Dear Vice-Chancellors

Dear Vice-Chancellors

The posting-letter you will receive, or have received, is a factual story of the Hattie saga typical of my communications to teachers over a number of years, paying special attention to those who bore the erroneous burden of that research – children and teachers.

Below is a link which I received from an Australian educationist in response to that posting which sets out matters more in your terms.

From a sidebar on that link, I have printed Professor John O’Neill’s morally courageous letter to the minister of education in the former government. (Professor O’Neill, Head of the Institute of Education Massey University, and recently appointed to the Taskforce Panel to review Tomorrow’s Schools.)

I didn’t ask Professor O’Neill if it was all right with him if I reprinted his letter. He wouldn’t have minded anyway but, nevertheless, I went ahead on my own initiative.

For the general reader, also added to this posting, is the substance of the link, but in more narrative form.

How was the education system to let Hattie happen?

That it was, speaks to teachers needing to have a real say in the education system to which they are the means, children the purpose, and we the servants.

As for Hattie, I am tolerating it no longer and will not let the matter rest.

John A. Lee in the 1940s, holder of the Military Cross, writer of Children of the Poor, and a famously rebellious Labour MP, just as famous Joseph Savage and Peter Fraser at the time, told the story of how, when Ernest Shadbolt my grandfather, was in the corridors of parliament, as he often was on some cause or other – Lee found the nearest office in which to hide. (Apologies for the Shadbolt references in two successive communications, must be my mood.)

I intend to follow the nuisance example of my irascible progenitor.

And my vow that the last posting was my last word on Hattie for some time seems to have wobbled a bit, in fact, collapsed – well, it was some time, but obviously not a long one.

Visiblehat, the Australian educationist referred to, contributed the following letter to the Comment section of Hattie’s research is false: Vice-Chancellors asked to investigate. 

It is included as component part of my case to you.

I am confident it will be useful to you in considering the request to investigate the soundness and authenticity of Hattie’s research.


Kelvin Smythe

  1. visiblehat says:

April 15, 2018 at 12:45 pm

Thanks Kelvin, the Vice Chancellors must read the 3 Meta-analyses Hattie used for the 2009 version of Visible Learning. These show, Hattie can’t average and gross misrepresentation. I contacted Gene V Glass, the inventor of Meta-analysis and author of the major study Hattie used for Class size, he commented about Hattie’s averaging: ‘Averaging class size reduction effects over a range of reductions makes no sense to me’.

Summaries of the 3 meta-analyses are here:

VisibleLearning .

  1. Professor John O’Neill’s letter as set out by visiblehat and is on a sidebar from the link

Professor O’Neill’s full letter can be found here. He sent a copy to Hattie, but I’m not aware of Hattie addressing any of the issues raised – see Hattie’s Defenses.

Professor O’Neill also extended these arguments in a 2012 publication, Material fallacies of education research evidence and public policy advice.

I will quote full sections of Professor O’Neill’s letter pertaining to the quality of Hattie’s synthesis.

Professor O’Neill calls for Hattie to remove inappropriate studies and re-rank influences (p4):

‘Professor Hattie’s research comprised a synthesis of more than 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. These meta-analyses cover early childhood education, schooling and college (tertiary) level education. It is important to note, therefore, that some of the studies included in (i) the synthesis; (ii) calculations of the average effect size of the studies within a topic category; and (iii) the rank order of effect sizes, are not in fact studies of schooling.

This creates two policy problems. First, the synthesis contains studies that have no proven relevance to the schooling sector and schooling policy decisions; and second, the inclusion of these studies skews the stated average effect size for a particular topic and, as a consequence, its overall position in Professor Hattie’s rank order.

If as Minister of Education you wish to use the Visible Learning synthesis as evidence to inform policy decisions in the schooling sector then I would point out that, minimally, all the studies unrelated to schooling need to be removed and the remaining average effect sizes recalculated and re-ranked.’

Meta-analyses do not uncover the details of what happens in the classroom (p5):

‘The synthesis has no interest in uncovering interaction or mediating effects (e.g. what happens in school classrooms when class sizes are reduced and teachers and learners interact differently, or the curriculum is changed). This is problematic for educators at all levels not least because real classrooms are all about interactions among variables, and their effects. Professor Hattie implicitly acknowledges this shortcoming when he states that ‘a review of non-meta-analytic studies could lead to a richer and more nuanced statement of the evidence’ (p. 255).

He also explicitly acknowledges that when different teaching methods or strategies are used together their combined effects may be much greater than their comparatively small effect measured in isolation (p. 245).

Let me state the basic shortcoming more bluntly. The non-meta-analytic and qualitative or mixed methods studies Professor Hattie has excluded are precisely the research investigations that do make visible not only (a) that class size matters to student achievement, but also (b) what the observed effects of different class sizes are on classroom teaching and learning practices as a whole, and furthermore (c) which sub-groups of students are most materially affected by larger or smaller class sizes and the attendant changes in classroom processes they require.’

Professor O’Neill urges for some quality control of the studies that Hattie uses (p7):

‘While Visible Learning has been described in popular media internationally as ‘teaching’s Holy Grail’, and has anecdotally proved very influential in New Zealand government circles, the method of the synthesis and, consequently, the rank ordering are highly problematic for the teachers and policy makers whose practical decisions it is intended to inform.

The need to scrutinise the references and begin to establish whether the sources used in the synthesis are:

(a) school-specific or should be discarded for the present purpose;

(b) quality assured or not – I discarded unpublished conference papers but retained doctoral theses;

(c) studies of general or specific populations of students such as those with learning disabilities, or of specific learning areas.’

Professor O’Neill’s analysis of some of the research used for particular influences (p8):

‘At the very least, the problems below should give you and your officials pause for thought rather than unquestioningly accepting Professor Hattie’ research at face-value, as appears to have been the case.

(i) The ‘micro-teaching’ influence (average effect size 0.88, rank 4) must be discounted as the synthesis provides no evidence that it has had any effect on school students’ achievement, only on that of pre-service teachers;

(ii) the ‘professional development’ average effect size (0.62, rank 19) should be recalculated as one of the studies discussed provides no evidence of student effects; another cites the general effect size not the lower student achievement effect. Recalculation gives an average effect size of 0.49 and drops the ‘influence’ to 48 in the rank order. This is a considerable difference which both illustrates the overall fragility of the ranking, and suggests extreme caution in its use as a simplistic policy ‘takeaway menu’.

(iii) ‘providing formative evaluation [to teachers]’ (average effect size 0.9, rank 3) is based on two meta-analyses only, both involving students with special educational needs and therefore is not obviously generalisable to all schools, classrooms and teachers;

(iv) similarly ‘comprehensive interventions for learning disabled students’ (average effect size 0.77, rank 7) does not have demonstrated general applicability;

(v) the ‘feedback’ influence (average effect size 0.73, rank 10) is significantly increased by inclusion of one meta-analysis on the use of music as an education reinforcement (effect size 2.87). The meta-analysis contains a high proportion of studies with participants who have severe learning and/or developmental delays, in both school and out of school settings, and includes both adults and children. If this one source is excluded, the average drops to 0.63 (rank 19). (It should be noted that feedback is one of the few teaching influence domains where there is a sufficient number of studies to indicate more clearly which single aspects of feedback are likely to have the most general practical effect on student achievement (e.g. ‘immediacy of teacher feedback’) and which least (e.g. ‘teacher praise’);

(vi) the influence ‘spaced vs. massed practice’ (average effect size 0.71, rank 12) includes two meta-analyses specifically on the learning of motor skills with an average effect size of 0.96. If these are discarded on the grounds that they are not of general relevance to most learning areas of the curriculum, the influence of spaced practice drops to 0.46 (rank 53);

(vii) the general importance and ranking accorded to ‘meta-cognition strategies’ (average effect size 0.69, ranking 13) must also be questioned on the basis that the two meta-analyses both refer to reading interventions only;

(viii) the findings for ‘problem-solving teaching’ (average effect size 0.61, rank 20) are derived from six meta-analyses, three of which are unpublished doctoral studies and one an unpublished conference paper. The average effect size of the two peer-reviewed journal meta-analyses (one in mathematics, the other science) is 0.46 (this would give a reduced rank of 53);

(ix) the commentary (p. 201) on the influence ‘teaching strategies’ (average effect size 0.6, rank 23) lists numerous possible strategies for inclusion in teachers’ pedagogical repertoires but gives no policy or practice guidance on which should be used with which learners, in which subjects, under what conditions and in which sequence or combination, nor for how long or with what frequency. Equally, the author comments that ‘most of these meta-analyses relate to special education or students with learning difficulties’ (p. 200). Their general applicability for all school students has not been demonstrated;

(x) the ranking of ‘co-operative vs. individualistic learning’ (average effect size 0.59, rank 24) must also be recalculated because the studies include one of adults (effect size 0.68) and one unpublished conference paper (effect size 0.88). If these are excluded the average effect size falls to 0.4 (rank 64);

(xi) in contrast, for study skills, (average effect size 0.59, rank 25), if the five college level meta-analyses are excluded, the average effect size of the remaining meta- analyses rises markedly to 0.74 (rank 9);

(xii) finally, for mastery learning (average effect size 0.58, rank 29) the meta-analysis with the largest effect size is an unpublished conference paper. If this is excluded, the average effect size is reduced slightly to 0.55 (rank 35) but even so this reduces its measured effect on student achievement to less than those of the home environment or socio-economic circumstances influences which Professor Hattie says at the outset cannot be influenced in schools.’

  1. The posting from the link by visiblehat, as adapted by me, with charts and diagrams omitted and made more a narrative

Professor Peter Blatchford:

Several highly influential reports which have set in motion a set of messages that have generated a life of their own, separate from the research evidence, and have led to a set of taken for granted assumptions about class size effects.

Given the important influence these (Hattie and others) reports seem to be having in government and regional education policies, they need to be carefully scrutinised in order to be sure about the claims that are made (p. 93).

Hattie later in the same book concedes:

The evidence is reasonably convincing – reducing class size does enhance student achievement (p. 113).

However, in VL and his presentation with Pearson (2015) he seemed to have a different view (he called class size a disaster and a distraction) when he used the following three meta-analyses.

Does Hattie Misrepresent the three studies?

  1. Gene Glass and Mary Lee Smith (1979) investigated a range of comparisons of class sizes of 40 versus 30 to classes of 1 versus 40.

Hattie calculates an average by combing all class size reductions to get a low value of d = 0.09.

This is another Hattie error as the average is 0.25.

But, given that the class size reductions are totally different, the question must be asked what does this average mean?

I contacted Prof Glass to ensure I interpreted his study correctly, he kindly replied:

Averaging class size reduction effects over a range of reductions makes no sense to me.

It’s the curve that counts.

Reductions from 40 to 30 bring about negligible achievement effects. From 20 to 10 is a different story.

But teacher workload and its relationship to class size is what counts in my book.

Bergeron (2017) reiterates:

Hattie computes averages that do not make any sense.

If you look at this meta-analysis in more detail a totally different picture emerges, which is not represented by using this one average (Hattie only uses the one incorrect average).

A key finding from the above graph is the difference between well and poorly controlled studies.

Mary Lee Smith and Gene Glass conclude (p. 15):

The curve for the well-controlled studies then, is probably the best representation of the class-size and achievement relationship.

A clear and strong relationship between class size and achievement has emerged. There is little doubt, that other things being equal, more is learned in smaller classes.

Hattie in a recent interview with Hanne Knudsen (2017) John Hattie: I’m a statistician, I’m not a theoretician said:

If, for example, a meta-analysis came out that showed, for example, that class size had a huge effect on learning, my model is wrong. I worry all the time about falsifiability (p. 7).

Yet, it is ironic that the author of the class size study, Professor Gene Glass, who also invented the meta-analysis methodology, wrote a book contradicting Hattie, ‘50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education‘.

Myth #17: Class size does not matter; reducing class sizes will not result in more learning.

Professor Glass says:

Fiscal conservatives contend, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that students learn as well in large classes as in small … So for which students are large classes okay? Only the children of the poor?

Thibault (2017) Is John Hattie’s Visible Learning so visible? also questions Hattie’s method of using one average to represent a range of studies (translation to English):

We are entitled to wonder about the representativeness of such results: by wanting to measure an overall effect for subgroups various with various characteristics, this effect does not faithfully represent any of the subgroups that it encompasses!

By combining all the data as well as the particular context that is associated with each study, we eliminate the specificities of each context, which for many give meaning to the study itself!

  1. McGiverin et al (1989) state that:

 The lack of experimental control and diverse definitions of large and small are among the reasons cited for inconsistent findings regarding class size (p. 49).

In addition, they are critical of the Glass (1979) study for not using pragmatic class sizes. As a result, their study focused on second-year students with properly controlled studies using experimental and control groups (although not randomly assigned). They decided a more pragmatic definition of a large class size is about 26 and a small class size is about 19 (p. 49).

They introduce a caveat by quoting Berger (1981, p. 49):

Focusing on class size alone is like trying to determine the optimal amount of butter in a recipe without knowing the nature of the other ingredients.

Whilst they get a reasonably high d = 0.34 they advise caution in the interpretation of this result (p. 54). Also, they make special mention of the confounding variables – the Hawthorne effect, novelty, and self-fulfilling prophecy.

  1. Goldstein et al (2000):

So once again, the detail of the study is lost when Hattie uses ONE averaged effect size to represent that study.

Hattie’s Interpretation:

In his recent collaboration with Pearson (2015) he names class size as one of the major distractions. In previous presentations, he consistently labelled class size a ‘disaster’ or as ‘going backwards’. (Hattie’s 2005 ACER presentation):

Yet, in another article in 2015 responding to critiques of his work he concludes:

The main message remains, be cautious, interpret in light of the evidence, search for moderators, take care in developing stories.

Using polemic language like ‘distractions’ is not being very cautious!

Yet, in what I think is the most comprehensive peer review of class size so far, Class Size Eastern and Western perspectives (2016), Hattie retreats from the above polemic and concedes:

The evidence is reasonably convincing – reducing class size does enhance student achievement (p. 113).

Hattie then cleverly shifts the debate:

Why is the (positive) effect so small? (p. 105).

One of the answers to that question is pretty obvious when you look at the table above where Hattie derives his lowest effect size of 0.09. When you average very small effect sizes from class sizes of 40 down to 30 with large effect sizes of 20 down to 15 you get a low average.

Prof Adrian Simpson also insightfully explains in ‘The misdirection of public policy: comparing and combining standardised effect sizes‘, that sampling from smaller populations is a major reason why effects of influences such as feedback, meta-cognition, and so on, are high while effects for whole school influences – class size, summer school, and so on, are low (p. 463):

One cannot compare standardised mean differences between sets of studies which tend to use restricted ranges of participants with researcher designed, tightly focussed measures and sets of studies which tend to use a wide range of participants and use standardised tests as measures.

Hattie’s Interpretation Is Used by Politicians for Public Policy:

Hattie’s work has provided school leaders with data that appeal to their administrative pursuits. Eacott (2017, p. 3).

The Australian Government in 2015, used Hattie to block significant funding to redress the socio-economic imbalance in Australian Schools – called the Gonski Review.

Professor Blatchford comments about this:

When Christopher Pyne [the then Australian Education Minister] talked about prioritising teacher quality, rather than reducing class sizes, he set up a false and simplistic dichotomy (p. 16, AEU News).

From New Zealand, a similar example, where Professor John O’Neill writes a significant letter to the NZ Minister of Education on the problem of using Hattie’s research for class size policy.

Further in, Material fallacies of education research evidence and public policy advice, Professor O’Neill states:

The Minister of Education declined to rule out increases in class size. In short, this was because the ‘independent observation’ of Treasury and the research findings of an influential government adviser, Professor John Hattie, were that schooling policy should instead focus on improving the quality of teaching.

Writing about Hattie’s class size research O’Neill warns that:

Much of the terminology is ambiguous and inconsistently used by politicians, officials and academic advisers. The propositions are not demonstrably true – indeed, there is evidence to suggest they are false in crucial respects. The conclusion is, at best, uncertain because it does not take into account confounding evidence that larger classes do adversely affect teaching, learning and student achievement (p. 2).

I am concerned about the unwavering confidence that Hattie displays when he talks about class size, given the caution and reservation that the scholars of each of his 3 studies discuss as well as other reputable scholars around the world. Reservations due to the lack of quality studies, the inability to control variables, the major differences in how achievement is measured, major confounding variables and benchmark effect sizes.

The Largest Analysis and Peer Review of the Class Size Research (so far): Class Size Eastern and Western perspectives (2016), edited by Prof Blatchford et al. Note: Prof Blatchford has a dedicated website to class size research –

The editors state:

There are in fact relatively few high-quality dedicated studies of class size and this is odd and unfortunate given the public profile of the class size debate and the need for firm evidence based on purposefully designed research fit for purpose (p. 275).

What often gets overlooked in debates about class size is that CSR is not in itself an educational initiative like other interventions with which it is often (and in a sense unfairly) compared, for example, reciprocal teaching, teaching metacognitive strategies, direct instruction and repeated reading programmes; it is just a reduction of the number of pupils in a classroom (p. 276).

Prof Blatchford warns again about correlation studies:

Essentially the problem is the familiar one of mistaking correlation for causality. We cannot conclude that a relationship between class size and academic performance means that one is causally related to the other (p. 94).

The editors conclude:

The chapters in this book are only a start and much more research is needed on ways in which class size is related to other classroom processes. This has implications for research methods: we need more systematic studies, for example, which use systematic classroom observations, but also high-quality multi-method studies, in order to capture these less easily measured factors.

There is some disagreement about which groups are involved but often studies find it is low attaining and disadvantaged students who benefit the most. Blatchford et al (2011) found evidence that smaller classes helped low attaining students at secondary level in terms of classroom engagement. 

Blatchford concludes: 

The aim is move beyond the rather tired debates about whether class size affects pupil performance and instead move things on by developing an integrative framework for better understanding the relationships between class size and teaching, with important practical benefits for education world-wide (p. 102).

Hattie’s contribution to the book (Chapter 7):

Hattie appears to be an outlier in this book. Of the 17 scholars who have contributed to the book ONLY Hattie myopically uses the effect size statistic to fully interpret the research. All the others use contextual and detailed features of the research to reach the conclusion that class size is important and significant.

At least the weight of scholarship has caused Hattie to retreat from his polemic on reducing class size as ‘a disaster’ and ‘going backwards’ and he finally concedes:

The evidence is reasonably convincing – reducing class size does enhance student achievement (p. 113).

But, Hattie cleverly reframes the issue to:

Why is the (positive) effect so small? (p. 105).

Given the significant amount of critique about Hattie’s methodology – the lack of quality studies, the use: of disparate measures of student achievement, of university students or pre-school children, of correlation, the inconsistent definition of small and large class sizes, indiscriminate averaging, benchmark effect sizes, and so on, and so on, I was disappointed that Hattie did not address any of these issues. 

Hattie once again sidesteps the SIGNIFICANT issues raised by Zyngier (+ many others): that is the control of variables – the differing definition of large and small classes. Studies also differ on how to measure class size, some studies use a student/teacher ratio (STR) which includes many non-teaching staff like the principal, welfare staff, library, and so on.

Past research has too often conflated STR with class size (p. 4).

Blatchford, et al (2016), also comment on this STR problem:

They are not a valid measure of the number of pupils in a class at a given moment (p. 95).

Hattie just re-states that meta-analyses provide a reasonably robust estimate and myopically focuses on the effect size statistic. But he provides no defence for the validity issues. However, he concedes STR and class size are different, but he does not resolve the validity issue of using these disparate measures and just fobs off the argument by using a red herring – STR and Class size are related (p112) but he provides no evidence for this claim.

Given the importance of class size research, STR and Class size need to be MORE than just related.

They need to be the SAME!

Hattie includes a 4th study to his effect size average, Shin and Chung (2009) – effect size d = 0.20. But he conveniently does not inform the reader that this study re-analysed the same data (the Tennessee STAR study) as the previous meta-analyses that he used.

Ironically, Shin and Chung warn against creating an effect size from repeated use of the same data:

If a study has multiple effect sizes, the same sample can be repeatedly used. Repeated use of the same sample is, however, a violation of the independent assumption (p. 14).

They also warn:

We found too many Tennessee STAR studies. We worry about the dependence issue (p. 15).

It seems to me Hattie’s strategy is to take the focus off the scrutiny of his evidence and re-direct our attention elsewhere – a strategy for politicians, NOT for researchers!

Teacher Morale:

Blatchford et al (2016), comment on the associated issue of teacher morale and class size:

Virtually all class size studies report that teacher morale is higher in small classes than in larger classes. The personal preference for small classes was demonstrated by STAR third-grade teachers interviewed at the end of the school year. Teachers were asked whether they would prefer a small class with 15 students or a $2,500 salary increase. Seventy percent of all teachers and 81 percent of those who had taught small classes chose the small class option over a salary increase (p. 129).

Prof Gene Glass agrees:

Teacher workload and its relationship to class size is what counts in my book.

Other Commentary

The Australian Education Union has published a comprehensive analysis of the class size research. They summarise that reducing class size does seem to improve student outcomes. Also, they highlight the problems with Hattie’s methodology:

The critics have cited the methodological problem of synthesising a whole range of meta-studies each with their own series of primary studies. There is no quality control separating out the good research studies from the bad ones. The different assumptions, definitions, study conditions and methodologies used by these primary studies mean that Hattie’s meta-analysis of the meta-analyses is a homogenisation which may distort the evidence (comparing apples with oranges) (p. 13).

The 0.21 effect he claims for class size is an average so that some studies may have found a significantly higher effect than that. For example, ‘gold standard’ primary research studies (using randomised scientific methodology) such as the Tennessee STAR project recorded a range of effect sizes including some at 0.62, 0.64 and 0.66, clearly well above the ‘hinge-point’ and the same as most variables which Hattie regards as very important (p. 14).

From Professor John O’Neill’s AMAZING letter. O’Neill quotes from a detailed case/naturalistic study by Blatchford (2011):

Professor Blatchford makes the point that class size effects are ‘multiple’. For children at the beginning of schooling, there are significant potential gains in reading and maths in smaller classes. Children from ethnic minorities and children who start behind their peers benefit most. There is also a positive effect on behaviour, engagement and achievement, particularly for low achievers, where classes are smaller in the lower secondary school (p. 10).

Leading researcher, Professor Dylan Wiliam states that the evidence is pretty clear that if you teach smaller classes you get better results. The problem is smaller classes cost a lot more (7 min into full lecture).

Also, many scholars point out the irony in Hattie’s view, that class size is a distraction – because the number of students in a class limits the ability of teachers to implement the kinds of changes that Hattie shows have the biggest effect, for  formative evaluation, micro teaching, behaviour, feedback, teacher-student relationships, and so on,

For example,  Dr. David Zyngier in his meta-review: 

The strongest hypothesis about why small classes work concerns students’ classroom behaviour. 

Evidence is mounting that students in small classes are more engaged in learning activities, and exhibit less disruptive behaviour (p. 17).

Each of these studies also discusses their limitations. In particular, Goldstein et al (2000) emphasise the issue, that has emerged for all of Hattie’s synthesis:

We have the additional problem that different achievement tests were used in each study, and this will generally introduce further, unknown, variation (p. 403).

Goldstein et al (2003) go into detail about the problems of comparing correlation studies with random controlled experiments:

Correlational studies that … examined relationships between class size and children’s achievements at one point in time, are difficult to interpret because of uncertainties over whether 

Other factors (for example,  non-random allocation of pupils to classes) might confound the results (p. 3).

Goldstein et al (1998) point out another major confounding variable:

There is a tendency for schools to allocate lower achieving children to be in smaller classes. This bias means a considerable number of large cross-sectional studies (correlational) need to be ignored due to validity requirements (p. 256).

Robert Slavin, Best-Evidence Synthesis: An Alternative to Meta-Analytic and Traditional Reviews (1986) also discusses this issue:

 A ‘best evidence synthesis’ of any education policy should encourage decision makers to favour results from studies with high internal and external validity—that is, randomised field trials involving large numbers of students, schools, and districts.

Dr. David Zyngier, has published an excellent meta-review on class size:

Noticeably, of the papers included in this review, only three authors supported the notion that smaller class sizes did not produce better outcomes to justify the expenditure (p. 3).

The highly selective nature of the research supporting current policy advice to both state and federal ministers of education in Australia is based on flawed research. The class size debate should now be more about weighing up the cost-benefit of class size reductions, and how best to achieve the desired outcomes of improved academic achievement for all children, regardless of their background. Further analysis of the cost-benefit of targeted CSR is therefore essential (p. 16).

Recognised in the education research community as the most reliable and valid research on the impact of class size reductions at that time, the Tennessee STAR project was a large series of randomised studies, followed up in Wisconsin by the SAGE project. After four years, it was clear that smaller classes did produce substantial improvement in early learning and cognitive studies, and that the effect of small class size on the achievement of minority children was initially about double that observed for majority children (p. 7).

Zyngier concludes:

Findings suggest that smaller class sizes in the first four years of school can have an important and lasting impact on student achievement, especially for children from culturally, linguistically and economically disenfranchised communities (p. 1).

Professor Ivan Snook et al, in their peer review of Hattie, also comment in detail about class size. They also discuss the STAR study reporting effect sizes did reach 0.66. They conclude:

The point of mentioning these studies is not to ‘prove’ that Hattie is ‘wrong’ but to indicate that drawing policy conclusions about the unimportance of class size would be premature and possibly very damaging to the education of children particularly, young children and lower ability children. A much wider and in depth debate is needed (p. 10).

Dr. Neil Hooley, in his review of Hattie – Making judgments about John Hattie’s effect size talks about the complexity of classrooms and the difficulty of controlling variables, on the issue of class size he says:

‘Under these circumstances, the measure of effect size is highly dubious’ (p. 44).

Dan Haesler has a detailed look at class size and other issues.

Kelvin Smythe gives insight into Hattie and class size:


Posted in Academics, Hattie | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Hattie’s research is false: Vice-Chancellors asked to investigate Part 2

The falseness of Hattie’s research is not difficult to explain; only a few aspects are complex. But everything about Hattie’s research is false except for some opinions which, while they may be true, are also false, because he claims them to be evidence-based. One reason Hattie has an appeal to teachers (along with his assertive sense of rightness) is that he talks about ideas and approaches which are at teachers’ level of interest. His tactic is to mix, amongst his mainly right-wing education ideas, a few liberal ones – that is Hattie the education politician at work, bringing teachers in, making him all the more valuable to corporates and hierarchical governments. Hattie always recognised that his status with authority and corporates was partly dependent on his hold over teachers, hence they tolerated the occasional radical swing in support for certain policies, in particular (as discussed above), national standards. 

  • Hattie took his idea for meta-analysis from the medical world (as referred to above) and applied it to the value-laden one of education in massive style. The difference between, say, a study of hospital operations involving surgical mesh and complications (as instanced above), and a study of the learning effects of an education concept involving many countries and millions of children; children of different ages and genders; children with learning disabilities; students from universities; children in classrooms to clinical situations; teachers and cultures with different understandings of that concept; studies over different time periods (but nearly always short); lessons that are formal to less so (definitely a huge bias towards the formal); comparisons but never making clear the basis for those comparisons; particular classroom influences but not acknowledging that other influences are always present in classrooms and need to be accounted for – is vast. Hattie put all those variables together without distinction, and called it a synthesis. 

The variables are out of control:

  •  Fifty-thousand studies with the estimated number of 236 million students across many countries, though with a USA bias (every country giving a different meaning to the same words – for instance, ‘whole reading’ meaning something very different in the USA to New Zealand).
  • Age: children who are younger are capable of a much more rapid improvement than older children. Many of the studies, it seems involve university students. This variable of the age of the children is of particular research significance.
  • Ethnicity: single ethnicity countries as against highly diverse exhibit particular learning characteristics.
  • Gender: no information supplied on this.
  • Schooling systems: authoritarian countries as against democratic; technocratically advanced countries as against developing ones. Authoritarian countries always have narrow, non-democratic education systems, and developing ones more formal practices.
  • Learning contexts: classrooms or laboratories – laboratory and clinical contexts, it seems, play a substantial role in the research results. 
  • Timing: how soon after the teaching was the testing was done. This variable is of particular research significance. If the testing is done shortly after the teaching, that provides bias to Hattie’s more formal, visible learning emphasis. 
  • Basis of comparison: whether the children were performing in comparison with where they were at the beginning or with a control group. Being clear about this is the foundation research building block. 
  • Influence and effect: Hattie claims that each influence has an independent effect entirely separate from context is inexplicable to orthodox researchers.
  • Student characteristics: a significant number of the results, it seems, are based on children with learning disabilities.
  • Numbers: Hattie was fantastically unreliable with numbers with the most egregious of them being how he worked out the numbers for class size.
  • Teaching styles: dominant characteristics vary from country to country but I suspect that most studies were American-based which would have provided a particular bias.
  • Teaching practices: their names have different meanings in different countries, for instance, ‘whole language’.
  • Numbers of children involved: with all the gigantic numbers involved overall, some studies involve only a handful of children (see above).
  • Parts of the curriculum: certain parts of the curriculum suit different styles of teaching; what is being taught is not made clear, but mathematics, which is often taught more formally, seems a definite emphasis.
  • Variation in aims from country to country: certain aims in education which might be of high importance to children and to particular societies might be more complex to teach and therefore take longer – for instance, ‘whole reading’ is superior to phonics in the longer term but requires patience, the same with ‘problem-based’ mathematics.
  • The affective: largely avoided as the name of the resulting book affirms. 

One of Hatties’s highly ranked influences is feedback, and like all of Hattie’s studies, is characterised by an absence of easily accessible research information detail. Hattie and his supporters put a lot of weight on this concept – but it is really just another name for teaching, made simplistic and trite in the name allocated. From my observation, the attention to Hattie-inspired feedback has led to greater teacher dominance and learning intrusion. The metaphorical characteristics of feedback are disconcerting: feed is consistent with the humanly forlorn idea of only visible learning being worthwhile, and back has the sense of haste, teacher control, and lack of subtlety, characteristic of Hattie’s education philosophy. 

We are not informed of:

 The learning contexts used

 The institutional level involved (pre-school to university)

Whether the students were in a clinical or classroom context

 The curriculum areas involved

 Whether the thinking was straightforward or complex, skill-based or cognitive, formal or affective

 How it was taught, closed or open-ended, or individual discovery

The age of the children, ethnicity, socio-economic status, or gender balance

 How long after the teaching the testing was done 

 The influence of the Hawthorne effect

 Whether the children were performing in comparison with where they were at the beginning or with a control group 

 How Hattie can explain how an influence can have an independent effect entirely separate from the context.The following paragraphs attend to the way Hattie and the education power elites worked together, to mutual advantage, to dominate school education and, in the case of primary education, left it broken and bereft of direction. 

In the 1940s, the New Zealand education system, by a series of circumstances, struck on the truth of education in a democracy which, of course, revolved around the education of the whole child. The social and political contexts for the gaining of that truth were favourable but its discovery was not inevitable, it took leadership; it took people to bring it together, to inspire, to effect clarity. Clarence Beeby and Peter Fraser, made good use of those circumstances and the advice of a number of idealistic educators, to formulate the education philosophy now called the holistic. 

The holistic organises children’s learning through dynamic main aims (to avoid fragmentation); is the interaction of the cognitive with affective; and pays sincere attention to all parts of the curriculum. My argument in The File (brought together in Attack! 132) is that the holistic, from its beginnings in the 1940s, though often criticised by politicians in the decades following, retained, until Tomorrow’s Schools, a definite and inspiring presence in classrooms. With Tomorrow’s Schools, that was to change, the structure became hierarchical, philosophy non-democratic, and curriculum formalistic. The individual and institutional leadership of Tomorrow’s Schools were to draw heavily on Hattie’s formalistic ideas in indivisible partnership with politicians, the education bureaucracy, national standards (of which Hattie was the declared architect), the education review office, and corporate advisory services. 

The holistic main aim for school education in a democracy is that school education should prepare children for life in a democracy and to support and to protect it. This main aim points to its basis in humanism which affirms the dignity of the individual and advocates democracy as a way of establishing and furthering that. It rejects authoritarian beliefs, emphasising individual freedom, responsibility, compassion, and the need for tolerance and co-operation. And it affirms that we must take responsibility for our own lives and the world in which we live. (It may be that this is the kind of education Vice-Chancellors want or wanted for their children or grandchildren. We did our best but as described we were under siege.)

The implications inherent in the holistic make clear the kind of curriculum schools should act on and the kind of experiences children should be provided with. If the aim is to prepare children for life in a democracy and to support and protect it, the holistic is the truth for school education. The aims of the holistic curriculum can be furthered, but the principles, to be holistic, remain the same. 

An example of the way the holistic is open to furthering the holistic while the principles remain the same is the way the holistic has encompassed the neuroscience-informed mindset philosophy.  This philosophy is largely consistent with the holistic – Beeby, Fraser and the holistic teachers through the following decades (mainly in the junior area) got it right, got the neuroscience right without knowing the neuroscience, got it right from knowing the children.

Hattie’s research is structured in favour of the immediate, learning steps, objectives, structure, the formal, the hierarchical, the measurable, the closed, and the visible – and against reflection, taking time, fluency, aims, the whole, variety, problem-solving, power-sharing, evaluation, openness, and the affective. Hattie not only harms in his obsession with hugeness but also in his research totality – everything is included whether for hosannas or varying degrees of damnation. I have commented above on Hattie’s propensity for incorporating ideas from other philosophies to control or corrupt those ideas. I am emphasising here the way his research totality, backed by power elites, takes oxygen from philosophies whether established or recent, to the point of suffocation. This is what happened to the holistic  – and school achievement plummeted. 

Hattie is dependent for his position on the government, ministry, education review office, universities, and corporates for protection against those who would criticise him, also to provide an unassailable platform from which to promote himself. In return, those institutions used Hattie to promote their interests. 

The interdependence between Hattie, the government, the ministry, education review office, universities, and corporates is unsavoury. Let me take you back a number of years when Hattie, with the University of Auckland, set up the Visible Learning Laboratory. The intention was to have the Laboratory travel around the country. Hattie and the University, however, had made a strategic mistake – the Laboratory had the appearance of being on its own, more reliant on the genuine willingness of schools to support him. In being, or apparently being, less protected by his political, bureaucratic, and review office support team, without their fear-inducing power over schools, the Visible Learning Laboratory was vulnerable. My website was to play a major part in destroying it. Visible Learning Laboratory went to Cognition where it became central to that corporate’s advisory services, backed, of course, by the government, ministry, review office, and national standards requirements. 

There has been a quadrangle process of malign influence on professional development in schools. The process began with the education review office – principals knew that the professional development box would be ticked off if a corporate advisory was used and double-ticked if it was related to national standards. So it was the review office, schools, corporate advisory courses, and national standards in collusion. To use independent advisers was to take a risk – so why do that? The corporates had their programmes de facto approved by the ministry and review office, and looked to communities of learning as a new source of wealth. Life for corporates and Hattie looked good.

Now it has changed: a different government, no national standards, an independent advisory to be established, review office under control for the moment, communities of learning in doubt. Without the backing of the power elite for imposition, Hattie’s status is in state of flux, but his durability and chameleon-like qualities should not be underestimated. However, things do look less promising for Hattie and his backers. Which brings me to the telling announcement by Cognition Education that Visible Learning plus (largely the Visible Learning Laboratory) has been sold to Corwin, a giant American corporate. 

Separated from his political and bureaucratic support, Cognition knew Hattie’s Visible Learning Laboratory and associated ideas were likely to be greatly reduced in value. 

But the ill-effects of Hattie’s dominance remain pervasive in system structures, school organisation, and the classroom curriculum, and need to be decisively dealt with. For the health and confidence of our democracy and our schools, a telling blow needs to be struck against Hattie’s process of taking control (based, in the first instance, on false evidence) – a process anathema to both education and democratic ideals. 

My hope is that it won’t be long before Hattie’s bubble bursts. New Zealand played a major part in the aeration, how fitting to would be for us to be involved in the de-aerating.

 I rest my argument with the Vice-Chancellors.


Our professional lives are 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 specious research. There is a nimble but superficial 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, though, one exception to this, his ability to connect to the reality of the academic market. His tactically adroit research is angled and presented in such a way as to draw teachers in with its certainty, the media with its glibness, corporates with its marketability, and governments with its promise of increased control at the cheapest rates. I have written hundreds of pages about this academic, an academic who has played such a major part in shredding the beautiful holistic education that is our heritage and culture. I have not written about him for some time and intend never to write about him again.

New Zealand academics have criticised Hattie’s research and findings. They are Ivan Snook, John Clark, Richard Harker, Anne-Marie O’Neill, John O’Neill, and Roger Openshaw.

Kelvin Smythe 2018



visiblehat, an Australian educationist, contributed this to the Comment section of Part 1, providing a compelling link to the wrongness of Hattie’s research. It is included as component part of my case to the Vice-Chancellors

 One Response to Hattie’s research is false: Vice-Chancellors asked to investigate Part 1

  1. visiblehat says:

April 15, 2018 at 12:45 pm

Thanks Kelvin, the best place for the Vice Chancellors to start is to read the 3 Meta-analyses Hattie used for the 2009 version of Visible Learning. These show, Hattie can’t average and gross misrepresentation. I contacted Gene V Glass, the inventor of Meta-analysis and author of the major study Hattie used for Class size, he commented about Hattie’s averaging – ‘Averaging class size reduction effects over a range of reductions makes no sense to me’.

Summaries of the 3 meta-analyses are here –

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Hattie’s research is false: Vice-Chancellors asked to investigate Part 1

5 April 2018                                                                                                   

 Pokai Tara                                                                                                      

The Vice-Chancellors                                                                                    

Wellington 6142

Dear Vice-Chancellors

To protect the good name of New Zealand universities, the professional integrity of schools, and the welfare of children, I ask the Vice-Chancellors of New Zealand to begin an investigation into the soundness and authenticity of John Hattie’s research – research involving 800 meta-analyses (now grown in absurdist fashion to 1,400), comprising more than 50,000 studies (now 90,000), and some 146 effect sizes (now 250), which provided the basis for the Hattie’s book, Visible Learning. 

The Vice-Chancellors have the overall responsibility for ensuring academic quality assurance, helped in carrying out that function by the Universities New Zealand’s Committee on University Academic Programmes (CUAP) or the Academic Quality Agency for New Zealand Universities (AQA) which is set up as an independent body.

My concern is that none of the variables in his research are validly isolated or under control, resulting in an academic shambles that, in being left unexposed, has had devastating consequences for teachers and children around the world, and especially New Zealand.

This writing will convey far more opinion and information than is strictly needed for the request to the Vice-Chancellors, that is because it is also being written, as is the overriding intent of all my writing, for teachers and principals as a means of keeping them informed of influences on their professional lives. As well, as regular readers will know, I am serious and sincere in what I write though I usually succumb to a levity that I find hard to resist given my general view of the world. I blame my Shadbolt genes for that element of larrikinism but I still affirm that everything I write remains serious and sincere in purpose. 

As well as writing to the Vice-Chancellors about the falseness of Hattie’s research and asking them to make a declaration as to its soundness and authenticity, I will be writing about the consequences of that research for New Zealand teachers and children and how, in alliance with powerful political and education forces, Hattie came to dominate and, resultantly, harm school education. Adults, of high social status, have acted badly in relation to Hattie’s influence, looking away, it seems, to serve their own interests and, in that way, betray a generation of children. Hattie’s research is so obviously false, so obviously against accepted ideals of the principles, purposes, and practices of universities, it suggests to me that universities are fearful of his exposure as leading to their own. Hattie, in a brochure for 2018 Australian conference, described critics of his ‘evidence-based’ research (in other words, people like me) as producers of ‘fake news’. I am returning the epithet – but in this case validly – and calling Hattie’s research ‘fake’.My assumption, given Hattie’s personality, is that he felt he could get away with it by deus ex machina and he largely has. What was threadbare was seen as gold thread. The combination of the modern obsession with certainty, and the universal striving for power, has drawn in and beguiled academics. 

Hattie, is all over the place in his research, his only consistency being in never getting it right (to be demonstrated throughout). What follows are small examples that, in themselves, should be sufficient to alert that something is afoot, something discreditable. Such examples do not happen by accident – only design. The following is just a supporting act to the full dodgy horror of the Hattie Rocky Horror show.

An academic dug deep into Hattie’s research information (his research details are extraordinarily difficult to locate) and came up with the following (there are dozens more like this):

  • Hattie’s ranking of quality of teaching: The question he put was – how important an influence was it? 

Oh my goodness! What does ‘quality’ mean? You could drive a fleet of buses through it? Such research vocabulary impropriety is a characteristic of Hattie’s research; another is the never asked yet crucial research question – in relation to or comparison with what?

Hattie is producing this research for the supposed edification of school teachers – so what is the status of the people he is asking? university students. And in their wisdom, ‘quality’ was ranked 56th out of 138 in Hattie’s league table.

As many interpretations as there can be about what quality teaching means, surely it is what teaching is about and there can really be only one ranking and that is number one.

I really feel I should say to the Vice-Chancellors, I rest my case.

But want some more little pearlers?

  • The micro-teaching influence was ranked 4th as an influence, but only came from pre-service teachers
  • Professional development was ranked 19th as an influence but drops to 48th when only school research is included
  • Formative evaluation was ranked 3rd as an influence but there were only two sets of results and both to do with special education children
  • Comprehensive interventions were ranked 7th as an influence but they only involved learning disabled children.

 Hattie arrived in New Zealand and, with his coruscating charisma and his ranging research, bedazzled universities with the prospect of boundless income and prestige. If there were any reservations, they were probably allayed with the thought that if his research was good enough for Toronto, it was good enough for them. But what happened at Toronto itself needs investigation – something occurred there in relation to his research that must surely have been highly irregular. The interesting thing is that he came to Toronto with his research well underway: where did he come from and why did he go to Toronto? (Probably baseless suspicion, but I’m puzzled at how Hattie’s research got through the supervision process.)

I participated with an academic science group at Waikato University that had, as one of its functions, examining post-graduate theses in development. Just as in a novel there is always a plot weakness the writer has to find a way to glide over, camouflage, or manoeuvre around; there is always in research an argument weakness the researcher has to deal with, but, in the case of a research, the ethical response is for a researcher to be honest and open and address it according to academic convention and, in that way, give integrity to the whole.

If Hattie’s research had come to our academic science group it would have been laughed out of town. His wasn’t an argument weakness; it was a black hole. Hattie’s research is a battered, articulated truckload of rubbish being presented as a caravan of giant gold and silver carriages transformed from pumpkins.

Hattie based his research on a form of large-scale medical research which deals with only a few variables – always kept under tight control – for instance, the effects of the use of surgical gauze – but in Hattie’s case he just went for the very large-scale aspect, gargantuanly large, and encompassing the totality of school education. He inexorably lost control of the variables, though he freely allocated names to them which, to fantastical confusion, as part of that loss of control, have different meanings and expressions within and across education systems (see above).

Because the research was so confused and impossible of following or understanding, it provided Hattie with considerable imaginary scope for explaining what it meant, giving him the freedom to produce a particular kind of Holy Grail, one for which he was supremely fitted, that of exciting narrative but research rubbish.  He was able to deliver the research as the evidence-based research to end all evidence-based research, as certainty beyond dispute nay even quibble, as without the complexities heretofore considered inherent in education given the otherwise complexities of human behaviour – thereby setting up a generation of mini-Hattie-messiahs in schools and conference halls to deliver the truth.

When I took science with children, I always stressed as part of the investigatory process, that any result, to be valid, needed to be able to be replicated. 

This has never been done with Hattie’s research. 

Perhaps it is post-modern. And if so it might not matter the numbers being wrong. When pursued and pushed (in particular by British academics), he, at last, grudgingly admitted that due to a school level mathematical error, half his figures were wrong. I don’t make a big thing of this because the other half are mathematically correct in accordance with his weird manner of education thinking. But this mathematical error does reveal slack doctoral supervision and a cavalier attitude towards research.

I was to spend weeks going through his writings to try to identify any acknowledgement by Hattie of the nonsense of his research, any reasons he could give for his research having no control of variables. I was to find only one reference:

‘No worry, it all balances out.’

It is post-modern. 

However, I’ll push on.

In 2009, I wrote my first formal comment about Hattie (‘Hattie fails to follow through’):

‘If they are in, they are in for years. John Hattie’s condemnation of national standards in today’s Sunday Star-Times (November 8, 2009) might have been unreserved but national standards are still in. And Hattie would know that: he’s had his predictable bob each way. At the end of it, his university commercial arm will still have its lucrative contracts, and he will still have his relations with the government, at the same time he will be seen as a hero by some.’

‘Not following through on his condemnation was entirely predictable. We all have to get a clear idea about Hattie’s policies and personality, because his vision will be the dominating one in education for the decades ahead. He should be understood and confronted now. His ‘research’ findings, have already had an effect. The head of Treasury has cemented into government policy the idea of no more reductions in class sizes.’ 

Hattie is entirely predictable if you consider his behaviour in the light of a particular personality category. At the height of the national standards debate a large number of academics got together to sign a petition. He agreed on the condition that I stop writing about him (‘attacking’ I think was the word he used). Another academic approached me and I readily agreed because I knew Hattie’s forbearance level would not last a month and it didn’t.

There is a disconcerting sense of the academic huckster about Hattie:

  • It is well-beyond the time when he should have stopped cashing in on the 2008 Times Educational Supplement reference to his research being ‘the equivalent to the search for the Holy Grail [hence my reference above]. It was repeated on the cover of his book and it has been quoted again and again in subsequent years. The reviewer was no doubt carried away by the certainty and sweep of the book and the exciting narrative, but he wasn’t, of course, in a position to ascertain the research’s validity. A Holy Grail would not have half the mathematics wrong and all the research.
  • He should stop boasting about the size of the study. If a study is wrong, the bigger it is, the more wrong it is. I am looking at advertising for the 2018 ACER Research Conference, Hattie has written that his book ‘is believed to be the world’s largest evidence-based study into the factors that improve student learning.’ Oh for pity’s sake!
  • And there is, indeed, something Trumpean about his approach to education, in that same Conference advertising he says: ‘there is ongoing backlash against evidence-based research (fake news)’. The Karmel Oration, for which he is the orator, has the heading ‘The role of educator in the fake news world’. I ask the Vice-Chancellors and readers to adjudge my criticisms (see below) as fake or not.
  • Everything he says points to himself and his sense of entitlement and in doing so he comes across as sulky or trite. In that Conference advertising he says: There is ‘continued debate over inputs to the system without references to outputs.’ Interpreted that means I did that for you with Visible Learning – now I am getting criticism for it. Also: ‘This Oration will explore the notion of expertise and evidence and how expertise is anchored in evaluative thinking.’ That is both sulky, self-centred, and trite. It means you peasants in classrooms do what experts tell you – we know what we are doing so keep your notions to yourself; and how trite: ‘expertise is anchored in evaluative thinking’? Frankly, I think the expertise boat to which his evaluative thinking is anchored is full of holes.

To act on this request for Hattie’s research to be investigated, the Vice-Chancellors would need to be convinced of Hattie’s continuing connections with New Zealand universities. These have reduced but he remains an Honorary Professor of Education at Auckland University and, more directly to the matter of quality assurance in universities is the widespread use of Visible Learning (and accompanying research) in university courses. (The irony has not escaped me that Hattie was once chair of the Performance-based Research Fund.) 

I am a former primary school teacher and principal, teachers college lecturer, and senior inspector of schools – when Tomorrow’s Schools began I resigned from the formal education system to visit schools on invitation, speak to teachers, and to write. I have visited schools in some kind of official or invitational capacity for 51 years. 

I have sent, in association with this communication, a complimentary copy of my latest publication, The File, which sets out my expression of the holistic as against Hattie’s formalistic. I reiterate, that under no circumstances am I advocating that the formalistic should not be a choice in class- and lecture rooms – all I am seeking is fairness. 

When Hattie first came to my attention it was clear that his formal, teacher-directed, and highly structured ideas on education were antithetical to mine. This, in itself, was of no immediate concern to me, simply another quantitative with his or her way of looking at school education. 

But Hattie was a phenomenon with a sense of absolute certainty about the rightness of his ‘evidence-based’ findings and the ideas generated from them. He became central to the education functioning of Auckland University and New Zealand universities generally, the Treasury, the government, the education review office, corporate advisory, the advice many senior teachers and principals found accessible to deliver, and national standards.

None of this, of course, is evidence of any lack of integrity in his research but, on examination by his peers, if his research is found to lack soundness and authenticity then his position as New Zealand’s controlling ideological academic would be reduced to manageable proportions.

Hattie would dispute his research as being ideological because he would describe it as ‘evidence-based’ and therefore, in his thinking, the truth. If some other evidence-based findings appear, there is a propensity to appropriate opposing ideas with the effect of corrupting them. An example is the evidence coming from neuroscience, in reality it produces evidence directly opposed to Hattie’s evidence, indeed, is crunching support for the holistic – but Hattie uses the word ‘mindset’ with accompanying words like ‘growth’ as in ‘growth mindset’. 

Hattie’s research and Visible Learning, and subsequent manic screeds of explanations about effect size and their rankings, comprising slides, presentations, updates, and mountains of ideas in flashy array, serve to overwhelm education systems to Hattie’s slippery advantage. His research, in being about the totality of education, gives, in Hattie’s mind, the license, freedom and say-so, to comment, criticise, elevate, and appropriate the totality of that education. There is a definite bias in what he promotes and demotes – he promotes education ideas that will appeal to conservative governments, for instance, he gives a low rating to smaller classes; and in classroom learning, he promotes practices that are formal, for instance, phonics instruction as against whole language. But the two concepts of class size and whole language, for validity, require a different kind of research, first of all, of course, authentic research, then a kind of research that is patient, extending to the longer term, and is based on the principle that what is going on in children’s minds is not always immediately or directly visible.  

In an article in the Herald (February 6, 2010), Andrew Laxon writes ‘Bill English sought Hattie’s views when he originally developed the party’s national standards policy and Key took the same route, drawing inspiration from Hattie’s advice that a standards-based approach could work wonders in even the poorest schools.’

In that same article Andrew Laxon writes: ‘Hattie’s sworn enemy in all educational matters, former school inspector-turned-blogger Kelvin Smythe is far more forthright.’

‘He believes that Hattie has worked hand in glove with the Government on the system and claims his influence is so great that other academics are too scared to speak up against him.’

I commented: ‘John Key said John Hattie was the architect of the introduction of national standards into New Zealand. He became the overwhelmingly dominant academic supporting government policies. To those of us who wanted truth in education, who wanted progressive policies, who wanted genuine discussion, Hattie was an academic miasma. He was everywhere. His research was the rationale for government policy and in combination with the government and a bewitched media, a devastatingly formidable force to confront.’

But his research, as I hope to convincingly demonstrate, is false.

I know some will think such a charge ridiculous? Hattie, a former University of Auckland professor, producer of the Holy Grail research, dominant with the previous government, still highly influential with education institutions and pervasive throughout the education system, presently head of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, the leading academic voice in Australia, consultant to Pearson, the go-to academic world-wide.

Just as Fukuyama declared the end of history so, in a way, was Hattie’s research declared the end of education research.

But that would be strange wouldn’t it given the name of the book of his research: Visible Learning? A book of research that concerns itself only with that which is visible? A perfect model for the neoliberal commodification of education but an imperfect one for research on children and their learning.

Continued in Part 2

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We’ve turned the classroom into a spaceship Part 2

It was interesting to listen and watch the reactions of the group members when choices had to be made from their own submissions.

By trial, error, and much discussion we established a lay-out for the spaceship.

This stage of the process was very demanding.

One of the groups was having considerable difficulty in organising as a group because of personality conflicts.

As I had decided to step in only as a last resort, I mainly watched.

All the crew members needed a lot of help in pursuing their tasks.

I can remember in a typical session having to work with Charlotte on her word processing skills; with Cathy and Sharky on locating resources for the radio telescope; and Aaron in interpreting data on the silicon chip, and so on.

Desks and tables were re-arranged to form the basic spaceship design.

It was a tiring time, compounded by the children becoming rather unsettled at seeing their physical surroundings being disturbed.

My response to a tiring day was to make the next day’s briefing session short, snappy, and purposeful.

The crew always looked taken aback after viewing the Voyager videos and other space videos. Each viewing brought more information – indeed, rather too much. But how the videos fired their imaginations!

Then came the time for the various specialists to gather in their compartments to begin designing, constructing, and gathering the equipment necessary to carry out their tasks.

I stressed the need for them to be very thorough in this aspect of the spaceship’s construction.

There was a resurgence of interest at this stage.

I remember one particularly interesting briefing session when we discussed red dwarf stars, white dwarf stars, interstellar space, globules, galaxies, and universes. It all came tumbling out of the children. The idea of the comparative distances transfixed them.

There was still the requirement at briefing sessions to discuss with the crew the importance of working co-operatively in all aspects of the construction.

We would occasionally devote an entire day to construction. There was, for instance, a particular need to push ahead with the console units in each area of the spaceship.

The Sci group worked more cohesively than the others. However, they had the advantage of having a smaller area to equip.

The Medic group was having difficulties. There is a definite gender antagonism evident despite Beta Medic’s own personal will to get on with the job.

There were times when we all felt very much in need of a break from cardboard, glue, and paints.

It was quite a moment when we had the viewing window in place. That was thanks to Matthew, Shayne, and Sharky.

The introduction of binary numbers to the s. 4 group (when the older children were at manual) was an exciting experience. They had little difficulty with the concept.

Swiftly, Ged, Nathan, and Sam had established the notion of the pattern repeating and were racing ahead.

Ra did his usual, ‘Oh, I know all about it’ and wandered off, while Charlotte and Sharky persevered to establish better understanding.

The listening to space music appealed to the children – for some the appeal was profound.

One group was deployed to begin putting up the wires for holding the interior walls.

The spaceship construction put considerable demands on their ability to do such things as measure, understand angles, estimate, and solve mathematical problems.

What a scene of frantic activity some of the days were – painting, gluing, hammering, and sawing!

To increase their typing skills, the Collators had to practise daily.

The Medics slowly, painfully, started to get on with the construction of showers, washing machines, and clothes driers.

The briefing sessions were now mainly about specialist groups reporting progress.

Navs and Co-ords were much occupied with setting up the electronic aspects of the control room.

This required them to rummage through the school science supply to purchase batteries and to bring bits and pieces from home. One child gained materials from a visit to the dump.

The Sparks at one stage felt rather stressed as they were a person short all of one crucial construction week.

Beta Sparks’ spasmodic attention span caused quite a degree of frustration within the group.

On Day 22 (out of a planned 27 days) we made a start on the outside walls of the spaceship.

As the walls went up in the various areas we were able to begin positioning the consoles in their final places.

The main materials – insulation foil and bubble pack had to be carefully measured and cut.

Another group worked on the problem of the doorway in from the air locks.

Sci group at this stage had collected its equipment and busily worked on making its lab operational.

Collators had their compartment looking very organised – labels everywhere and a carefully ordered filing system on display.

Several crew members were feeling rather low because they feared they wouldn’t be ready in time for public inspection on Pet Day.

There was a confrontation, caused by envy, over who had batteries and who hadn’t. Time to lay off them for a bit.

Beta Nav and Co-ord worked on the door frame for the air lock.

Gamma and Beta Medics had at last solved the problem of the pantry construction.

Meanwhile Alpha Nav was busy with the shower cubicle.

Alpha Sparks completed the computer.

The other Navs and Co-ords completed, as far as possible, the control panel. This was necessary as the glazing for the viewing window needed to be filled.

Alpha and Beta Scis made a large poster about the spaceship for parental guidance on Pet Day.

Gamma Sci and Beta Coll helped to put the computer into the Collators’ room.

Alpha and Gamma Coll worked on the sleeping quarters.

We decided not to carry on with the geodesic dome as the construction problems became too much for us to handle.

From the way the crew worked, there was no doubt that the ability to follow instructions, whether written or spoken, had greatly improved.

By Day 26 we all had wall displays in place and mission statements for all sections.

Beta Medic came back with first aid supplies from the district nurse.

The turning on of the control panel flashing lights was a great moment. Our morale soared.

The crew was taken out of the spaceship while Ewan and Mr Mack put the ceiling of the control room into place.

A sense of quiet excitement pervaded the groups as the big day drew near.

We assembled for our last pre-flight briefing. 

There was still much to do:

• The ceiling of the air lock had to be finished

• All tape-decks, earphones, and walkie-talkies checked

• Sleeping quarters tidied up

• Pantry stacked

• Personal tote trays ordered

• Shared room set up to make writing materials readily available

• Galley area fully cleared

• All areas checked for labelling.

It was all hands on deck.

And when it seemed finished, we sat down together exhausted and quietly discussed crew responsibilities.

A lovely sense of togetherness.

A swim, a video, and we were ready. 

Network’s visit to the spaceship came three weeks later. By that time the children were comfortable and assured in the routines they followed.

After each shift of 80 minutes was completed, children would do other tasks – some related to the space project, others to regular school work.

The children and teacher went about what was expected of them in an unselfconscious way – there was a job to be done, challenges to be met. All involved needed to concentrate on what they were doing – they needed to concentrate to complete the job, meet the challenges.

For instance, consider the walkie-talkie conversation Network encountered when he first entered the spaceship.

The following is how it was conveyed to the Gamma Collator and recorded on the computer.


22.20 hours 66Ox1O99 we are approximately R-18.

Alpha Sparks and Co-ord repairing viewing screen.

Thirty minutes from black hole.

Sci prepared to write data on journey through the black hole.

Countdown in seconds.

We are rumbling, switching to emergency power.

We have some damage in the lab.

Medic treating Collator Beta for a severe cut about the eye.

We are now 13 minutes into the black hole, there is no ship disintegration but we have vibration and rocking. We are being sucked.

A new speed, R+20×1099. We are not experiencing any problems in the buffer zones.

01.00 hours, Sparks received electric shock and is now unconscious receiving medical attention from Gamma


We are now two hours into the black hole.


Injury to Sci. Broken collar bone.

Nav has observed debris on video scan.

Beta Collator and Beta Sparks repairing damage to radio equipment following Gamma Sparks’ injury.

03.00 hours Earth to Voyager Ill.

We are proud you have made it through the black hole.

Nav reports green debris again. Sci is identifying.

Identified as plastic.

Ship continuing to be sucked at a steady rate. There is no panic with the crew.

Still have vibrating and tumbling but all crew strapped securely.

05.00 hours Beta Nav copying history for Mr Smythe.

05.30 hours visitors leaving ship.

Farewell message: Congratulations on a job well done.

Ship now on automatic.


Network rang Dorothy two weeks after the visit.

Yes we took it down yesterday. They are grieving.

To counter this feeling we had a party – a very quiet one I must say. But it provided a sense of occasion and helped them to get over their feeling of loss.

Before we took it down, we asked the junior room in, and involved those children in a fully operational flight.

It was quite an experience. A kind of celebration.

The room looks so bare without the space trappings.

Network asked about the responses of some particular children.

The one who was great on the practical side, but found it difficult to work with his imagination, is quiet, very quiet. He is still absorbing an experience that has changed his way of thinking.

The two who fooled around for quite a while? Well, if the practical one is quiet, these two are absolutely still.

They can hardly believe that school could offer something so absorbing.

The whole winding down had to be handled sensitively.

Thanks Dorothy, and please give my regards to the children.

And that was that.

Network asks: What is there in this for teachers?

Is it just a description of something that very few teachers could or would aspire to?

Does its occurrence in a small country school mean it has little significance for teachers in larger schools?

Is the conservative educational thinking sweeping the country in the wake of Picot likely to be too much for such imaginative initiatives?

Network says there is something in this for all teachers and all kinds of schools. As for the conservative educational trends – what better time for primary teachers to act decisively in the interests of their professionalism and the children they teach.

However, it is the principles that should be responded to, not the details or scope.

The principles are:

• The need for concentration and sincerity of purpose by all those involved

• The need for a considerable amount of information to be gained so that the dramatic involvement can be credibly and validly sustained

• The need for much child-centred initiative and co-operative planning and action

• The need to integrate social and academic learnings

• The need for ample time.

The scale of this project, however, shouldn’t be seen as a standard. For instance, a two week planning and construction period, and a two week functioning period might be more practicable in most instances.

While the atmospheres of small country schools do, indeed, lend themselves to such sustained imaginative teaching and learning – any school can make a good fist of such a project. Teachers should take their school circumstances into account and start from there.

A great range of themes should be considered, for instance, a hospital, a fire station, a ship, an aeroplane, a police station.

Teachers should also consider other kinds of themes, say from literature, for instance, Winnie the Pooh, Treasure Island, or Alice in Wonderland.

Or dilemma situations, for instance, being lost in the bush and search and rescue, being involved in an earthquake, or cast up on an island.

Or historical situations – for instance, Captain Cook’s first landing in New Zealand, or the semi-fictional narrative from a Roderick Finlayson bulletin (for instance, The Coming of the Musket).

The importance of teachers tailoring the idea to make it appropriate to the children, to themselves, and to the overall school circumstance is stressed.

There are two key requirements for successful sustained dramatic involvement: The gaining by the children of information on the theme concerned; and an unremitting insistence on concentration and sincerity while participating.

However, there is also a need by teachers to develop a sensible anticipation of children’s responses.

All will not be sweetness and light throughout.

The unimaginative children will feel threatened and seek to stay in the immediate and practical; the perfectionists will be reluctant to extend themselves; the emotionally cramped will feel self-conscious and play it up; chauvinists will resent the initiatives of the girls and put them down; the isolates will flit; and those with a dour view of life will be wet blankets. Teachers must prepare themselves for such behaviours. The attitudinal and cognitive challenge of these situations, their length of time, and their relative informality increase the likelihood that such behavioural dispositions, if they are within the children, will surface.

That, however, is a great part of the value of such projects. These behaviours occur but the learning experience is often more sustained than the children’s ability to sustain them.

Such projects, of course, do more than counter negative capacities, they extend children’s positive ones. There are remarkable opportunities for children to initiate, lead, follow, co-operate, make decisions, learn to cope with complexity, work to schedule, organise, improvise, solve problems, enjoy a sense of togetherness, display imagination, and learn to cope with disappointment.

In the light of the possibility of these kinds of learning it might seem anti-climactic to refer to cognitive learning. It is important, however, that this is given very close attention. Cognitive learning should be seen as an essential part of the holistic learning that participation in such projects should provide. The great advantage being, not only the opportunity to develop new cognitive learnings, but also to apply them.

The children should learn, and in a well-based project will learn, much new information from various curriculum areas. They will learn ways of gaining information, presenting information, writing for a variety of purposes, and applying understandings – in the spaceship case especially mathematical and scientific.

There will also be available wonderful sources of ideas for aesthetic expression – art, craft, music, as well as, of course, writing and drama.

And should teachers embark on such a learning journey in darkening educational times like these?

Network says yes. Such projects might not fit the unimaginative, pinched perception of education by the lock-stepping, input, output, data-gatherers, but it is this very lack of fit that makes such projects so much needed, so symbolically important.

New Zealand primary education has been an inspiration to the world – this inspiration will only be maintained by those in primary education acting on the long-established principles of Kiwi primary teaching – not by resorting to failed models of teaching imported from overseas.

There are primary teachers all over New Zealand with the aspirations and abilities of Dorothy Wharehoka. Now is the time, more than ever, to act confidently, and proceed with imaginative teaching.

And when you do, please write to Network – write of your successes, your set-backs. We could then share them with others in a spirit of mutual self-help.

Kelvin Smythe 


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We’ve turned the classroom into a spaceship Part 1

It was late 1989, and this was one of my last undertakings before I resigned from the prospect of Tomorrow’s Schools to argue for something very different, an alternative symbolised by what follows.

We’ve turned the classroom into a spaceship. Would you like to come and visit us?

It was a call from Dorothy Wharehoka, principal of Colville, a three-teacher school on the western coast of the Coromandel Peninsula.

The road north of Thames wended its way around the coast line – pohutukawa and the sea on one side, high cliffs and hills on the other. To the west the Auckland isthmus, just a blur; in front the remoteness and stillness of the peninsula.

It was a wrench to have to turn away from the sea and face the hills.

A tortuously climbing and descending road – and there was Colville.

A hall, general store, a craft-centre, a few houses and, of course, the school. 

The Walkie-talkie crackled.

‘Reporting flying rocks,’ the Captain (the teacher, but on other occasions Co-ordinators carried out this function) announced.

‘Investigating now,’ Nav (the Navigator) responded.

‘Any samples for Sci (the Scientist)?’

‘Not yet.’

‘Will you please check and organise?’

‘There does seem to be some rubbish.’

‘And identification of the debris?’

‘Seems earth debris.’

‘I can see through it.’

‘You should recover some and hand over to Sci.’

‘Captain to Collator.’


‘Report from Nav.’

‘From visual identification the debris is transparent.’

‘Nav to Captain.’


‘Should I go out?’

‘No – send someone else.’

‘While recovery occurring, show the visitor our process.’

The Nav starts to move away from controls.

Captain – sharply: ‘Make sure your instruments are on automatic before you do so.’

Nav looks embarrassed.

‘Sci to Collator.’

‘Rock identified.’

‘It’s plastic.’ 

Dominating the room was the control room shaped with foil, polystyrene, and a painted mural which could be seen through the viewing window.

The mural and materials eerily reflected the panel lights as they flicked on and off. Hunched over the panel the Navigator was intent on her task.

The Captain sent out orders to the crew on the shift.

In the communication centre, the duty radio technician (Sparks) was receiving messages on a walkie-talkie.

Beside Sparks was a fax (a constructed one) and a typewriter.

Opposite the communications centre a Collator was putting the day’s events on record using the word processor.

Next down from the collating room were the sleeping quarters. Four sleeping bags were propped upright for the purpose.

At the back of the room on the other side a Medic was tidying the galley. A washing machine, shower, store, and microwave had been constructed. Dehydrated food filled the galley cupboards.

Next up from the galley, a patient was receiving treatment from a Medic in the sickbay.

First aid equipment was neatly stored on the shelves, a blood pressure gauge hung on a hook, beside it various charts.

In the laboratory, a Scientist (Sci) was working on report of a rock that had been handed to her for identification. Microscopes, sample bottles, and trays cluttered the bench. A plastic container held samples of rocks to help in any identification that was required.

In the passage-way running through the spaceship, two crew members were using the listening post, four were reading, three were working on a project, and five were being prepared by a Medic for a fitness session.

Network was able to take a crew member away from her busy schedule to talk to her about her experiences in the construction and running of the spaceship.

‘I think the teacher came up with the idea.’

It started with us doing a study on pioneers in space and we were asked to list, in five minutes, as many ways of communicating as possible.

Some questions arose from that:

• How do you get power?

• What makes a computer go?

We did studies in groups about the various kinds of communication.

The study for my group was radio telephone – its invention, the nature of the technology.

We were asked to do logbooks of what we did each day. They were written in the morning mainly – but also for homework.

All sorts of things came into the study, for instance, using the conversion chart to turn fractions into decimal numbers and percentages.

We knew we were building up to turning the room into a spaceship.

To decide the name we had a vote.

Lots of boys wanted it to be called Steinlager but good sense prevailed and we called it Voyager III.

Everybody made a plan of the spaceship to scale. Some people worked together. A few of the plans were presented as dioramas.

We took a few ideas from each of the plans. Groups were then formed – Alpha, Beta, and Gamma.

Each group had a Co-ordinator who was responsible for the smooth running of each shift; a Navigator responsible for keeping the ship on course; a Sparks to receive and send messages; a Medic for fitness and nutrition; a Scientist who did the lab work; and a Collator who put all the data into the computer.

Some of them said, ‘Oh I don’t want to do that’, and so on, but they’ve buckled down to it fairly well.

We really have two groups to work in – the shift group and our specialist group.

The other groups have gone smoothly but, unfortunately, we’ve got both the class clowns in one of my groups.

Susie and I really work hard. We’re trying to bring the two boys in, but it’s really hard.

For the parents it was a sort of surprise. When I told mum she said ‘Wow!’

She thought it was really good.

‘That’ll be excellent for communication skills and how to get on with one another.’

First of all we put tables in place. We had to measure from the roof to the floor to get the upward constructions right.

Five centimetres represents one metre on the plan.

The first tables were the three for the controls.

Originally we had bunks for sleeping but we found they took too much room, so we put in upright sleeping bags.

Imagine our surprise when we found that’s the way they really do their sleeping on spaceships.

I’m a Medic so with the other Medics we scrubbed the floor of the galley. As Medics we look after the food side of things too.

Michael and Tom more or less started with making a microwave.

One of the boys I work with is quite sexist.

‘We’ll do that,’ he says. ‘You’re not good enough to do it, and so on.’

It seemed like the boys were doing most of it, or trying to do it.

I started getting bored.

‘What can I do?’

‘I don’t know.’

So I went and made up the fitness chart. I got it from books.

Meanwhile, they were making the pantry.

Making the fitness charts was quite hard.

We all helped to paint the pantry.

They’d made a washing machine by that time.

I, however, made a shower. Some plastic from home was the main material.

On the whole, Mrs W. accumulated the materials to build the basic construction. We brought the bits and pieces that went within it.

All this time the other groups got together to build their construction – the Scientists, Sparks, and so on.

We all had a hand in the mural you can see out the viewing window. All of us felt very proud of that.

I think some of the walkie-talkies came from the Colville Action Group. The bubbly material is great for various purposes.

We’ve been going about four weeks.

What happens each day depends on who is in control.

After eighty minutes there is a change around.

Alpha, for instance, does research; Gamma does some regular school activities for rest and recreation – reading, listening to music, listening to tape, doing fitness; and Beta in control.

The Medic in the groups takes the fitness for rest and recreation.

The teacher lets us know what other things we had to do during the day, but we can do them in any order.

One of the boys is something of a perfectionist. That’s his trouble. He’s never satisfied with what he’s done. I think something is excellent. He doesn’t see it that way and gets irritable.

He’s settling down a bit now.

Arguments come up from time to time.

I was holding a bracket and he grabbed it off me.

‘Here I’ll hold that.’

‘Tom,’ I said. ‘I know how to hold that.’

And I grabbed it back again.

The main benefit as far as I’m concerned is that we’ve had to learn to work with people we don’t usually work with.

And we’ve gained a lot of new knowledge; we’ve used our mathematics; been able to do things for ourselves; learnt typing skills; and learnt how to use the library better.

If we did another one next year, and I think we should do one each year, people would learn to get on with things quicker.

People wouldn’t fool around for so long. They were really just nervous about not being able to do what was needed.

One of the children is a wanderer, a ‘planet’.

‘Stop being a planet,’ we say.

The whole thing is very demanding.

And I think Michael and Tom have learnt something about me and Susie, and we’ve learnt something about them.

It’s all very demanding though.

You have to concentrate.

When you are on shift you have to get into it – real decisions have to be made, and fast sometimes.

And when you are on other things, rest and recreation, for instance, there’s work to be done. 

Network then talked with the teacher, Dorothy Wharehoka.

In the first stage it was a matter of research and gathering information.

They did:

• Space fact quizzes

• Viewing of space videos

• Library research

• Related mathematical understandings

• A mural to scale of the solar system on the netball court

• Story writing

• A project on space pioneers

• Communications through space

• The painting of the viewing window mural

• Log books.

The big day was on a Wednesday towards the end of September. The crew assembled in the temporary conference room. By a process of elimination ballots, the name of our spaceship was chosen and our destination decided upon.

We were Voyager III, and our destination was to go through a black hole and into another solar system.

We would travel as far and as well as our imagination would allow.

Before we did the solar system on the netball court, the children were somewhat sceptical about information concerning the size and positioning of the sun.

However, by the time the ground mural was complete they were talking excitedly about the vastness of it all.

There were some initial fears that not everyone would get a fair go at the painting. But everything settled down.

The programme each day was for one group to work on the space ship planning while the remaining crew members did work sheets, their individual log entries, the fitness programme, or the pioneers in space studies.

At times we were behind with our log books, so we often set aside time to concentrate on them.

It was interesting to listen to the group as they endeavoured to record just exactly what did happen the week before.

We also read together, for instance, we enjoyed My Place in Space – a very beautiful, yet funny, clever, and factual book about space.

After this stage of the activity much of the work had to be teacher-directed in how to go about it.

Often what started as an independent assignment developed into a shared activity.

Ra and Sharky put together a co-operative proposal, and so did Aaron and Shayne.

Another interesting aspect was the intense concentration of some of the groups as they worked.

During the briefing sessions, challenging questions would be raised.

For instance, how to provide toilet facilities – several children were able to answer this question from the information they gained from their reading; or what type of food supply was used – this led to a discussion of dehydrated foods; or the continuing, unanswered problem of water.

At another briefing we established a communication routine:

• Say name of person to gain their attention

• Wait 1-2 seconds before relaying the message to allow them to tune in

• Speak clearly and distinctly to allow listener to follow the message.

There was a lot of attention to converting fractions to decimals especially in designing the spaceship.

They decided (by vote) the mural should be the solar system as seen through the black hole.

The arrival of a set of technology and space books from the National Library Service provided a fillip.

Matthew ordered them and catalogued them when they arrived.

Crew members had a number of reading sessions to absorb as much information as possible.

At some of the briefing sessions I put the hard word on them to meet their commitments in their log books, reading, mathematics assignments, and communication studies.

They were continually making discoveries in their reading about the nature of such things as the black hole or the silicon chip.

It became time to establish the shift crews and their functions – Alpha, Beta, and Gamma with their Coordinators, Navigators, Sparks, Medics, Scientists, and Collators.

This was a stimulus to extend the scope of the communication studies.

The shifts embarked on some group research:

• Alpha: Telegrams, telephones, telescopes

• Beta: Video, radio, radio telescopes

• Gamma: Silicon chips, television, radar.

We needed to know the locality of some black holes.

Ged and Nathan got in touch with the Auckland Astronomical Society and information was sent to them.

We found out there was a black hole near Cygnus so we started plotting a course.

The imaginary stories on what our newly found planet would be like were variable in quality – about in line with their varying depth of imagination.

After much discussion at a number of briefing sessions, the control-conference room was mainly based on Aaron and Shayne’s ideas.


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Inquiry learning: Where is the science? Where is the social studies?

I am concerned that too many children reach secondary school lacking flexibility in thinking and interest in ideas. My philosophy is for children to become intensely involved in learning based on the interaction between the cognitive and the affective (which is the holistic). That interaction is written or implied on nearly every page of The File. Teachers have long known, now confirmed by neuroscience, that the cognitive-affective interaction is fundamental to powerful learning, yet why is so much learning being undertaken without that preparation of children’s minds?

All curriculum activity should aim to provide an education experience of the sort that transforms (or is intended eventually to transform) children intellectually, aesthetically, ethically, and reflectively. Such experience takes children back to two fundamental cultural breakthroughs – the way things are, are not necessarily the way things are or should be; and an individual’s place in it is not predetermined, and from that, the realisation of ‘I am’ and the capacity to think, imagine, appreciate, and appraise. In a sense, the individual becomes of the world he or she lives in and a step beyond it. Leading to three questions continually to be asked, wrestled with, and answered, but never concluded, they are: Who am I? Why are we living this way? How can we make things better? It is this process that puts all curriculum areas, and the digital, into context, a democratic one – transforming the main purposes of everything that occurs to prepare children for life in a democracy and to support and to protect it.

Does what happens in your classroom or, if a principal, your school, have such aspirations? My concern, in particular, is that science and social studies are being seriously hindered as vehicles for such aspirations by the vacuity of inquiry learning.

In the mid-90s, with the introduction of computers, and the realisation that inquiry learning in social studies and science was a near perfect fit for computer use, came the collapse of science and social studies. The test for whether that has occurred in a classroom programme, or a school, is to pose the question: Where is the science? Where is the social studies? For science to be science and social studies to be social studies there must be cohesion – cohesion that comes from a dynamic main aim for each of the curriculum areas; from the interaction of the cognitive with the affective; from the regularity of the curriculum areas being taken; from the class being set up, motivated, and guided by the teacher; and from the open-endedness of the practice. There is an even higher aim for social studies and science topics (as for all curriculum area topics), that of being transformational, in other words, seeing the world in a different and insightful way.

Science whether just as a study skill or as science has all but disappeared from primary schools. Social studies-type topics are everywhere but very rarely is there any social studies.

The structure, as a guide, for valid science:

The main aim: To establish scientific truth using the principles of scientific investigation.

The question (or hypothesis): The question used to guide the investigation.

What I know now: The child records all he or she knows about the question. If the child already knows the answer, then there is no point in investigating it further. The teacher can also at this stage make a judgement as to whether it is possible for the learner to investigate it in the time available. Many topics like volcanoes and dinosaurs lend themselves to general study-skills rather than investigation processes.

What I did: This is the vital stage and what differentiates science from point-of-view? It is a step-by-step record of what actually happened; it can be in diary or note-taking form. It records the observing, testing, and trying out of the question. The failures as well as the successes should be recorded.

My answer now: This should answer the question that guides the investigation. It is the conclusion reached on the basis of the evidence above. Are the conclusions reached validated by the evidence? Can the methods be replicated to reach the same or similar results?

The process can be varied but the values of open-endedness, curiosity, and research integrity should be a constant.

Take the school-wide science experience at Morrinsville School (Attack! 131) as another way to use those science investigation principles – Shay Noonan said:

What started out as a discussion at a board of trustees meeting on the topic of sugary drinks and healthy drinking, evolved into a range of diverse science experiences for our children.

At the subsequent staff meeting I asked teachers to give consideration to creating a set of activities to help children explore ideas about the school’s drinking fountains.

I knew there was a possibility that it would veer off to a language experience rather than a science one. But my catch cry in response, as ever, would be ‘show me the science’.

Teachers were asked to identify the science in children’s activities. To frame a viewpoint, teachers informally collaborated within their teams, or with colleagues, to identify science elements within potential activities the children might engage in. Teachers came up with ideas like children gathering information; sharing their ideas; interpreting what they were observing; surmising about things they observe, intuit, hear, smell, touch, and taste.

The expectation was that children would make their own suggestions about how to undertake their observations; make up stories about what they had observed; and work out ways of telling those to others.

And so it began.

Then there is: Show me the social studies.

The following is how I described social studies purposes and practice when I was teaching.

The main aim was: To develop in children a sympathetic and valid understanding of their own and other people’s way of life, both in New Zealand and elsewhere, in the present and in the past – the main purpose being to help children to be at ease with, to gain a feeling for, and to appreciate, individual and cultural difference.

And my overview of practice: Social studies learning is primarily about challenging children’s existing attitudes; challenging the stereotypes children build up about other people, other groups of people, and themselves. The way to challenge those stereotypes is to get children close to the lives of people – to illuminate those people’s lives – and their own. Social studies is not primarily about studying individual and cultural difference, it is about getting children to understand difference, to come to terms with it, to appreciate it – a very important distinction. It is not about value clarification, though that in any well-structured social studies will happen necessarily; it is not about big discussions about cultural difference and how the children should embrace it – it is about children developing a feeling for people based on knowledge gained from a series of open-ended activities leading to that key holistic happening – the interaction of the affective with the cognitive. The children come to understand through a process of gradual self-discovery that people in the past and present can be seen to have shared common needs at various levels of complexity, from basic to higher level ones, but with different ways of meeting them. This commonality in association with difference is the key way for children to understand, then come to terms with that difference. To avoid obstructing the open-endedness of the approach and robbing children of what could be a transformational learning experience, the teacher should only rarely make direct references to those deeper purposes of social studies. Such direct references delivered directly to the children are likely to impede children thinking deeper and tangentially about the matter. As well, if a teacher delivers those references directly to children, how, when children voice something like those references, does the teacher know whether they are merely repeating the teacher’s thinking? Not only has the child been robbed of a discovery opportunity, the teacher has also lost an opportunity to gauge the thinking of both the child and his or her teaching effectiveness.

Inquiry learning, by its name alone, points to it being skill based. I have already written on inquiry learning (Attack! 68) in which I examine the kind of inquiry learning advocated by Kath Murdoch an Australian academic. It is an example of inquiry learning that has all sorts of interesting components that don’t quite come together and never could because there is no dynamic main aim. Kath Murdoch’s main aim for inquiry is to reflect on personal understanding which is inert and inward looking.

I know inquiry learning can be made to sound very switched on, but in practice, in classrooms, I find it dispiriting. A few years ago I visited a number of schools to get a handle on what was happening in the name of ‘inquiry’. In four schools, when children undertook inquiry learning, they chose the topic themselves, in two of those classes in different schools, the teacher gave the children a letter from the alphabet as a prompt for their choice of study. There was no main aim, no aims at all, no discussion – the children took out their laptops, turned to Google and were away. In three classes, the topics were successively New Zealand, Pacific Islands, and Communications. The teachers in those classes put up questions for the children to focus on, for example – What is your favourite part of New Zealand? What problems does New Zealand face? What is your favourite Pacific Island? The teacher informed the children they could do the studies collaboratively and, after a few further procedural points, the children went to their laptops. Another class did a science topic on Birds, with the teacher saying the children could choose their bird. This teacher began a brief discussion with the children on the characteristics of birds, but the children were already in the process of getting out their laptops. In the final classroom the topic was Travel. The teacher had undertaken a fairly thorough discussion because on large sheets of paper around room, the results of that discussion were recorded, including a consideration of travel through the ages. But, when I was there, the children were well into googling information to put under headings provided.

When I visited two schools last year, none of 18 teachers had ever taken the Treaty of Waitangi, nor did they know of any teacher who had. Matariki though had been taken by all of them and regularly. The problem with the Treaty of Waitangi is that it is so complex that, without teacher guidance, there is for children no meaningful way in and, even more, a deep insufficiency for anything close to intense involvement.

The interaction of the cognitive and the affective is the way motivation is aroused. To deliver this interaction of the cognitive and the affective, learning experiences need shape extending from an introduction, to gaining information, to using that information flexibly, to a conclusion. It is not enough to provide children with a brief introduction then, using their computer, children inquiring into a matter they have chosen, even if guided by suggestions, directions, and questions on a template or on the wall. The matters children inquire into need to be significant both to the children and the curriculum, made cohesive by a dynamic main (a main aim that is value based). The introduction should be challenging, varied, open-ended, and highly motivating; the gaining of information a series of open-ended activities provided by the teacher; the using of that information open-ended activities provided by the teacher or decided on by the children; the conclusion should allow the children to inquire into and express themselves in an even freer or more wide-ranging way. This shaping will vary for science, social studies, the arts, drama, reading, writing, technology, and mathematics, often quite considerably – but the semblance of that shape should be there if powerful and sometimes transformational learning is being striven for. In the case of science, the shaping is done by the investigation process, the principles of which should be carefully introduced by the teacher.

I was sitting in a classroom in Hamilton recently with a Treaty study in progress. The y. 6 teacher had used a number of activities, many of them based on pictures, also reading to children, as a way to take the children to gain the knowledge which interacts with the affective and, on that happening, the children are in.

I break in here to say, all children, as New Zealanders, should have multiple experiences in exploring the meanings and implications of the Treaty of Waitangi – achieving that, carried out holistically, would indeed be transformational and enable children to see the world in a different and insightful way. In the 1990s, I produced a picture kit, accompanying notes, and activities. I had gone up to Waitangi and taken photos of Waitangi in action, also pictures of significant places in the years building up to the Treaty signing, the places around the country where the Treaty was taken for further signing and, of course, places where battles had taken place in the bitter aftermath and the battles in action (some of them photographs, others historical artwork collected from art galleries).

The teacher was using that resource.

The teacher then read excerpts (included in the kit) from the speeches chiefs made, she did not push for emotion – she just let the knowledge do the work – but a good number of the children were weeping – not an outcome necessarily sought but a sure sign the children were in.

When I was watching the teacher take the Treaty of Waitangi topic the thought that kept going through my mind was that the teacher was taking the children where they had never been before –and they would never be the same.

The social studies had been shown.

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Mathematics Part 2: Producing literate and numerate children

Literacy is a complex, multi-faceted concept that changes as society changes. The ability to cope with a wide range of texts requires more than the ability to read the words. It requires a full understanding of the key concepts underpinning ideas and the ability to interpret a variety of symbolic, spatial, and quantitative texts.

Shifts in literacy requirements have expanded to include the ability to read, interpret, and act upon a much wider range of texts. The vast majority of commonly encountered texts during the course of daily life require a degree of quantitative and spatial reasoning. The mathematical knowledge most commonly required is some form of understanding of rational numbers (any number that can be expressed as a fraction) and proportional reasoning.

An increasing amount of information is shared in a digital format, therefore there is an ever increasing need for people to be numerate, not just able to carry out set procedures. Being numerate requires an understanding of basic arithmetic, the properties and manipulation of whole numbers, and rational numbers. It requires using number sense to reason whether answers are correct. When a point is reached in solving a problem, knowing which operation or formula is required is still essential, but completing the procedure has been superseded in reality by technology.

The mathematics learning area has statistics in the title making clear the increasing importance of that branch of mathematics, a branch which is not confined to the mathematics but used widely in many learning areas.

One of the achievement objectives is headed: Statistical Literacy:

The changes in literacy requirements are forcing the need to change the way mathematics is taught. An instructional understanding of mathematics, in which the focus is on right answers to familiar problems is no longer sufficient for the literacy requirement. To be fully literate, a person needs to understand the mathematics and statistics embedded in the context.

New Zealand Curriculum (page 12):

Key Competencies: Language Symbols and Texts:

‘Students who are competent users of language, symbols and texts can interpret and use words, number, images, movement, metaphor and technologies in a range of contexts.’

Mathematics is part of literacy and literacy part of mathematics. Successful problem-solvers require deep mathematical understanding comprising mathematical knowledge, reasoning ability, and heuristic problem-solving strategies (problem-solving that employs a practical method not guaranteed to be perfect, but sufficient for immediate goals). Familiar or common problems make use of procedures that can be learnt. Unfamiliar problems (which is where most problems start, otherwise they would not be problems) must either be turned into familiar problems or solved using ‘first principles’ which require conceptual understanding of the mathematics.

Problem-solving is a ‘messy business’ with the solvers moving forwards and backwards, reasoning, making connections, and engaging in productive struggle or ‘controlled floundering’ as they work their way to a solution.

Haste should not enter into the process of problem-solving – value should be on persistence

New Zealand Curriculum (p. 10):

Students will be encouraged to value:

  • Excellence, by aiming high and persevering in the face of difficulties
  • Innovation, inquiry and curiosity by thinking critically, creatively, and reflectively.

There is a balance to be achieved between the extremes of the pendulum. Providing students with challenging problems and not allowing time within programmes for learning specific procedures, means students will always be having to reinvent the mathematics. Progress is slowed down and knowledge gaps increased, reducing the opportunity to make necessary connections. These gaps hinder the development of conceptual understanding resulting in children finding mathematics a frustrating and ultimately defeating experience.

The number system works by delaying the teaching of standard algorithms and focusing on the mental strategies necessary to prior conceptual understanding. When, however, mental methods of solving become an end in themselves, as demanded by the GloSS assessment, they become just another procedure confusing children’s conceptual understanding of the number system.

In today’s world, technology can be used to carry out basic mathematical procedures. To know if the result provided by the technology is reasonable, students need to be able to make a reasoned estimate. A reasoned estimate requires, at the most basic level, a conceptual understanding of the whole number place value system and recall of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts. However, it needs to go much further, the conceptual understanding of the number system must be expanded to include rational numbers and the decimal place value system (which came 1500 years after the base 10 whole number system, invented as a business tool to replace fractions which were found difficult to work with).

It is only when this level of conceptual knowledge and understanding has been reached can proportional reasoning skills be used. The majority of texts and situations where mathematics is applied in daily life require proportional reasoning skills – home budgeting, following sports teams, analysing data, and vocational matters.

I asked a data analyst if she could give one piece of advice to primary teachers of mathematics.

Her response was immediate and simple: ‘Estimate more and calculate less’.

The barrier between literacy and numeracy is an artificial one created by schools.
Professional learning needs to focus on encompassing and connecting literacy and numeracy as tools for learning. Teachers, to prepare children for positive and productive citizenship, need to develop in them, a deeply connected conceptual knowledge of mathematics, reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

The more teachers know, the more connections they can make. Focused and timely gathering, analysis, interpretation, and use of information are part of the continuing process of the interaction between teaching and learning. And the deeper the understanding, the more able teachers are to undertake evaluation decisions to raise children’s achievement.

New Zealand Curriculum (p. 41):

‘Teaching and learning programmes are developed through a wide range of experiences across all learning areas, with a focus on literacy and numeracy along with the development of values and key competencies.’

Charlotte Wilkinson is an independent education consultant (MOE Accredited #654) and resource developer (The Wilkie Way, Pearson Mathematics, Primary Mathematics Assessment Tool [Available from]) specialising in Primary Mathematics

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