One of the world's most influential education academics has dismissed the idea that all pupils should learn essential "core" knowledge, arguing that panel-beaters and baristas do not need to know about Shakespeare or chemistry.
Professor John Hattie, pictured right, wants more emphasis on how children learn. "We have got to get away from this absolute passion that kids need to read and write, and start worrying how to actually go about learning," the University of Melbourne academic told an event in London last week.
"There is no such thing as a common curriculum, even in this country, let alone across countries," he continued. "I give up. I don't care. I care about what's challenging. What is going to help the kid answer that question?"
A growing "core knowledge" movement in the US and UK argues that all pupils, particularly the disadvantaged, need essential facts across all the main subjects to fully participate in society.
But Professor Hattie, whose 2008 milestone "meta-analysis" of 80,000 education studies, Visible Learning, transformed the debate on what works in teaching, said: "I want kids who are going to be brilliant panel-beaters or baristas to be very good at learning. They don't have to learn Shakespeare, they don't have to learn chemistry."
Shaking off the polemicists
His view that teachers should leave education research to academics, reported online by TES last week, angered many in the profession (see bit.lyHattieResearch).
In Professor Hattie's outspoken talk, organised by Pearson, he also suggested that teacher autonomy should be reduced. He later cautioned against using Visible Learning to argue for a particular method of teaching.
Asked his views on Daisy Christodoulou and Robert Peal, British authors who cite his research in polemics against "so-called progressive" education, Professor Hattie said: "This obsession about how we teach is quite frankly a mistaken obsession.
"If these people are writing that you should teach in this particular way, they have missed the message of the whole book, which is about the impact of that teaching."
He is concerned that they use his work to place too much emphasis on "direct instruction". "It is one method," Professor Hattie said. "I care about the impact of that method and sometimes... it doesn't have a good impact. If I use a direct instruction method with you and you don't learn, I should change. I shouldn't do more direct instruction."
The New Zealand-born academic also raised concerns that his ranking of 140 different classroom strategies was being used as a definitive guide to what worked in teaching. "What drives me mad is people take the top 10 and say `tick, tick, tick, we are doing those'," he said.
Professor Hattie added that strategies such as homework in primary schools, which his work showed had little or no impact, could be improved rather than abandoned. But he also thinks that too many teachers spend time devising their own methods because they misguidedly see their classes and pupils as unique.
"We still work on the assumption that teachers should have the autonomy to teach as they like," he said. "Isn't it interesting that in the medical profession over the last 20 years the local doctor has lost their autonomy?"
Professor Hattie said no one had "contested the story" he was telling, but added: "I have put up a reasonably strong theory and I would like someone to pull it down. I would love to be wrong."
Hattie on choice
Teachers, rather than school structures or systems, improve learning, according to Professor John Hattie.
"We are so obsessed with free schools and academies, but what a distraction. Isn't it a con?" he said. "You give parents this belief about choice. They can choose the school. But they can't choose the teacher."
His work, he added, should give more schools in England licence to say they were successful. "You love to beat up your teachers," he said. "It is very hard for the system to say: `We have excellence here in England.' I think I have discovered a way of saying to you, `You're good at your job, you don't have to keep ratcheting up, you do a good job as you do it.' "