Hattie & Yates – a game changer for educational research?

[post written by Phil Heath]

Cargo cult science refers to practices that have the semblance of being scientific, but do not in fact follow the scientific method. The term was first used by physicist Richard Feynman during his 1974 commencement address at the California Institute of Technology. Cargo cults—the religious practice that has appeared in many traditional tribal societies in the wake of interaction with technologically advanced cultures—focus on obtaining the material wealth (the “cargo”) of the advanced culture by building mock aircraft, landing strips, and the like.

Wikipedia – accessed on 28/3/2014

Educational research is something that we, as practising teachers, cannot help but come across on a fairly regular basis. It is a key part of our training and it informs governmental decisions about how we (or at least our maintained sector colleagues) should be teaching our classes. The problem it faces is similar to that faced by many areas of applied research; it either seems to be stating the obvious if it agrees with what our experience already tells us or talking counterintuitive nonsense if it does not. Furthermore, educational research is usually presented as scientific research and it is obvious to anyone who looks at it closely that it very often is not. This can rub teachers up the wrong way even when they acknowledge the obvious benefits that such research could have, were it done better.

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It is fair to say that the scientific method has wrought and is wreaking fundamental changes in a lot of subjects. I believe that it is the most powerful method of looking at the world that we humans have yet devised and my own subject gives a good illustration as to why many areas of human endeavour have incorporated it into their structure. Pre Darwinian biology was mostly concerned with making lists of organisms but once we biologists had our paradigm we could really start testing things against it and the life sciences were born. Psychology-in my opinion the most fascinating of fields combining science and philosophy in the study of the most complex phenomenon in the known universe -is in the process of transforming into a paradigm driven science right now. The problem comes when a subject adopts the look and feel of the scientific method without any of the substance (so called cargo cult science) because it can lead people to have unfounded confidence in its findings.

You might have spotted where I am going with this! Educational research is often cargo cult science. It looks like science, it has experiments, controls, statistics and papers published in peer-reviewed journals but looks can be deceiving. Check these studies carefully and you will see flawed experimental design, tiny samples, systems far too complex to incorporate adequate controls and some of the strangest, least appropriate and most far-fetched uses of significance testing ever devised. So does this mean educational research is useless? Definitely not. Teachers are interested in getting better at what they do and the application of neuroscience and psychology to education has had and is having big benefits. Educational research itself (as opposed to more general psychological research which is generally of a much higher quality) will get more and more rigorous and less and less cargo cultish as time goes on. The problem is that there is a lot of speculative, farfetched and downright wrong information out there and it can be difficult as a classroom practitioner to separate the wheat from the chaff. Educational research turns up lots of useful ideas and suggestions; the danger comes when people (governments!) decide to base things on them without evaluating the quality of the studies. (For a detailed analysis of what scientific research is and a discussion of how it could be applied to education please click on the following link to the website of extremely smug doctor and medical journalist Ben Goldacre { Dr Goldacre on educational research}. Smugness aside it is a good analysis of the current state of affairs in educational research.)

The point of all this is that I have just read rather a good book summarising the actual science (mostly) of how we learn. The book is called Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. It pulls together quite a lot of primary research and tries to derive concrete findings from it about how we as teachers should operate in the classroom. It is the best that I have found of its type because it synthesizes information from a lot of studies and because it avoids jumping to far-fetched conclusions on the basis of too little evidence. It is also based on research from the wider fields of psychology and neuroscience, not just on studies performed in schools.

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Anyone who has been teaching for a long time will have worked out a lot of the findings in the book for themselves, but it contains a lot of valuable information for newer teachers and people who are looking to make changes to their practice. The book is too long to summarise in a short blog but it covers such topics as:

  • Teacher personality,
  • Expertise in your subject,
  • How knowledge is stored,
  • System 1 vs. system 2 thinking (See “Thinking fast and slow” – Kahneman)
  • The psychology of self-control (this is fascinating, it seems the Victorians had it right after all),
  • Digital native theory,
  • Myths and fallacies of how people learn,

The topics are divided into three sections entitled Learning within Classrooms, Learning Foundations and Know Thyself. Despite being laid out in a fairly dry style the book is well written and easy to read.

hattie book 2

As always, there are caveats. The book is basically a literature review and it is not possible to judge the quality of the primary studies without seeking them all out and looking at the data and methodologies. There is also a worryingly authoritative note to some of the pronouncements given that the science of the brain is a relatively young one and many of the findings are likely to be modified or even discarded in future years. If the suggestions given are combined with common sense and experience though, I think they will be valuable to many teachers.


If you want to have a look for yourself then there are quite a few copies kicking around the RGS or I am sure you could order one for your department from Amazon ( click here to buy, PJH gets no commission 😦) If anyone is interested (in fact, if anyone reads this at all apart from Roger and John!) then I will go into more depth on some of the topics in the book in a future post. If you want to beg me not to then please use the comments section below.


12 responses to “Hattie & Yates – a game changer for educational research?

  1. A ‘scientific’ approach only gets you so far. Given that education takes place in social setting it is hard, if not impossible, to get the closed experimental conditions that the scientific, positivist approach demands. Even Hattie’s approach has limitations, the biggest one being that he tells us very little about _how_ to make these approaches work in the contexts in which we teach.


    • Absolutely. In my opinion the key is to be clear about what approach you are using and to make sure that you are not claiming a level of rigour which you are not entitled to. I think that too much credence is given to some studies in education given the problems that you have mentioned. Also agree with your second point. Theory is one thing, only classroom practitioners with skill at the craft of teaching can decide how feasible a particular approach or idea is in the context of their own classroom.


  2. This must seem an odd comment as its from the co-author of a book that seems to have helped stimulate this conversation (?). We sit in our ivory towers (if only that were true) and write about human learning and how we learn, both inside and outside of the classroom. But we are still careful, so careful, about not attempting to tell practising teachers what they ‘should’ do. The ‘should’ word is a no-no in educational research writing. since personally we are no longer at the general classroom coalface. As research-type staff we have quite separate issues about helping adults to learn new skills. And we benefit from having well-motivated students. One fascinating aspect is in being on receiving end of practising teachers’ views. I hate to note this, but for each teacher who tells us X=Y, there is another saying X does not equal Y. We do listen. But our approach has been to read the literature as available to the world, and to give prominence to what keeps surfacing repeatedly from people working out of accredited institutions. That is the missive behind the visible learning agenda, and I hope that this can be seen as a common sense approach as able to be interpreted sensibly. Cheers, Greg Yates in Adelaide, Australia.


    • First of all, thanks for taking the time to comment. The main point I was trying to get across in the post is that having high quality well designed research studies readily available for classroom practitioners to draw from is very desirable. Problems arise when people take studies (of varying quality in some cases) and try to turn them into absolute rules which they then expect to see enacted in the classroom. This is what leads to the “your lesson must have X parts, hit Y learning styles and demonstrate progress every Z seconds” approach that has been such a feature of maintained sector education in this country over the last few years. In fairness, I think that we are moving away from this as a profession and towards a realisation that, if we can appoint well trained and dedicated teachers, they will make use of research in their own way to improve what they do in the classroom. A move away from formulaic teaching and towards evidence based practice is very desirable. The next step is to try and make the way we assess progress more realistic. I admire the fact that you do not try to tell teachers what they should do and I think your book is a useful resource in the form that you have published it.


  3. I think it is interesting to see how robust these pieces of research are before making a judgement. Some gain credence quickly (and may subsequently inform those who perhaps do not know as much about the implications as they might be expected to) and influence change, whilst others tend to creep up on us. Which are better? For me, the ones which creep up and gradually prove themselves to be not only correct (and therefore maybe decent science) but also significant are the more valuable. Thus we see words like resilience being more in the mainstream and crossing into other aspects of education (see “grit”). This is the stuff that matters and is what we should be acting on.


  4. On the theme of necessary cynicsm/realism regarding the packaging of pseudoscience: I used to have a folder entitled “Research”, back in my PGCE days, complete with inverted commas. After years as a postgrad, not quite doing any proper research but at least rubbing shoulders with people who did, I had been amazed at how uncritically trainee teachers were expected to embrace certain supposed theoretical orthodoxies…which, a few years teaching in the state sector at the height of CPD funding revealed, various consultants were quick to rebrand and sell as one-size-fits-all solutions. It’s good to have time and space to think!

    Now that’s out of the way, what I really meant to mention: no RGS learning blog should ever be without suitable musical references, so a starter for 10 prompted by the first line of this post – there’s a great, if weird, Serge Gainsbourg song called ‘Cargo Culte’…http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IwyY9vlFJA0


  5. Such a strange world this is: I read Mike’s reply and really enjoyed his YT link to Serge Gainsbourg. Much thanks. But, as an ex-Kiwi, I recognised that girl in the video, it was Jane Birkin, English actress, who starred in a wonderful film about the relationship between John Middleton Murray and Katherine Mansfield, “Leave all fair”. It is a highly emotional film, with the famous John Gielgud as lead, Literature teachers might appreciate link to http://www.nzonscreen.com/title/leave-all-fair-1985.
    As for educational research, yes, I agree so much with what Phil says: Too much is of embarrassingly poor value. So much is vacuous. For instance, this distinction between student-centred and teacher-centred teaching conceptions, beloved by researchers, has no empirical validity when it comes to providing instruction in the classroom. I could go on, but personal prejudices still need to be guarded, and eked out piecemeal. Thanks for your interesting blog. Cheers, Greg Yates in Adelaide.


  6. It’s always interesting to debate with someone who is actively involved in research, especially if we think it has validity. Certainly practice would suggest that a focus solely on student-centred learning misses something in the same way as teacher-centred does. Professional practice is about striking a balance between approaches and informing that decision using the best available information. I feel for our state colleagues who are often dictated to by policy makers who jump on bandwagons that are justified by dodgy research. Yet they are unable to challenge the decision and outcome. This is especially pernicious when the inspection regime judges the classroom on such outcomes.


  7. Pingback: Mindset & Cognitive Biases: what teachers can learn from Dweck and Kahneman | RGS Learning·

  8. Great discussion here. On an irrelevant but only slightly pompous note, may I thank the authors for using the words “wreaking” and “wrought”. Absolutely right: there’s far too much use of “wreaked” about these days. Even on the BBC! No, it was really quite pompous after all.


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