- Secretary's update
Every Student Podcast John Hattie
01 June 2020
Education expert John Hattie joins Mark Scott to discuss supporting students' ongoing learning following the return to school.
Hi, I'm Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education. Welcome to Every Student, the podcast where I get to introduce you to some of our great leaders in education. Today my special guest is John Hattie, Laureate Professor of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, and Chair of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership.
John's work is internationally acclaimed and his influential book, Visible Learning, is believed to be the world's largest evidence-based study into the factors that improve student learning. He's just the person to put into context the effects of COVID-19 on student learning and to help us think through how we best return our students to the classroom and what the balance of the 2020 school year should look like. John, welcome to the Every Student Podcast.
It's great to be with you, Mark.
John, at the beginning of the school year, we would have thought that bushfires would have been the major impact on teaching and learning in many of our schools. Since then we've had floods and now of course COVID-19. This week students returning to the classroom, really for the first time in many, many weeks, nine weeks of disruption if you include the school holidays, and over this period we've seen a phenomenal transformation in how teachers teach and how students learn, and they had to respond very quickly to the challenge. What do you think we've learned about the impact of this sustained shutdown on teaching and learning?
The other way of seeing it is it's kind of like an unplanned experiment, in that we've asked teachers to take on an incredible load, switching to a new way of teaching, students to do the same thing, and in many cases there's some pretty stunning and impressive examples of a different way of learning. Learning from, in a sense, a distance, home schooling and I think that there is so much that we can learn from this that we can bring back to the new normal.
On the other hand, if you think of it in terms of about nine weeks, it's longer than the normal end of the year vacation, that’s for sure. But the effect for most students is not going to be that dramatic. Teachers starting up school again this week in NSW, they're going to be quite dramatically exciting in terms of looking at the boosting that they will do, the way in which they will make that recovery very fast, and heaven help us, we have no more of this this year.
I'm pretty optimistic that we're going to make a full recovery from this, and in many cases, there is going to be even some benefits from what's happened.
I want to come to the benefits in a moment, but when we focus on the impact of disruption, I know you've done work on the impact of the Christchurch earthquake on teaching and learning outcomes. You've also looked back on what research shows us after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans some years ago. What do we know about sudden and unpredicted disruptions into student learning during the academic year?
In many of those cases the actual students did better in the year in which they had the disruption. That was primarily because when you have these disruptions, such as we've just had with COVID, teachers go into more of a triage situation. They are much more aware and listen to what students actually bring to that session, what they know, what they're learning. The formative evaluation goes up and that's where the benefit comes off.
Sadly at times, when they come back to the normal class, the kids come to the class to get what all kids need, which is not necessarily what all kids need. And so during these times, teachers take on a much more refined focus on individual students and following them through. Certainly after the Christchurch earthquake, the performance went up. Sadly, the year later it went back down again as they went back to the normal.
Hurricane Katrina, I know there was different circumstances there. Many of the kids went back to different schools, not to the same school. Actually, they went back to better schools. There are lots of different reasons why kids do better in these circumstances and there was a report from my own graduate school on the weekend of a first look here in Australia at some of the exciting positive things that are happening because teachers can't do the normal, and they are very adept and fast at learning how to deal with the new normal. I hope we don't forget that.
You're saying John that you think teachers are going to be paying very close attention to the assessment of student progress, particularly as students return to the classroom for the first time after nine weeks. In a sense it will be a more granular and sophisticated engagement with student learning that we'll see in coming weeks and months?
I would argue that's certainly what has been happening at the moment. What I would also argue that when the students come back, we don't assume that they are all somehow stressed, that they're all lacking in their learning but we treat it as an excellent diagnosis period. Because we're going to be surprised. There's going to be some students that haven't done so well over these last nine weeks that could easily slip underneath the radar.
We're very good in education at coming up with categories of kids and grouping kids, and we talk about autism, we talk about low socioeconomic, we talk about Aboriginal, as if they're all in the same situation. Take Aboriginal kids, there is half the Aboriginal kids above the average. Some of those will do extremely well in this circumstance and so the message is we have to be very, very careful in the first couple of weeks back, that we do excellent diagnosis of what has happened.
Some students may never have logged on during the nine weeks, for all kinds of reasons. Access to technology, they weren't interested in school before, they weren't interested in school at home, they had parents who weren't overseeing them in the same way that other parents did, so those kids are going to lose out, and they're going to come from all different kinds of circumstances. The message is that let's not go back and teach as we did normally, because it isn’t normal. Let's go back and make sure that we spend the next first two weeks of doing very good diagnosis of what the kids have learned, how they've caught up, whether they've not caught up. Just don't assume – otherwise, we're going to miss it.
You've talked about how we need to give up some of the old grammar of schooling, and move to the new normal of learning. What do you mean by the grammar of schooling?
If you were Rip Van Winkle and you came back 150 years later, like today, and went into a classroom, you could go into a classroom and you could teach exactly as you did 150 years ago. As teachers, we talk a lot, oh my gosh, I'm an academic – we talk even more. We talk between 80-90% of the day. We ask 200 questions, mostly about the facts and the content. We give less than a 1-2 second response for those questions. We give a lot of feedback about the content.
This is the typical grammar of schooling, and it's kind of worked for most kids, and there's a conspiracy. The conspiracy is kids above average want the teacher to talk more, they want more factual questions and more content and subject matter vocabulary, because they know how to play that game. It's the kids below average that want the teachers to shut up and listen to them, how they think, explain, and understand their way of verbalising and working out what the problems are.
During COVID, that happened so frequently. Teachers had to listen into the students, there was much more student talk than there was as much teacher talk. There was more dialogue. That's the new grammar of schooling I think we should embrace and work from. If we go back to the old grammar, and we stand up the front, we talk a lot, we construct, we orchestrate, on the one hand it works for most kids, but for many kids COVID has showed them that people do care about how they think. They are allowed to think aloud, it is safe to do that. There is someone there listening who has expertise, not just talking who has expertise.
This is why that old current grammar of schooling, and sadly when you look at Christchurch earthquake, you look at the hurricanes, the strikes, the wars, all that, the sad fact is we rush back to the old normal, we rush back to the old grammar of schooling so fast, we miss the opportunity.
One of the things we've seen through students having success in home learning is how important self-regulation is for them and how they've actually flourished in an environment where self-regulation has been a priority. What about the benefits for students of self-regulation and how do we teach self-regulation in a regular school environment?
You're absolutely right. It's that self-regulation, it's that ability to know what to do when you don't know what to do. It's the ability to seek and ask for help and not just sit there and let the river go over you. Those kind of skills are very critical, and I would expect that those students who had those skills before COVID would be amongst the more successful compared to those who didn't, who completely depend on the teacher for the next instruction, they're completely dependent on their parents to know whether it's right or wrong, and they got into that really unfortunate situation where they didn't know what to do or what they did next.
We've known for many decades that this is a pretty critical outcome of our schooling, and we do need to teach it. There's a lot of programs out there, right through NSW they've been looking at self-regulation programs, how students think, looking at the different strategies and giving them some freedoms to trial and see that errors are opportunities to learn. Whereas, many kids think that if they make an error, they're wrong. It's a mistake, it's evil. Some parents reinforce that notion that not getting perfect scores is a bad thing.
If you get a perfect score, it was probably too easy. We've got to see that notion of challenge as a key part of it. I think that's again something that we should really foster as we go back to the new normal and bring back better in terms of looking at that self-regulation. I do a lot of work with a tremendous number of schools, both here in Australia and throughout the world, and one of our focus is on that self-regulation. We're finding really quite positive things have been happening during COVID with kids who have that skills.
Yeah, we do need to teach them, it is part of the claims and the curriculum of NSW and across Australia, and so one of the things Mark, you might want to think about is what Singapore did. After SARS in 2003, they made it compulsory every year for two days of the school year, for kids to be at home with parents, and teaching the teachers how to work in those circumstances. Since they were preparing for the next outbreak, which happened, obviously, just recently. But we can do that in schools. We don't have to have students sitting in front of us all the time, waiting for our next instruction and our next 80% of our talking time.
We can find ways within schools to give kids and teach them. Not just dump them out there and say, "Go and learn" but teach them the skills of learning. Not just by themselves, but with other students, without necessarily having the teacher present. That's what we ask of you and I when we go out to the workforce. Why aren't we doing that in school? Why aren't we setting up assessments so that they're done collectively? I know there's all kinds of issues and problems in that, but this is the kind of issue that we should be facing and dealing with, to build these skills of self-regulation.
One of the things that this disruption, having students learning from home does for us is to make us think through, "Well, what are the opportunities for students to be learning on their own and learning from home and what is best done at home, and what is best done in the classroom?"
What's your thinking about the future mix of learning in the classroom and learning from home?
I think that we've known for a long time that homework, particularly in primary school, has a close to zero effect. It goes up in high school and that's primarily because of the nature of homework. Homework where it's to practise something already learned, has a much more positive effect. But projects where you do at home where you have to depend on the parents for the skillset, they have a zero to negative effect. What's happened over these last nine weeks is that many parents have realised they're actually not very good teachers.
They don't have the same kind of expertise, they don't know how to engage and motivate the kids, and when you think in most homes, they had one or two or three kids, most teachers have 20-30, in high school 100-200 kids they face every week, and they are extremely good at doing that. Many parents realised they couldn't, but I do think there is one thing that we have learned about parents, is how do we teach the parents what the concept of learning is like in a modern classroom? When parents learn that language of learning, then I think we can be a much better off system and they can be more involved.
I don't think it is the role of parents to be the police at home, to monitor and have surveillance. But they can be involved in understanding and listening and realising that errors are opportunities, of realising that struggle is a good word. I think there's a tremendous amount we have learned. I have a hunch that if nothing else, the parents of NSW will hold teachers in incredibly higher esteem as a consequence of this.
I was going to ask you that. Do you think broadly, the esteem and reputation of teachers has been enhanced and that there will be greater insight by parents and a greater sense for parents to more actively support the teaching and learning that's taking place in schools?
Don't you hear that sigh of relief today that the kids are back to school? I think in our roles, we really have to capitalise on this. We have to remind parents and voters and politicians and the Press that teaching does have an incredible amount of expertise. That expertise we need to value, we need to nurture, we need to capture, we need to esteem. And I really do hope that we make a lot out of this moment where we say, "Hey look, this is the skill that teachers have".
If we have this conversation in six weeks' time it will be about what an amazing recovery we've had. Put it down to the expertise of teachers. The thing that bothers me is that sometimes teachers aren't very good at getting up and saying it was them that did this.
There's been quite a lot of media commentary since NAPLAN was cancelled this year because of the disruption. There's been a sense, well, what's the new testing program? Whether the federal government or state and territory government should be rolling out NAPLAN equivalents. What's your level of confidence as far as teachers' ability to be able to run their own assessments in classrooms and get good insight into learning progress or learning gaps, as they may have emerged over recent weeks and months?
I've been doing it for eons and often in circumstances where there wasn't the national testing. So, teachers have an incredible amount of testing. The one struggle I have here in Australia is that we haven't really resourced our schools very well for progress and growth assessments. There's all kinds of interesting dilemmas about doing that and it’s not easy to do. I think it is incumbent on us to devise a system where teachers have more access to seeing what the growth looks like over time.
I've kept pushing the line and I see Gonski picked it up, about at least a year's growth for a year's input. That requires certain kinds of testing that's not so common in schools. I know there is lots of groups throughout the country working on this, but in general, teachers have an incredible amount of resources at the moment relating to assessment, so I'm not so worried about the fact that NAPLAN's not on this year. I have views about NAPLAN that it does serve some purposes, but it doesn't serve the purpose of telling a teacher how well the kids have recovered from COVID or not. They've got much more sophisticated tools to do that so I'm very confident that that's not going to be a major problem.
I wonder about the challenges in schools, given the level of anxiety in the broader community. We can see that in some of the reporting over the weekend here. Most parents relieved to send their children back. Some parents concerned and anxious about sending their children off to school, whilst there's still a pandemic in the community. And of course, many families are under enormous pressure at this time, economic pressure, jobs lost, levels of uncertainty and disruption that's evident in society everywhere. To what extent do our schools play this role of being a sense of ballast, a sense of security, a sense of certainty given all the uncertainty that swirls around the community?
I've seen those surveys, 80% of parents are stressed, blah, blah, blah. You've got to worry about the other 20%. This is really affecting a lot of people in a lot of incredible ways, but the whole stress research 20 years ago switched, and we don't talk about those stresses anymore. We talk about the coping strategies. This is the art and the skill of teachers, to give those kids the coping strategies to deal with this. I'm not denying there's stress out there, in my own family, and it's probably in yours and many others. There are stresses.
But what are those coping strategies, and that's what teachers are very good at, giving kids safe havens, and in many cases school is a safe haven compared to some homes. It is giving those kids a sense of belonging, a sense of being with others, so I'm pretty confident that schools will be a ballast. They will be a safe ground to build up those schools and one of the things we ask of our schools is how do we give kids those social skills and coping strategies? Obviously, kids are going to be differentially affected.
But once again, schools are pretty good at detecting when that happens. They have a lot of duty of care. We know that kids don't leave those stresses at the school gates. Teachers have been dealing with them for a long time. Right at the moment, my argument is be more open and aware. Some of those stresses may be manifested in ways we're not normally seeing. So, be aware, probably is a symptom that the kids aren't coping. Teach them the strategies.
Part of your important work for Australian education is to work with leaders and around leadership capability. I think part of the pressure we've seen around return to schools is teachers concerned about their own health and wellbeing. The research indicates quite clearly that students aren't great carriers of COVID-19, or transmitters of COVID-19, to each other and to other adults, but as schools return, we've got to exercise social distancing amongst adults and we know that some teachers are concerned that they might be in higher risk categories for the disease.
What's your advice to principals and school leadership teams about how they lead their fellow professionals when the adults on the school staff might be arriving with heightened levels of concern or anxiety about returning to work at this time?
I'm very aware of that. My own children, young adults, are teachers in schools. Sometimes we have forgotten that they are at risk and that's why you're saying with school leaders, how they are attentive and certainly with the schools my two young adults are in, school leaders have been very aware and constantly alert. I think some of the technologies we have now to make sure we pick up as early detection as possible.
But this is a real problem and this is where the stress can be manifest in schools amongst staff, and why we have to deal with the staff in terms of their coping strategies, how we set up safety, how we in a sense, make sure that as far as possible, we've got our schools as safe as to be in building that belongingness amongst the staff. I don't think there's an easy answer there but I think that's the thing we have to worry more about than the children passing on the COVID-19, is how we deal with those teachers and how we're going to have to do that unfortunately for quite a long time to come in the current climate.
Part of that will be setting up schools and setting up the processes for how school operations are going to be, but part of it in a sense will be how leaders effectively communicate with their school staff as well, and how in a sense the school staff feel listened to and part of the strategy as it emerges at a school level.
It's interesting reading your articles on this and even talking with you today, you seem to be an optimistic voice about how our schools can recover from this level of disruption and how we can actually find opportunities to improve the way teaching and learning takes place in schools on the other side of COVID-19.
When you work as long as I have with teachers and schools, you never underestimate their skills to solve a problem. You never underestimate their skills to come together and do the best for their kids. I've seen in other countries, I have seen some horrific policies been introduced in schools where teachers have gone overboard to protect the students and make sure the students do the absolute best that they can in those sometimes unusual circumstances.
So when you start from that premise, from the history of schooling and teaching where they have gone above and beyond, there's probably not many other professions that have said, "One day, you're not going to do what you do normally. You'll have to do something completely different." And they did. Now they're saying, "We're going to have to do it again, different, as you come back into the recovery phase" and they are. They're not squealing, they are getting on and they're doing it. I don't think we're going to have many children that are going to slip through because of the expertise of the teachers.
When you start from that premise, you see COVID as another disruption that they deal with, and you said bushfires, you said floods. It's the normality of schools that we deal with disruption. Probably not as big as this one, but we do. I'm very confident about the resilience of teachers, the expertise, and I go back to what we were talking about before. That notion of that expertise can't be lost. I fear for the amateurisation coming into schools. I fear that anybody think they can teach. Well, have some parents learned that's not true?
I think how we can build on that expertise, and having high standards for being a teacher, that's how we're going to get more able, competent and wonderful people coming into our profession. We've been given an incredible opportunity now to stand up and say that, and I hope we do.
I wondered, given the disruption, but given the disruption we were seeing even before COVID-19 on the impact of globalisation and technology, AI and machine learning on the job market, the disappearance of many white collar jobs that is being impacted by this sweeping economic change that's been rolling through society, whether in fact teaching may emerge as a more attractive profession for many people. I'm kind of wondering whether in fact there are parents who may have been overwhelmed by the experience of trying to help their students learn from home, but given the economic shakeout we're going to see on the back of COVID-19, whether teaching actually might be a more attractive profession or it might provide an opportunity to draw more people into teaching as a result of all this.
People want to come into a profession because it has challenges, because it has expertise and I also can imagine that there are many parents over this last nine weeks who may have said, "Hey, I'm not so bad at this. Maybe this is a career I can move to". So there can be some benefits there and I think that the more we show that expertise happens, the more we're going to get into our profession. The more we make it sound like it's something you can do with your eyes closed, then people don't want to stay in a profession.
The other thing that I find fascinating is teachers who have been in our profession 10-15 years, and who have been extremely successful, have probably been successful because they've done it alone. That world's changing. The new cohorts that are coming into teaching want to come into a profession that's a collaborative profession that works as a collective. This is where I know you in NSW have been working very hard with school leaders to build that sense of community, professional learning community and collaboration.
I think this is a really exciting thing to do and again, to take from this latest COVID, those schools where the teachers have worked more as a team, and not 20 or 30 individuals, I think are going to be much more successful. You talk about the stresses on teachers coming back and COVID, those schools where they have been building professional learning communities and they work together, they're going to be more successful. Once again, that whole notion of coming to a profession where we work together to make a difference to the lives of kids, you're not alone. I think that's an incredibly powerful message that hopefully will attract more to come into our profession.
I saw your suggestion that perhaps when the year-end rolls around, we should think of a job lot nomination of Australian teachers for Australian of the Year this year, given all their remarkable work during this great disruption.
Look, I'm deadly serious about that. I do think that sometimes the small things to esteem our profession are really important. I know we're going to be competing very hard against the health and the nursing profession, so together, that kind of helping profession, the nurses and the teachers. Mark, join with me, let's put in a submission for Australian of the Year. Let's identify some of those incredible teachers and principals we have up there and salute them by giving them the honours. Every other profession do it. The police do it, the military do it, and the lawyers do it. Why don't we as a profession have this kind of esteem?
It's a fantastic idea. Thanks for all your insights today, John. I think you're a voice of experience and knowledge but also a voice of confidence and optimism in the professionals who work with our students every day, and a word of wise advice to our systems and system leaders as well. Thanks for joining us today, John Hattie, on the Every Student Podcast.
And thank you for listening to this episode of Every Student. Never miss an episode by subscribing on your podcast platform of choice, or by heading to our website at education.nsw.gov.au/every-student-podcast.
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End of transcript.
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