Don’t presume learning lost to Covid, says John Hattie

While the pandemic will have created some gaps in knowledge, the author and academic warns teachers against making assumptions when it comes to student progress

Simon Lock

John Hattie speaking at a conference

“Diagnose, diagnose, diagnose. Don't presume.”

If Professor John Hattie wants you to remember one thing when schools return to full face-to-face teaching it is this. He believes a deficit narrative about the past 12 months in terms of education is a natural position to take, but it would be an inaccurate one: the reality, he says, is much more nuanced.  

“Most of the headlines are about how bad things are. Well, I put the other side of the argument on the table. There are some stunningly good things happening, too. I think that's a credit to the teachers who have found ways to work with kids during Covid,” he says.

Hattie is well known for his strong opinions about education. Following publication in 2008 of his book Visible Learning– which became a critical reference tool for educators across the world – he has continued to commentate on schools and what happens within them, spawning several revisions of the book and multiple other connections with the sector.

Speaking ahead of his keynote speech at the World Education Summit later this month, he explains that that the past 12 months have of course been a challenge for those who work in schools, but he stresses that there will be many positive that will have arisen because of the way schooling has occurred during the pandemic.

Don't presume the worst

While acknowledging the impact of disruption and the lack of equity when it comes to things like access to tech and parental support, he points to the fact the majority of children will have had to be more independent in their learning and will have developed skills as a result.

“For example, this notion of self-regulation where you know how to monitor your progress and what to do next; I think some teachers are going to be very surprised that some kids have those skills,” Hattie says. “But in many classrooms they're not allowed to use them, because teachers won't release responsibility.”

“I think some teachers are going to be very surprised that some kids have those skills, but they’ve never been allowed to use them.”

He also explains that, though there have been many challenges across the year in terms of learning, we cannot assume that all children will be worse off than they would have been otherwise.

“[For example], autistic students have done so much better online teaching than they did at school,” he says.

Hattie suggests any SEND “labels” attached to learners should be ignored “for the first month”, allowing children to focus on friendship and teachers to assess the impact of remote learning.

This goes for any high attainers pre-pandemic, too.

“In the regular class, teachers talk close to 90 per cent of the time,” says Hattie. “They ask questions about the facts, which require less than three-word responses from kids.

“Teachers didn't do that during Covid teaching. They couldn't; it didn't work.

“We know from our research that kids [who are] above average prefer teachers to talk more and ask more questions about the facts, because that's the game they’re good at. And I think some of those kids would have suffered under Covid.”

'Diagnose and triage' 

If schools get the diagnosis phase of the return to school right, then children may even exceed normal expectations, he argues. Identifying what learners have achieved gives educators a better understanding of what’s required, he says, leading to a more tailored provision and potentially better results.

“The end-of-year high-school exams [in Victoria, Australia] after Covid, were the best performance we've ever had,” he says. “That's what happened in Christchurch during the year of the earthquake, it was the best performance they ever had.

“It’s because teachers triaged. They said, ‘what do you need to do well on these exams?’ As opposed to, ‘come to my class, and I'll tell all of you what you need’. “

He stresses that the triage process should not just be about frequent tests.

“I'm a great fan of tests,” he explains, “but I take the very strong line, it's about the interpretation.

“Often the tests that are given to kids, there's no interpretation for the kid or the teacher. So why do we waste their time? It's all about teacher expertise and how well they interpret assessment.”

Strategies for recovery

So once the initial diagnosis is over, how can educators go about making sure that learners are given the best chance to recover from this period of disruption. Hattie’s latest project has culminated in a list of 10 of the most effective learning strategies that children should focus on and a method for how they should be delivered.

Having boiled down a longlist of 400, the research has come up with a subset “that are pretty powerful”. But the list, which he’ll be introducing at the World Education Summit, comes with a caveat.

“There was a massive ‘but’,” he explains. “It depends when you use them. That's how we invented this model, which looks complicated, but it really is about five steps.”

The steps identify different stages in learning where different strategies are more effective.

“At the beginning, the strategies that you need include things like summarising and outlining, you need to pick up the big ideas,” he explains. “Then you have to consolidate it. And that's where all the deliberate practice comes in spacing over time compared to mass.

“And then they get to a point where you can make relationships and see patterns, and we call that the deep acquiring stage. Then you need to consolidate, and then, the last step in our model, is when you go to transfer that to new situations.”

How effective will this methodology be in the post-Covid world? We will have to wait and see.

John Hattie’s Top 10 learning strategies’ will be one of the headline sessions at this year’s World Education Summit (22-25 March). Tes is the official media partner for the event. 

World Education Summit

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Simon Lock

Simon Lock

Simon Lock is Tes senior digital editor

Find me on Twitter @simon_lock_

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