A Scottish island school where pupils have the chance to plan their own lessons with teachers has been highlighted in a new book by one of the most influential education academics of recent times.
The radical move by 230-pupil Tobermory High School, on the Isle of Mull, has been credited with helping to drive up exam results and changing the mindset of some pupils who previously expected to be “spoonfed”.
The school, which takes pupils from nursery to upper secondary, is one of 15 from around the world to feature in Visible Learning into Action. Co-written by academic John Hattie, the book follows up on his groundbreaking 2008 analysis of 50,000 pieces of educational research (see panel, left).
Tobermory is included in the latest book because it has adopted methods and ideas highlighted by Professor Hattie’s research. The school decided to change its approach two years ago because staff felt that some students were too passive and not doing as well in exams as they should. Some were giving up on hard tasks or “manipulating” staff in order to be “spoonfed” information.
In 2013, therefore, the school brought in an expert on “pupil voice” to run two days of training with S1-S3s. “Lead learners” were given duties including writing learning outcomes; running plenaries at the end of lessons to check understanding; helping to plan units of work with teachers; observing lessons; and providing feedback to teachers.
The Visible Learning approach demands a strong focus on research and evidence, with standardised assessment in the primary and early secondary years used to diagnose issues particular to the school. Staff work in “collaborative trios”, meeting regularly to explore topical education research, and senior management carries out regular observations of lessons.
Richard Gawthorpe, deputy head of primary at Tobermory, said of introducing the Visible Learning strategies: “Initially, some staff were sceptical and became too hung up on the technicalities…rather than how the research could inform decisions that they had to make. I think it has helped to clarify clear areas for focus and improvement and has been one of the main drivers behind change in the school.”
Headteacher Craig Biddick, a New Zealander who joined the school in 2012 after previous careers as a university researcher and a quality-control chemist for a pharmaceutical company, said that time and workload were “the biggest enemy” and that devising new methods for exam-based courses had caused “uncertainty and anxiety” among staff.
But the approach appears to have been vindicated. Exam results are, by several measures, at their best level for at least 10 years. The overall pass rate at National 3-5 and Higher this year was 94.5 per cent, up from 80.2 per cent in 2014.
Some 84 per cent of pupils are now “always” or “often” clear about what they are learning. Although there is no comparative figure for previous years, evidence from inspections suggests that this figure would have been lower. Mr Biddick said there was an “urgent need” for Scottish schools to make the primary and early secondary curriculum “more flexible and challenging”.
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS union, said Visible Learning was consistent with Curriculum for Excellence. He added: “I’m wary of any one approach being seen as the ‘golden ticket’, but there are certainly merits in this system.”
John Hattie’s 2008 book, Visible Learning, is the largest-ever collection of research into what makes a difference to learning in schools. It brings together more than 800 “meta-analyses” of 50,000-plus studies and the experiences of some 80 million pupils across the English-speaking world.
The book, which has many supporters but also vehement critics, lists 136 classroom interventions in order of effectiveness. It concludes that the most effective way to improve education is to boost the quality of feedback given to pupils and to focus on students’ interaction with teachers.
Pupils’ ability to assess their own performance and discuss with teachers how to improve is also critical, the book finds.