hattie’s research and his opinions will be revealed for what they are: a huge charade. But you don’t need to wait – all you need to do is read the postings in the Hattie series and clear-sightedly and undistractedly employ your critical faculties. Everything about Hattie’s research is false except for some opinions which, while true, are also false, because he claims them to be evidence-based.

At this moment in New Zealand there will be schools being geared up to receive information on an entity called feedback (as there have been hundreds before), the supposed Hattie research insight and breakthrough. This posting will reveal this term’s introduction (by Hattie) and use (by the punters) as a cosmic joke.

Hattie has so far got away with his research trick, for this he has been reliant on a compliant media. Hattie is indeed a creation of the media – his charisma and message of education certainty and cartoon simplicity is perfect for their needs. Mind you, if it wasn’t Hattie, someone with Hattie characteristics would have been substituted. Hattie, indeed, should be regarded as much syndrome as person.

One part of Hattie’s campaign is the promotion of his research which I have detailed as rubbish. Anyone who cares to open-mindedly contemplate his research would agree. However, while Hattie is always busily promoting it, he hardly bothers to defend it, because he knows as most of us do, it is indefensible. Hattie knows he can only be attacked through the media and why would they attack their own creation – even if they knew how to?

Look on my promotion and despair.

The other part of his campaign is the employment of that promotion to attain the status of reigning educationist, the reflexive go-to person. From that position he performs as a kind of education emperor, pronouncing on everything put to him, supposedly from a research basis, but really just from opinion. That much of what he says is just opinion is clear from the wild contradictions on so many matters.

In one matter, though, his campaign never goes off message; that is the putting down of teachers. He puts down teachers by labelling them purveyors of opinion and myth. On one hand we have governments excluding teachers for being driven by self-interest, and on the other by Hattie saying they have nothing worthwhile to say anyway. We have governments and Hattie saying teachers are the key and they should share expertise, but expertise which apparently they don’t have or want to have – meaning governments and Hattie only want teachers to be mouthpieces for their kind of expertise.

Hattie’s knows his education supremacy must come at the expense of teachers and what teachers know – his only real philosophical opposition – which is why he has undertaken a relentless and cruelly devious campaign against their voice being heard. And that campaign has been swallowed hook line and sinker by the media.

We in New Zealand know a proper leader gains mana by adding to the mana of the people led; but Hattie has done the reverse, gained mana by taking away that mana. And, as part of that, putting teachers on a pedestal, an old trick of male dominance, has contributed to the demeaning of teachers.

I want to go back to the seminal moment when John Hattie became more than even he reckoned; when power was accepted in Mephistophelean fashion. I don’t believe Hattie expected things to work out quite the way they did but, opportunistically, he went along for the ride, more and more taking control.

Hattie had taken his idea for a meta-analysis from the medical world and applied it to the value-laden education one in gigantic style, and then wrestled to validly combine the data – he did bring the data together but never validly combined it, for the simple reason it couldn’t be done. But he unleashed it on the world anyway and the media fell for it, and some other quantitatives went along for a ride in their own way too.

The seminal media moment in the formation of this education Frankenstein was in The Times Education Supplement, 21 November, 2008, in an article written by Warwick Mansell. He is an education outsider who writes cogently, sympathetically, and insightfully about education – this was his one careless and tragically destructive mistake. His carelessness has allowed what he really meant, to be greatly overplayed, and egregiously misinterpreted. Mansell writes very briefly in light and ironic tone; but he doesn’t declare Hattie’s research as the Holy Grail just Hattie’s research conclusion, and then in a backhanded way.

He writes: ‘It is perhaps education’s equivalent to the search for the Holy Grail – or the answer to life, the universe and everything.’

‘Grappled with by teachers and educationists for millennia, the perennial question goes a bit like this: if you could change one thing about the way our schooling system is run, what would it be?’

‘Now, with what is believed to be the largest ever educational research study – covering more than 80 million pupils and bringing together  more than 50,000 smaller studies – he has come up with the answer.’

Note the reference to ‘bringing together’ – yes Hattie did, but not in comparably valid way which is what research is or should be about.

‘Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out the solution is relatively simple: the best way to get higher achievement is to improve the level of interaction between pupils and their teachers. Not exactly rocket science, some might say.’

‘Improving feedback between teachers and their pupils … is fundamental, according to research, which took mere 15 years to compile.’

Most of the above writing is carelessly off key – Hattie’s findings are not relatively simple but disastrously simplistic and educationally misleading. The quality of interaction between pupil and teacher is only the final act in an extended and complex process. To sensible and valid research effect, that extended and complex process is part of a whole and cannot be separated and fragmented as Hattie has done. As well, it is educationally misleading to bring it down to the interaction between pupils and their teachers; there are also pupil interactions away from teachers – meaning being constructed from reading, inquiring, dreaming, art, dance, drama, experimenting, other curriculum activities, interactions with other pupils. 

The expression feedback is a limiting word laden with harsh connotations of formal teaching and teacher back and forth interaction. It is an expression carefully chosen by Hattie to be superimposed on classrooms to his ideological advantage and against teachers’. Most of the research in Hattie’s meta-meta analysis is based on clinical and formal teaching involving measurable learning and research assessment of immediate feedback between teacher and pupil. As well, Hattie’s research is hugely distorted to certain curriculum areas (such as mathematics) and to teaching situations bizarrely different from everyday classroom teaching and learning. Above all: Mansell’s linking of Hattie’s research to the Holy Grail was not done on the basis of examining the validity of that research only on Hattie’s conclusion.

John Hattie is a media creation and the media having created him and found him useful are understandably unwilling to uncreate him. They couldn’t anyway because to do so would demand they enter the world of education not exploit around the fringes.

So this was the context for the seminal moment when Hattie’s Visible Learning research was labelled the ‘Holy Grail’; such a label would have been laughed at if it had first appeared in a New Zealand newspaper, but in an example of cultural cringe carried unchallengeable significance by originating in The Times Education Supplement.

Feedback is not feedback, to call it that is to call our galaxy the universe, feedback is a word that transcendentally reduces what it is, to make it fit with the desiccated and diminished world that is Hattie’s education world – feedback IS learning, the whole of learning, the whole purpose of schools and the education system, the whole caboodle – to do justice to feedback which is really the whole of learning, you have to go into the worlds of that learning, that is the worlds of art, music, science, social studies, mathematics, not apply cold, deathly formulae from the outside.

Don’t take courses on feedback take courses on learning, and in doing so they will at a few taps be transformed. They will in an instant become democratic and meaningful to teachers; they will allow teachers to call on and share their own knowledge – not be an exercise originating from an academic who seems to have deluded even himself.

A powerful way to illustrate the flaccidity of feedback as an education concept can be demonstrated by thinking about maths in New Zealand schools. Talking about feedback in maths is going to achieve little; restructuring the way it is taken in schools will. Two weeks ago I put out a posting titled Mathematics: here is the answer which outlined just such a restructuring. A staggering 2530 teachers have downloaded it so far to a hugely supportive response. A posting about feedback in maths would have had near nil appeal.


Now take a deep breath and be ready to absorb something that will astound you – that you will question why you weren’t told about this before, how this came to pass. And this is just about the concept of feedback – all the other concepts in Hattie’s research could be similarly exposed. Remember this is Hattie’s research based on a cast of millions.

In Hattie’s research, feedback gains a significant part of its high ranking (0.73 and rank 10) from the inclusion of one meta-analysis on the use of music as an education reinforcement; and another has a high proportion of studies with students who have severe learning and developmental delays. 

That ladies and gentlemen is characteristic of something we have allowed to be called the Holy Grail.

In some ways, this whole issue is not really about John Hattie, it is really about New Zealand’s ability as a nation, its government, leaders, opinion makers, and people, to face up to issues clear-sightedly and honestly. What future for us if we are continually buying trombones we don’t need, seeing gold thread for cotton, and making villains of our heroes and the reverse? Meanwhile the gods must be rolling around heaven all day having huge cosmic laugh at our expense and plight.

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4 Responses to Hattie’s research: Is wrong Part 5 – this should clinch it

  1. Rex Morris says:

    Whats your take on his work around homework? In my experience the only time h/w was of any value was the reading books kids took home in years 1-3. In every class I taught h/w added nothing but angst and torment for many and no gain for the others. I have never read or seen anything of substance to contradict this. I attempted to find whatever I could in the mid 90’s. I approached NZCER, ACER, I wrote to people in Canada, America and the UK and got nothing to substantiate the believed benefits of homework. Hatties research supports this.

    • Brad Venn says:

      I wholeheartedly agree! Homework is used, in majority of cases, to appease parents and not improve student outcomes. Reading in all early years (and even upper primary years) is very beneficial (in my professional opinion) if students receive the correct books and parents understand that it is to reinforce skills and promote success, and not leave parents feeling as though they are the teacher. Simply sending home routine tasks which are based upon a student’s year level are a waste of everybody’s time. If tasks are being sent home, they must be authentic, engaging and achievable.

  2. Kelvin says:

    Hattie’s research doesn’t support this; his opinion does, and your opinion on something like this is sure to be superior. I like the trend of your thinking: change the concept of homework (for instance, children reporting to class when they finish a book or when they written or researched something on their own initiative) and make it voluntary. Doing projects at home as part of formal homework is a drag and unfair for all sorts of reasons. Morning talks related to the news if done with a light touch also sends the right message. Thanks for your query Rex.

  3. tan0652 says:

    Marzano and colleagues comment on the value of homework in their research, noting it should only be employed for practice (aka reading in the early years) or preparation (locating objects they will use in class activities). It should never be employed to cover aspects of the curriculum students are not familiar with. Marzano’s work was based on meta-analysis too so I’m now questioning the validity of their findings as well given the arguments presented around Hattie’s work of late. I agree with Kelvin that the complexities of educational research don’t often lend themselves to being including in meta-analyses studies.

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