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' Too many teaching methods are based on myths and assumptions – it's time to wake up to reality'

While teaching is a rewarding profession, there is always room for improvement, argues one former head. And here's where we should learn from John Hattie

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While teaching is a rewarding profession, there is always room for improvement, argues one former head. And here's where we should learn from John Hattie

I always take pleasure in seeing teachers being celebrated for their hard work and contribution. Although I was travelling for much of World Teachers Day on Thursday, I made sure to scan the media for what was being said about the noble but (in the UK, at least) perpetually beleaguered profession.

I came across a piece by Professor John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Educational Research Institute at the University of Melbourne. Hattie looked at thousands of studies involving millions of students to analyse a number of myths versus reality in regards to teaching and learning outcomes. Assumptions that too often lure education systems up unproductive blind alleys.

Harris’ latest summary, Dispelling Educational Myths, which was recently published in the Queensland’s Nature Partner Journals Science of Learning Community website, does what it says on the tin.

I can’t list here all the myths he explodes, but I must be honest here and confess that it was good to have many of my own beliefs, based on long personal experience, confirmed by someone who has studied the issues in greater depth.

According to Harris, forcing struggling pupils to repeat a year would have a negative effect on achievement. He also dismisses the notion that ability grouping is effective and that reducing class size makes no difference. He says: "What really matters is that the teacher is effective and having an impact". 

He explains how diet and even sugary additives are not linked to hyperactivity and misbehaviour and can be attributed to the parental or teacher expectations as well as the attitudes of children.

Hattie supports my stance on school uniform, revealing that there’s no link between uniform and high standards and that the endless conversation surrounding this subject is a waste of energy. Remember, he’s been through the research. 

Over the years, I’ve also spoken out about the single-sex-versus-co-ed debate (interesting to see diamond schools receiving a puff in the press this week). Hattie says performance has nothing to do with the gender or separation issue.

However, (balm to this former music teacher’s ears), extra-curricular activities have a powerful effect on children’s outcomes. Let’s bear that in mind when time and resources are squeezed and ministers (and the media) insist focusing solely on the three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic).

Having spent most of my career in the independent sector, I support Hattie’s refutation of the myth that “teaching in private schools is better than teaching at public [state-funded] schools”.

We shouldn't be sending young kids off to do a project of their choosing, particularly under the guise of homework (which should briefly revise and recap what’s been learned that day). I support the idea of independent learning, as long as it is guided and purposeful, which Hattie appears to agree with. 

He criticises teachers for doing most of the talking in class: “Research shows students are more engaged and learn more when teachers talk around 50 per cent of the time, or even less.”

We can always seek to improve our teaching by taking charge of the classroom, planning and directing, this remains at the very heart of learning, which is essential, valued and invaluable.

Hattie’s piece represents a resounding hurrah for teachers, thanks for that. The last word lies with Sir Ken Robinson, British author, speaker and international advisor on education in the arts, who tweeted: “Education doesn’t happen in committee rooms…it’s what goes on between learners and teachers.”

I hope you had a good World Teachers Day.

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationist and musician. He is a former headteacher and past chair of HMC. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

To read more columns, view his back catalogue

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