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Education Media

The Revolution Won’t Necessarily Be Televised

keep-calm-and-start-a-revolution-6Over the past month Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC, aired a four-part documentary called Revolution School in which it followed the staff and students of Kambrya College in Victoria throughout the course of 2015. The premise of the doco was that Kambrya was a struggling school – in 2008 its Year 12 results put it in the state’s bottom 10% of schools – and that by applying “cutting edge research developed by Professor John Hattie at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education, [Kambrya] undergoes a dramatic transformation. Ultimately [Revolution School] is a lesson for all schools in Australia, identifying what they can do to improve standards at this critical time.”

It was set against the backdrop of an Australian education system that is, “letting down our kids and the nation” and that’s compounded by the ‘fact’ that most of the things educators and parents think matter in education actually don’t.

John Hattie states from the outset that reducing class size, private education and giving parents choice do not “make a difference to the quality of education.”

The show concluded this week and it’s fair to say it received a mixed response – from 43 people on Twitter at least.

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 1.40.20 pm

Here, for what it’s worth, are my thoughts on it.

THE TITLE – REVOLUTION SCHOOL

revolution

noun: revolution; plural noun: revolutions

a dramatic and wide-reaching change in conditions, attitudes, or operation.

I can only assume that this was a decision made by TV execs who needed something catchy, and to be fair it certainly caught my attention when I saw it advertised. I was genuinely curious to see what kind of revolution was taking place, but I was left feeling a little underwhelmed.

To be clear – I’m not dismissive of the efforts of the teachers, the consultants and – importantly – the students. Any school, teacher or student who works to improve standards is worthy of acknowledgement. From the outset I commend the staff and students of Kambrya for allowing the cameras in to give an insight into how a dedicated team of teachers (as well as the kids) can address some of the daily challenges faced in a typical school. For some watching it would have proven insightful.

Rather I was left underwhelmed because there was very little in the show that could be seen as being revolutionary. Whilst it might have documented a wide-reaching change in conditions, attitudes or operations at Kambrya, the claim that Revolution School would “serve as a lesson for all schools in Australia,” might be seen as a tad patronising.

It should be noted that Revolution School  had at one time been titled Making The Grade, which in my opinion would have been a more appropriate (if less appealing to TV execs) title for the documentary.

THE STRATEGIES

Many of the strategies for improvement were a result of the school’s partnership with Melbourne Graduate School of Education (MGSE), with its impressive team of educators and experts. Teachers were able to work with the likes of John Hattie, Lea Waters, Bill Rogers and Di Snowball to refine their approaches in class and the wider community. However the coverage of these working relationships was superficial at best, limited to soundbites and the obligatory rounds of applause at the end of teacher PL sessions. Bill Rogers, for example is a legend in the realm of classroom climate and handling behaviour issues, but all we got from his appearance was the idea that you could chart on a whiteboard how on-task the class are over the course of a lesson. Now I appreciate that TV execs might not think that a more in-depth exploration of classroom climate would be compelling viewing, but if Revolution School really was going to “serve as a lesson for all schools in Australia” then these are the paths they needed to go down.

Similarly with regard to Lea Waters’ work on wellbeing, I cringed at the superficial nature in which it was presented to the TV audience, with no reference to what Positive Psychology is or the potential significance of character strengths.

However one soundbite I did enjoy was literacy expert Di Snowball’s reflection of the way in which many schools teach reading using literacy exercise books. In doing this kids only read small passages in isolation – something that was implied did little to encourage a love of reading and as Di pointed out:

What’s the point of improving reading through these programmes if you aren’t then reading?

John Hattie was a common voice throughout the series and in Episode 4 introduced the idea of teachers having their lessons transcribed live, and their words projected onto screens around the classroom. A programme from MGSE called “The Visible Classroom.” (As an aside, this is on top of Hattie’s Visible Learning approach, and Lea Waters’ Visible Wellbeing approach. I’m spotting a theme.) One of the main reasons for doing this is so that the data from the class can be evaluated by MGSE to ascertain how much a teacher talks and what kind of dialogue with regards to questions and interaction is happening. Hattie argues that teachers should be talking for around 50% of the time in class, but in reality most teachers spend 80-90% of the time talking. Assuming this premise is correct, the episode went on to show teachers who had in fact reduced their talk in class, but again tellingly for a series that was to “serve as a lesson for all schools in Australia,” it didn’t explore the changes in practice/planning that teachers undertook to make this happen. I’d imagine for some teachers these changes would have presented significant challenges, and it would have been good to see how these challenges were addressed.

Towards the end of the series the concept of Clinical Teaching (the approach taught at MGSE) was introduced as having “the potential to revolutionise our classrooms” but again I was – along with many teachers I’d expect – left underwhelmed. The core principles of Clinical Teaching as explained by Hattie are:

  • Diagnose: Ascertain the areas in which kids need to improve, learn etc.
  • Intervene: Deploy strategies, questions and activities that address these areas.
  • Evaluate: Ascertain whether or not kids have improved their knowledge, skills or understand.

In other words… teach.

Look, I know I’m being a little flippant here, and I do know that this might seem revolutionary to some… but seriously, I recommend you read pretty much anything by Dylan Wiliam, because formative assessment has been addressing this stuff for yonks.

AS FOR THE OTHER STUFF…

An outdoor ed camp, a class for disengaged boys, a kid who left under a cloud of drug use, another who left after Year 10, kids getting into strife for fighting and (alleged but ultimately unproven) theft, a school production of Aladdin, a formal ball, a kid who didn’t get into medicine, stressed out G&T kids, a girl arguing with her mother, school captain elections and a deputy who was a little skeptical of consultants… are the ingredients of a typical day in a typical school and I’m unsure as to what lessons they taught us, other than apparently after going on a four-day hike, some kids who hated school and had previously all failed a maths test all of a sudden aced it on their return… Again, not underestimating the impact of the outdoor education or the commitment of the staff, but come on… the superficial nature in which it was covered left me cold.

I was left wondering if police officers are equally underwhelmed after watching an episode of RBT? Or what about doctors and nurses after watching Trauma: Life in the ER?

But then again RBT & Trauma aren’t broadcast on the premise that the policing or health professions are failing to such an extent that they require such TV shows to “serve as a lesson.”

Now to be fair, the series finished by highlighting the gains the school has made which are impressive and for which everyone’s efforts should be applauded, and it’s worth noting that this has been an 8 year journey of which MGSE were a part for the past 12 months. Clearly they’ve made great gains but there are still some questions that remain particularly given the premise upon which the series was set.

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QUESTIONS THAT REMAIN

  1. When Hattie says it’s not the school that make a difference, but the teachers, what does that really mean?
  2. When Hattie says, “Class size doesn’t matter,” do you think he should clarify that by finishing that statement with, “if we don’t change our practice.” As you may be aware I’ve covered this in the past in my blog posts and in an interview I had with John Hattie himself. 
  3. Aren’t the things advocated for in Clinical Teaching (more student interaction, better feedback etc) impacted by class size?
  4. What was the impact on staff & student engagement of having cameras in the school?
  5. How many adults (teachers, consultants, camera & sound operators) were in each classroom and what impact would this have had?
  6. Given the series website states, “By applying simple low cost ideas in the classroom Kambrya undergoes a dramatic transformation,” how much would it cost your school to do something similar with MGSE? Having looked at the MGSE’s School Network page, a quick calculation would put it at around $50-60K
  7. How did the airing of students struggling with drugs and family pressures serve as a lesson for schools around Australia?
  8. What have you learned (with regard to pedagogy, wellbeing, classroom management, professional growth, enhancing student outcomes) as a result of watching #RevolutionSchool?
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Chatting with John Hattie Education

Chatting with John Hattie – Pt. 3

This is the third in a series of posts based around an interview I had with John Hattie earlier this year.

Whilst many education conferences around the world issue a call to arms – of sorts – to embrace 21st Century Skills, it’s worth pointing out that the cohort of kids that started Kindy in the year 2000 are now – for whom those the system worked – into their second year of an undergraduate course.

Bit late for them.

More than that though, the phrase – to me at least – seems divisive.

SugataWe all know that the Y2K bug came to nothing, but did something happen at 11:59pm on Friday 31st December 1999 that meant all that went before in classrooms was now obsolete?

Certainly some high profile thinkers have come to this opinion.

2013 TED Talk Prize winner Sugata Mitra actually states:

“Schools as we know them are obsolete.”

Now of course I’m not saying that schools shouldn’t be moving with the times. Rather, my problem is the way in which the need to move with the times has been communicated to teachers. Talk around 21st Century Skills is vague; it means different things to different people.

Having previously discussed Direct Instruction v Inquiry Based Learning with John Hattie, our conversation naturally turned to the notion of 21st Century Skills.

“I have a problem with this notion of twenty first century skills,”

says Hattie, “I’m just finishing a synthesis on learning strategies, it’s not as big [as others he’s done] there’s only about 15 – 20 million kids in the sample, and one of the things that I’ve learnt from the learning strategies, and a lot of them include the 21st Century skill strategies is that there’s a dirty secret.”

And the dirty secret is that not only does Hattie believe that these strategies are very simplistic, but he is skeptical of classes that focus solely on critical thinking or creativity – something I’m seeing some (but not many) schools adopt.

“These strategies only work within the subject area,”

Hattie says, “They’re not generic. So one of my problems with the 21st Century skills is schools are running critical thinking and creativity classes as if those things can generically cross over. [But] you can think that way in Maths but not necessarily in physics or in English.”

Of course most schools who embrace 21st Century Skills are seemingly embedding them in their teaching of the curriculum. But then this leads us back to the Content v Skills debate and the teaching style most appropriate.

“You’re right, it polarises the debate in terms of strategies versus content. I bet in every school that you go into, you look at the assessments – and I do that because that’s what kids look at in terms of what teacher’s values – you’re still dominated by content.”

It’s a fair point, consider how much your school focuses on kids ability to digest content compared to how much it genuinely assesses critical or creative thinking.

I wonder if this in some way might explain why Hattie can’t find evidence of Inquiry Based Learning, or 21st Century Skills having much of an impact.

In many cases, maybe what we say we value isn’t what we end up assessing?

Hattie’s main worry is that some schools are over privileging 21st Century Skills, because what he calls “surface learning” is – for the most part – over-privileged by many.

His argument is we need a balance of surface to deep transfer. He says,

“We’ve over-obsessed on content.”

But in response to this comes a “generic notion [of 21st Century Learning], and my terror is that schools will be teaching 21st Century Skills. I don’t think you can do that. I don’t think it’s a viable way to go. New Zealand went down that line of enquiry thinking schools and schools were very proud to say ‘we’re deep thinkers, we’re enquiry thinkers’ – it didn’t work.”

He then went on to discuss what had worked in New Zealand, which I found interesting…

Hattie says, “There needs to be a constructive alignment particularly in high schools between what we say we’re going to do and what we actually assess.”

One of the reasons New Zealand have significantly improved their retention rate is because they changed the upper high school assessment system.

“We got away from this notion that you can only be excellent in physics and chemistry and we said you can be excellent in many things,” he says, “And we showed that even kids who wanted to be water polo coaches or baristas could be excellent at those things and could learn skills right till the end of high school.”

Sounds good to me I thought… how did that go down?

“[Because] it was privileged along with physics and everything else it made many of those teachers very upset. It’s been a traumatic transformation but it’s been a very positive one; it hasn’t been without its problems,” he says.

“Its critics are still out there claiming that we’ve got rid of Shakespeare and calculus and chemistry. And for some kids we have, as we should have done.”

I wonder if that’s the key to a 21st Century education – having diversity and a flexibility in the curriculum that is equally valued based on the needs of students and communities?

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Chatting with John Hattie Education

Chatting with John Hattie – Pt. 2

This is the second in a series of posts based around an interview with educational researcher and Chair of AITSL, John Hattie.

The Education DebateThere are many facets to the education debate and one that pushes more buttons than most is the Traditional v Progressive teaching debate. Some read this as the Didactic v Student Centred or sometimes the Knowledge v Skills argument but either way, lines get drawn in the sand and teachers choose their respective side.

There are many bloggers who write extensively around this subject. I often read through this one by Harry Webb – who blogs forthrightly and points you in the direction of many more blogs and research to support his points – although I’m not 100% convinced that’s his real name… I could be wrong though.

I was keen to know what John Hattie – who was recently appointed the Chair of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) – thought about this debate, particularly as AITSL has devised a set of National Teacher Standards, are piloting innovativeLearning Frontiers approach to teaching and who on their website, showcase “best practice” by way of vignettes and short interviews with teachers.

This is interesting because Learning Frontiers, many of the standards, vignettes and interviews extol the virtues of inquiry or discovery based learning and even Learning Styles; strategies about which Hattie is on record as saying,

“We have a whole rhetoric about discovery learning, constructivism, and learning styles that has got zero evidence for them anywhere.”

I wanted to know if there was a disconnect between what he, as the chair of AITSL believed to be true, and what AITSL were promoting as ‘best practice.’

The first thing Hattie wanted to do was clear up his position around constructivism. Whilst he agrees there is – of course – a constructivist theory of knowing, he says, “There is not a constructivist theory of teaching. And that’s a massive difference and every time I mention it I try and exploit that difference which no one picks up.”

He went on to elaborate that often teachers have to deliberately teach students in order for them to construct knowledge. “I have no difficulty with constructivist knowledge’s of learning, and knowing, but not teaching.”

To further press his point home, Hattie referred to the article Should There Be a Three-Strikes Rule Against Pure Discovery Learning? by Richard Mayer which described three major series of investigations of discovery learning and inquiry learning that showed despite it continues to fail it is still used. Hattie says, “I think the problem is that, that people fail to make that distinction between the theories of knowledge such as Piaget and the teaching.”

So why are such approached included in AITSL’s website?

“I’m disappointed if there are things on the AITSL website that talk about learning styles,”

“They did a massive review in the last month or so going through and hopefully taking everything out that’s hinting [at these concepts]. We do know some of that stuff has a high likelihood of not working [and] they have taken that seriously and they have gone through and if anyone finds stuff that’s still left there we’d all be delighted to know.”

This naturally led into a chat about 21st Century Skills… which I’ll share with you in the next post.

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Chatting with John Hattie Education Leadership

Chatting with John Hattie – Pt. 1

Visible LearningLate last year I wrote a blog post called, Is John Talking Through His Hattie?

The subject of the post was a series of posts and articles I had come across that called into question the validity of the statistical analysis that is the backbone of John Hattie’s Visible Learning work.

To save you the time of reading that post, the key point raised was:

John Hattie had admitted half the statistics in Visible Learning are wrong.

Within a couple of days I had a reply on the post from John Hattie himself suggesting that I was “Retweeting a lie.”

I decided that this might be an opportunity to directly engage with John regarding the post and the issues raised. He agreed, and what followed was a great 60min chat about all things education, despite a few technical issues that this song brilliant captures…

The interview will actually be the basis for a series of posts, with this being the first.

So… to that blog post.

Did Hattie ever say half the statistics in Visible Learning are wrong?

Well, not according to him, he says,

“The message is that someone tweeted from a conference in London a few months ago, that apparently I said ‘half the statistics are wrong’ and I never said that.”

But that’s not to say there weren’t issues with the statistics. The main argument centres around something called the Common Language Effect Size, which allows you to compare effect sizes in simple terms. For example, Strategy A has a 90% chance of working better than Strategy B.

And it is here where Hattie admits there were some errors.

He says, “Unfortunately at the very last minute I put the wrong column up on the – as part of the confidence levels rather than the actual common language exercise.” It wasn’t until about three years later when some students in Norway alerted Hattie to the errors that the correct data was added to reprints of Visible Learning.

But as and when the next edition is published Hattie says, “I’d take all that stuff out because it didn’t work [anyway].”

Hattie says that whilst “there are some minor errors” in Visible Learning – errors that he says he and others have picked up – these are corrected quickly. And though he is disappointed that such errors occur he is confident that it doesn’t change the overall message of the book, as he says, “Not one iota.”

No doubt debate will continue in educational circles and the blogosphere, but Hattie says,

“The nature of academia is that you live off critique and so I thrive off that and so that’s why I’m happy to talk to you and anyone [but] I’m not going to tell you right now everything’s perfect.”

Hattie says he’s been doing this work and publishing Visible Learning work since about 1989 and what fascinates him is, that in the twenty or thirty years since he started working on it, “No one – not a single person – has critiqued the idea and come up with an alternative explanation for the data.”

In this series of Chatting with John Hattie posts I’ll share with you – amongst other things – our discussions around the use (and mis-use) of Visible Learning, 21st Century Learning, AITSL, Teacher Quality, and advice for new teachers.

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Chatting with John Hattie Education Leadership

Is John talking through his Hattie?

Research QuoteJohn Hattie, the author of the much quoted Visible Learning was recently appointed by the Federal Government to the Chairmanship of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. 

In today’s Australian Newspaper, an article by Jennifer Buckingham from the Centre for Independent Studies said,

Last week, Hattie indicated things were going to change in teacher education under his watch. He talked of “tougher”, “harder”, “standards”, “outcomes” and “impacts”. This is a harbinger of his approach, grounded in the requirement for evidence that reforms are working.

It went on:

Hattie would like the accreditation and evaluation standards for teaching degrees to be much tougher. If this results in some courses being scrapped because they don’t meet the standard for the academic rigour of courses or for graduate teachers’ impact on students, then so be it.

And who better to have at the helm than the guru of effect size himself, John Hattie?

Well it would appear that just as Hattie would like teacher education to be subject to tougher standards, there are some who suggest his research should be subject to a more rigorous analysis.

Despite having been challenged as early as 2011 in the British Journal of Educational Studies, Hattie’s work has been seen as the guiding light in educational reform, but of late it has come under scrutiny, not least because of this blog post and it’s subsequent follow up which asserts that half the statistics in Visible Learning are wrong.

I’ll let you follow those threads if they interest you.

What worries me is that a great deal of educators, regional leaders, keynote speakers and politicians quote Hattie to further assert their position, particularly if that position is at odds with common sense – the class size debate for example.

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that educational research is vital. But it is equally vital that we view it through an appropriate lens. As Dylan Wiliam says*,

Educational research can only tell us what was, not what might be. Moreover, in education, “What works?” is rarely the right question, because everything works somewhere, and nothing works everywhere, which is why in education, the right question is, “Under what conditions does this work?”

Besides I’ve always been skeptical that anyone could determine a numerical value for the impact any given teacher might have with any given student in any given classroom.

*If you want to access the quote from Wiliam you can get his PPT slides from a ResearchED event here.

[EDIT] Through the magic of Twitter, it was made apparent to me by Greg Thompson (seriously… follow him) that some of the issues raised here were first addressed by Snook et al in 2009 in NZ Ed Studies Journal.

[EDIT 2 – 19th Nov] John Hattie has agreed to an interview as per the comment thread below. I’ll let you know how things progress.

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Education

Maybe class size does matter after all?

The key to a better education system is – by all accounts – to ensure we have better teachers

Hard to argue with that isn’t it? And just for the record I’m all for enhancing teacher quality – who would argue against it? It’s just I’m not keen on the way that the phrase – teacher quality – is being used to underplay all the other factors that feed into education.

Would we be so quick to accept this statement in say Medicine?

The key to a better health system is ensuring we have better doctors. 

I doubt it.

Although of course better doctors would play their part, most of us can recognise that the health system is beset with inequities based on an individual’s geographic location, socioeconomic status and ethnic or cultural background. To simply say better doctors will fix that is simplistic.

But then again, doctors have rarely been used as political objects in the way governments and opposition use teachers.

I’m not saying that the health system isn’t political, I’m saying that the perspective is different.

I recently received an email from a teacher whose school had worked with a consultant to address the disparity between the school’s NAPLAN results and the state average.

The teacher was frustrated, as the consultant seemed oblivious to the fact that having 34 kids in kindergarten all from varying backgrounds might impact on such results down the track. According to the consultant the sole reason for the disparity was – you guessed it – the calibre of the teachers at the school.

Now it’s worth noting that the aforementioned consultant has educational researcher Prof. John Hattie on their side. Well kind of.

Prof. Hattie is purported to endorse the notion that class sizes make no difference and politicians such as our Federal Education Minister, Christopher Pyne uses this standpoint to play down the issues around class sizes and the inherent funding issues.

The only problem with this of course is that it isn’t that cut and dried.

In this interview Prof. Hattie is asked why he thinks class size appears to make no difference. This is his response:

Well, I think the major argument seems to be when you have teachers in class sizes, like, of 26, 27, 30 and you put them in the class sizes of, say, 18 to 23, and they don’t change what they do, that seems to be the reason why it doesn’t make a difference. So could it make a difference? Yeah, it probably could if we changed how we went about our teaching. But that doesn’t seem to happen.

Wait… what? Did you see that?

So could it make a difference? Yeah, it probably could if we changed how we went about our teaching.

Is it possible that teachers don’t change their teaching because – to be honest – they’ve never had 18-23 kids in their class?

Screen Shot 2013-02-21 at 5.41.12 PMIt’s worth noting that, whilst when looked at in isolation, Hattie’s work suggests that class sizes matter little, many of the strategies that do significantly enhance student learning could be significantly influenced by having fewer students.

Have a look at the table and see which ones aren’t reliant on or couldn’t be enhanced by smaller numbers.

Someone I follow on Twitter, but am still yet to meet in person, is Dr David Zyngier from Monash University. Earlier this year he published a study that found that – in actual fact – generally speaking smaller class sizes are better.

But crucially Dr Zyngier says, that cutting the size of classes does not need to happen in every subject or in every school.

Instead he argues for:

‘‘targeted class size reductions in the early years and in particular subjects, such as literacy and numeracy’’.

So. Where does this leave us?

Certainly not in the black and white world of class size having no impact.

Of course I have a strong desire to continually improve as a profession – both collectively and personally.

But to use the phrase teacher quality in the way many are using it at the moment, coupled with PISA scores does two things:

1. It doesn’t communicate a universally accepted vision of what a quality teacher is.

2. It serves to undermine the profession as a whole.

Sir Ken Robinson put it nicely – as he is prone to do – when he said:

Sir Ken Alienate Teachers Quote

Categories
Education Leadership

The Class Size Myths – Which do you believe?

Over the Australian Summer I finally decided to read John Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers.True False

Hattie’s theories on education are backed up by countless research papers and evidence.

In the never-ending quest to improve teaching (and teachers) Hattie is as revered by politicians and system leaders around the world as he is viewed with suspicion by front-line teachers.

His most controversial assertion is that reducing class size is a waste of time and money. His research proves having fewer kids in class has little impact on teaching and learning.

And don’t the politicians love that!

Bigger Classes = Fewer Teachers = Less money needed for education – Take that Gonski!

In Queensland, the state government has moved to remove the maximum class size limit, presumably confident of a Coalition victory in the September Federal Election, given that Shadow Education Spokesman Christopher Pyne is on record as saying that class sizes have little impact on teaching.

But here’s the thing… each of the interventions that Hattie studied, were done so in isolation.

Does reducing class size in and of itself improve teaching? Is it the silver bullet? 

Of course not. A crap lesson in front of 40 kids will still be a crap lesson in front of 20. Hattie himself makes the point that looking at class sizes in isolation showed that some teachers didn’t change their methods regardless of the number of kids in front of them.

But when you look at Hattie’s list of interventions that he claims DO have a great impact then things really start to get interesting with regard to class size.

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A teacher’s ability to implement any one or all of these interventions is impacted on by the amount of kids they have in front of them. Anyone who says different has no understanding of teaching, or is clinging to this ideology because it’s the theory du jour and is probably helping them climb the international speaking ladder.

So when politicians say that they won’t be supporting a reduction in class size, what they are actually saying is that they do not support the concepts of developing high expectations for each student, providing quality feedback, improving teacher-student relationships, implementing quality vocabulary or comprehension programs. What politicians are saying is “We’re not particularly interested in improving teaching and learning in our schools. It’s just a little bit too expensive.”

This myth of class-size being irrelevant has permeated into the education debate in many countries like the UK and US. Although, interestingly not Finland where the government agreed to reduce class size, and now the average class size is around 20 kids, with science lessons capped at 16. Sixteen!!

I’m not dismissing Hattie’s work out of hand as I agree with every single one of his “High Influence” interventions for improving teaching & learning – it’s just that having smaller class sizes is essential in order to enable teachers to implement these interventions.

You can read more about the mathematics behind effect size here…