What Do Schools Need? Collaboration and Principals Who Lead It

John Hattie is back -- and once again he is marshaling the evidence needed to improve schools.

Keep in mind that Hattie took the education world by storm a few years ago with his book Visible Learning: What Works Best for Learning.

Visible Learning and its sister book, Visible Learning for Teachers, began to solve a knotty problem. To wit, thousands upon thousands of education research studies -- some high-quality, some low-quality, some large-scale, some tiny -- confuse just about everyone.

Individual teachers and principals have no practical way to sift through all of them on their own, which leaves educators vulnerable to fads and fashions -- in part because no matter how unrealistic the idea, some study somewhere can be used to validate it.

When aggregated together, however, all those studies provide important guidance. That basic insight is what underlies Visible Learning.

Not only did Hattie, who directs the Melbourne Educational Research Institute at Australia's University of Melbourne, synthesize thousands of studies, but he devised a common metric of "effect size" to help think about what has the most effect on student learning.

As it turns out, pretty much any policy, program, or practice can have some positive effect for students. But some have much more effect than others. Hattie argues that educators should put their efforts into those things that provide the biggest effect.

And what is the one thing that has the most effect? Providing students with fast, accurate feedback -- that is, making learning visible to students.

Hattie's finding reaffirms the importance of having knowledgeable, skillful teachers who can look at students' answers, diagnose what thinking went into them, and provide feedback in a way that students can hear it and learn from it. No computer program -- no matter how sophisticated -- will ever be able to match the mastery of an expert teacher.

Hattie has continued to analyze existing research and has just published two important papers in Pearson's Open Ideas series: "The Politics of Distraction," on what doesn't work in education, and "The Politics of Collaborative Expertise," on what does.

Among the things that get a lot of political attention but don't actually help students much: a focus on school structures (charters, magnets, academies, and the list goes on) and attempting to appease parents by lowering class size.

The main thing that works? Teacher collaboration.

It is only through a collaborative culture, Hattie argues, that teacher expertise is exposed and shared, which is how a professional practice is developed.

Says Hattie:

We must stop allowing teachers to work alone, behind closed doors and in isolation in the staffrooms and instead shift to a professional ethic that emphasizes collaboration. ... We need communities that promote and share professional development aimed at improving teacher effectiveness and expertise, that devise performance "dashboards" to show success in learning and achievement and that build a coalition of the successful.

Although I wholeheartedly agree with that and much else, I have to say I have a few disagreements with Hattie's findings. For example, he lumps attempts to develop high-quality and shared curricula into the category of "distraction." But this misses the power that a shared curriculum has in providing a platform for collaboration.

If every algebra class in a high school is working on the slope of a line at the same time, teachers can develop their quizzes and examine the results together. When Mr. Jones' lesson is more successful than Ms. Smith's, that then starts a profound investigation into what worked for Mr. Jones and why and, as Hattie puts it, starts building a "coalition of the successful."

But disagreements aside, it is clear that Hattie has once again provided the education field an important way of thinking about building a profession grounded in evidence. And I was happy to see that he identified the power of school leaders as a key lever of school improvement.

Schools need high-impact instructional leaders, ones who make several formal classroom observations each year, interpret test scores with teachers, insist teachers collaborate in planning and evaluating the teaching programme across grades, insist teachers expect high proportions of their students to do well on achievement and social outcomes and insist and know that the staff room and classroom atmosphere is conducive to learning for all students.

He is reflecting the wisdom of a great deal of research that has been done on the role of leadership, but he does so in a clear and forceful way, ending with a challenge:

Have we the courage to dependably recognise the excellence that is often all around us in our schools, among our teachers and with our school leaders? Have we the courage to then build a coalition of success based on this excellence and invite the others in the system to join this coalition? The aim is not aspiring to utopia but scaling up the success already about us. It is expertise, it is reliable judgement, it is passion for making the difference, and it is collaborative sharing of this knowing and doing and caring. This requires the greatest investment, and the benefits for the students will be manifest, powerful and exciting.