Educators talk a lot about creating the right structure for learning, from public vs charter schools to class sizes and testing frequency, but what if these debates are just distractions from what really impacts learning?

The University of Auckland’s Kohia Centre welcomed Visiting professor John Hattie last week, who challenged about 100 educators from around the country with questions like that.

Once a Professor of Education with the University of Auckland, Professor Hattie is currently the Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute. His work, which is reflected in his latest book, Visible Learning Feedback, has involved bringing together data from hundreds of meta-analyses covering hundreds of millions of students, and represents the largest ever evidence-based research into what actually works in schools to improve student learning.

Much of the discussion around raising academic outcomes is actually a trap, Hattie told the crowd. While most activities we undertake to improve student outcomes have a positive impact, most of the discussion is about structural matters that actually have minimal impact on raising student learning.

“Here’s the good news,” John said. “There’s not much we do to kids that harms them: 95% to 98% of the things we do in the name of enhancing achievement, do affect achievement. All you need to enhance achievement is a pulse. So, when politicians and parents get up and say they know how to improve achievement, they’re right! Because most teachers can.”

His research ranked factors that improve or harm student learning, and he found that while structural factors have a relatively small effect, one factor that had a big effect everywhere in the world is teacher expertise. A big part of teacher expertise as a means of raising student outcomes, centres on the use of effective feedback, both in terms of teachers working together as evaluators of their impact, understanding and reflecting on their errors and developing a culture of trust in the classroom so students have more opportunities to learn.

Professor Hattie discussed how to use feedback effectively, both for staff and for students, describing feedback as a powerful yet often variable tool, with roughly 30% of feedback actually having a negative effect.

“Feedback is arguably the most critical and powerful aspect of teaching and learning. Yet, there remains a paradox: why is feedback so powerful and why is it so variable?”

Kohia Centre professional learning manager Colleen Bott says Professor Hattie’s work has had a polarising effect on the education sector. During the evening he took the opportunity to discuss opposition and challenges around his work.

“His research suggesting that class size may have little bearing on student achievement was inevitably one issue that arose on the night,” Colleen said. “When addressing the issue, he remained focused on the importance of feedback and noted that even with reduced class sizes the amount of quality feedback provided to students did not improve. What needs to improve is the relationships we have with our students and the quality of the feedback that we provide.”


  1. I agree with Hattie on this, however in regards to class size, I would like to see what effect a class size has on students and teachers wellbeing and health. The discussion on class size should be more around this as teachers will continue to work hard to help their students achieve no matter what the class size. The more students they have, the more hours they spend marking, preparing and giving students individual time. Less students, happier teacher??? I enter a lot of schools and I’ve never seen teachers so stressed out. Better quality of classroom life is what we should be aiming for, for both students and teachers. Then we can get back to the discussion of student learning.

  2. I agree totally with feedback playing an integral part in student learning but it needs to go hand in hand with teachers ‘actually giving’ both written and verbal feedback in a regular, personal and precise way. I also agree with teacher expertise playing an integral part. When teachers know what they are doing – you’d be surprised about how many who don’t! – students feel secure. I have seen students who are seen as ‘behaviour problems’ in the classroom, yet these same students under a teacher who knows what he/she is doing, in terms of curriculum delivery, has turned out to be responsive, and an achiever rather than failing. However, it takes, from my point of view, a shared approach by teachers within a school to use the expertise of those who teachers who know ‘what to do’ in order for their students to achieve, as well as, of course, ongoing professional development across the curriculum. There are so many schools who actually have the expertise within their confines, yet these valuable resources are not being tapped. Schools need to realise it’s not about control and hierarchy, it’s about using the[personnel who know/can transfer best, the knowledge, skills and values that will help their students achieve within their schools…within the curriculum… and share their strategies with their colleagues.


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