Teachers’ expertise ‘is something to shout about’

17th November 2017 at 00:00
Unless teachers celebrate their excellence, they risk being ignored, says top academic

Teachers do not “shout” loud enough about their expertise and make it too easy for politicians to ignore them, according to the academic behind groundbreaking analysis of what works in education.

Professor John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute in Australia, said in Edinburgh last week that teachers tend to heap praise on pupils and parents for their schools’ successes.

Teachers “give the credit to the kids”, he said, but “we’re not very good at saying that we cause learning”.

Professor Hattie, who has become one of the world’s most widely quoted education academics, pointed to school websites, which he said are dominated by pictures of “nice buildings” and “nice pupils” but “hardly ever advertise our great teachers”. And because teachers “are not shouting” about their expertise, he said, politicians are less likely to take notice of the profession.

This echoed the view of another globetrotting academic, Dr Zachary Walker, who told the annual conference of primary school leaders’ body the AHDS in Glasgow this month that schools are vulnerable to budget cuts partly because teachers are bad at articulating why they need money.

‘You need an expert’

Professor Hattie is widely known for his 2008 analysis of 50,000 pieces of educational research, and subsequent updates, creating rankings of what makes a difference in schools. His work on 800 “meta-analyses” of education research, published in the book Visible Learning, provided the basis for the event in Edinburgh last week, entitled “What the best schools do to be the best”, where he said “student control over learning” – one of the least effective practices in his list and “likely to have small positive impact on student achievement” – was still common in schools.

This undermined the expertise of teachers, he argued. He asked delegates to imagine that they knew nothing of golf or the card game canasta and were then told to go away and master them with no expert guidance – this was what happened when too much faith was placed on student control of learning. “You need an expert,” said Professor Hattie.

Workload pressures

In a snap Twitter poll run by Tes Scotland last week, most respondents agreed that teachers did not talk up their expertise enough, with the reasons cited including workload pressures and a culture in Scotland that does not encourage people to celebrate their own successes.

Education blogger George Gilchrist, a recently retired primary headteacher in the Scottish Borders, said Professor Hattie had made a “really interesting” point last week about Scottish teachers’ expertise.

“He was telling us not to be looking for expertise abroad, but that we should recognise and celebrate the expertise and excellent practice we already have in our own system – I agree,” said Mr Gilchrist.

But, he added, in talking up teachers’ expertise, the profession should take care not to talk down the role of parents, which “can be crucial in supporting young people with their learning”. He said: “Parents and schools bring different elements to the mix of supporting learning – both are valuable – but the expertise in making use of the different elements resides in the schools, and I feel most parents would acknowledge that.”

Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said that “education is a collaborative process – that means recognising the important roles and expertise of families, teachers and young people, who are, of course, central to their own success”. She added: “It’s not about claiming credit, it’s about recognising the importance of shared responsibility.” Joanna Murphy, chair of the National Parent Forum of Scotland, said that Professor Hattie’s analysis of education research also highlighted the important role of pupils and their families in driving educational success.

A consultation document, published by the Scottish government last week, on the Education Bill sets out plans to enhance pupil and parental participation in school processes. It says the Bill will “specify that headteachers must collaborate [with parents] on matters relating to school policies and school improvement”; currently, heads must “inform and consult” parents. The government also plans to require headteachers to “communicate with the wider parent forum”, not just the parent council.

In a submission to the recent review on education governance, the AHDS said “while parental engagement is important, the ultimate decision-making should lie with the school senior management team”.

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