One of the world’s leading education experts has questioned the value of a key element of the government’s education strategy.
John Hattie, the director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute and one of education’s most widely quoted academics, has raised doubts about the government’s decision to promote lessons in determination and grit as a complement to academic learning. “You can’t teach grit generically,” Professor Hattie told TES. “Our criminals have more grit than most people.”
Education secretary Nicky Morgan has said that developing children’s character – including grit and resilience – is as important as teaching them to pass exams.
In November, Ms Morgan said: “A welleducated child or young person should be well-rounded, with a range of interests, a real sense of character and grit.”
But Professor Hattie insisted that this was not universally true. “Some of our struggling learners have incredible grit in maths, and that’s their problem,” he said. “They do the same thing in every maths problem, and they need to get out of that habit.”
He added that grit differs from subject to subject: teaching pupils to take risks in history, for example, is very different from teaching them to take risks in chemistry or maths.
A Department for Education spokesman said that it did not accept Professor Hattie’s definition of grit, though the spokesman declined to define it. “We want all young people to develop a range of character traits, like confidence, motivation and resilience, that will help them succeed in adult life in modern Britain,” he said.
Professor Hattie was speaking to TES during a conference in London based on his book Visible Learning. He also highlighted the tendency among non-teachers – including policymakers – to underestimate the skill and knowledge that teaching requires.
“The whole premise of schooling is that there are experts who can do it better than parents,” Professor Hattie said. “If we don’t believe that, let’s close schools.
“We don’t esteem expertise. But if we want people to come into teaching and make a difference, then let’s value expertise.” He claimed that teachers also undervalue their own expertise. “When you say to teachers, ‘Why are these kids doing so well?’ they say, ‘The kids put in the work,’ or, ‘The parents supported them,’ or ‘They did their homework’,” he said. “They never say it’s something they did.”
He recounted an recent experience evaluating a professional-development series in the US, which resulted in dramatic improvements in pupils’ achievement. “When you asked the teachers what they did differently, every one of them said, ‘Nothing’,” Professor Hattie said. “But that’s not possible.
“People believe that if you can change the kids, they’ll learn. They want to attribute that excellence to the kids. But that’s denying expertise. It’s about the teachers. We have some stunning teachers who change those kids.”
Rewards for expertise
Part of valuing teachers, Professor Hattie said, is recognising and rewarding expertise. Teachers’ pay tends to be based on the idea of annual incremental rises. However, he said that research has shown that, after three to five years, there is little correlation between expertise and length of time in the job.
He called instead for a national, independent means of ranking teachers to be introduced in England, as in Australia. In Australia, teachers are valued according to a set of a national teaching levels. Depending on expertise, they are defined as “graduate”, “proficient”, “highly accomplished” or “lead”. These statuses are awarded centrally, according to national standards (see box, below).
Professor Hattie also pointed out that many other professions – such as science, medicine and architecture – have a Royal Society for their best practitioners. He argued that teaching would benefit from a similar institution of excellence. “Just because you’re not in the Royal Society doesn’t mean you’re no good,” he said. “It just means you’re not there yet.
“But we insist that every teacher is equal, and that isn’t true.”
Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, agreed that a Royal Society would improve the status of the profession, by recognising its best practitioners. But he said that entry criteria needed to be set by teachers. “The entry level should be consulted on by the profession,” he said. “It’s about regaining the professional space, not about an outside body – be it a university or politicians – dictating to the profession what ‘good’ looks like.”
In response to Professor Hattie’s recommendations, a DfE spokeswoman said: “We are determined that all schools across the country should have brilliant teachers to give every child the world-class education they deserve.
“We are working with the profession to raise the status of teaching, recognise the contribution of top leaders, and attract the best and brightest to a career in the classroom.”
John Hattie will be in London to speak about Visible Learning. You can find more information at bit.ly/HattieBook
The value of teachers: how staff are ranked in Australia
In Australia, teachers are valued according to a national ranking system.
Teachers defined as “graduate” “have completed a qualification that meets the requirements of a nationally accredited programme of initial teacher education… [and] possess the requisite knowledge and skills to plan for and manage learning programmes.”
“Proficient” teachers “create effective teaching and learning experiences for their students. They know the unique backgrounds of their students and adjust their teaching to meet their individual needs and diverse cultural, social and linguistic characteristics.”
Teachers defined as “highly accomplished” “are recognised as highly effective, skilled classroom practitioners and routinely work independently and collaboratively to improve their own practice and the practice of colleagues. They are knowledgeable and active members of the school.”
“Lead” teachers “are recognised and respected by colleagues, parents/carers and community members as exemplary teachers. They have demonstrated consistent and innovative teaching practice over time. Inside and outside the school they initiate and lead activities that focus on improving educational opportunities for all students.”