What can a teacher do to improve learning?

Our school is currently in the process of working through a curriculum review process and this has given all of the staff here pause to reflect on what we are doing in the classroom.  Amongst the resources that our Principal presented to us were the findings of a study conducted by John Hattie of the University of Auckland.  Here is a link to his study: https://www.det.nsw.edu.au/proflearn/docs/pdf/qt_hattie.pdf

The findings of John Hattie’s study have resonated with me and in many respects, given me quite a shock.  Now certainly one study is just that – one study.  But in the case of Hattie’s work, he conducted a meta-study of over 500 separate studies encompassing more than 200 million students in total!  Included in his meta-analysis, were many studies concerning positive (or otherwise) effects on student outcomes.  For example, Hattie included research that had been done into the use of open learning spaces in education, the effect of different sorts of technology on the classroom, different pedagogies and teacher effectiveness.  In compiling his data, Hattie created a scale of effectiveness that ranked all of these effects into those items that had a profound effect, those that had no discernable effect and those that had a negative effect.

Now before I tell you about the key results of Hattie’s study (or at the least the parts that hit home), I should firstly set the scene.  Hattie examined the places and factors influencing a student’s learning.  The student’s themselves have the largest part to play.  Also playing a role are the student’s parents, the school, their home life as well as their peers.  The important thing to note is that we as teachers can influence very few of these.  Teachers are the second biggest influence of student outcomes (bigger than home, peers, school put together) – and we also have the most control of this aspect of a student’s educational experience (being their teachers). 

There were clearly defined circumstances or actions that had a negative effect on student learning.  They included retention, changing schools and large class sizes.  There is probably nothing in that list that will shock you. 

The middle ground of actions is where some interesting statements have been made.  Basically, Hattie proposes that the methods within the middle ground have a positive effect, but the effect that they have is comparable to other (or standard) methods and therefore, may as well not be implemented.  For example, the use of technologies such as Interactive Whiteboards – great in the classroom right?  Well they do have a positive effect on learning – and Hattie does not argue that technologies like this do not.  However, their effect is basically comparable to other traditional teaching methods.  That is, we should not imagine that simply placing technologies like this in the class-room will instantly transport our students to a higher plane of understanding.  There is no technological Holy Grail!

So what does have a profound effect on our students?  It’s very simple – and it is something that I have written about before – it’s all about engagement!  Passionate teachers, who know their subject and are excited by it, encourage their students to engage in deeper learning and understanding of their discipline.  Their knowledge and the way in which they are able to contextualize the learning, enable their students to take the same journey.

Also high on Hattie’s list is classroom control.  One of the main influences on student outcomes is a well managed classroom.  Simple as that.

So what does this mean for us ‘IT types’?  Does it mean that all the tech we are using, the 1-1 computing, the collaborative environments, the web2.0 gizmos, the multimedia rich teaching environments we create – are all for nothing?  Not at all, but it does mean that these things without the passion of a creative, knowledgeable, inspirational teacher, don’t add much to the educational value of our classrooms.

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