Evidence-informed Teaching: John Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning

Teachers are professionals. I believe that but I suspect a lot of people don’t because I often hear people talk about teachers in a way they would never talk about dentists, doctors, lawyers, or chefs. But you know what, I think it is largely the fault of teachers themselves. Do you need proof? OK, look at the list below and put the teaching factors into one of two categories: very effective,  and not really effective. Then take a look at the bottom of this post to see how you did.

  • whole language
  • ability grouping
  • homework
  • using television
  • feedback
  • teaching  strategies
  • peer tutoring
  • repeated reading programs

As it turns out, the top four have been found to be not very effective at all and are actually among the least effective of 150 interventions/approaches that have been examined in the now-up-to-900 -plus-study meta-analysis that John Hattie has been engaged in for the last few years. The bottom four are among the most effective. I think teachers and non-teachers alike have difficulty with this task and even teachers who managed to complete the task successfully probably didn’t do so with confidence.  That is a problem. Data on successful and unsuccessful approaches and techniques are not widely known and/or accepted it seems. John Hattie is trying to change that. In his wonderful new book, Visible Learning for Teachers, he not only ranks 150 interventions/approaches in terms of effect size, but he interprets the key results, showing how they affect the business of learning.

In this book, he talks about the implications of these research results on teaching. He is not suggesting some new technique for teaching. Instead it is a new mindset that he is recommending, actually a series of mindsets that have the power to make teachers and teaching much more effective and much more professional. It is in places  buckets of icy water aimed at the faces of teachers themselves. Yet he carefully stresses the importance of the role of teachers in improving education and in doing so empowers teachers–or rather encourages teachers to empower themselves–in a way no book or program I’ve ever experienced has. The main part of the book looks at all aspects of teaching, from preparing and starting the lesson, to giving feedback and ending the lesson. The emphasis is on learning, not teaching, however. And that is one of the mindset changes he advocates. Everything a teacher does must come with questions: Did this help my students learn? Did it help everyone? How much? Teachers need to shift their thinking away from the day-to-day tasks of getting the job done, toward a belief that their fundamental overriding task is to evaluate the effect of their teaching on students’ learning and achievement. Teachers also need to believe that they are the change agents above all others. Success or failure in student learning is the result of what teachers do (or do not do). Other environmental/situational factors are what they are. It is up to each teacher to work with what they have and maximize the effect they have. This is an important shift.

In my job as a teacher trainer I often get sucked into a trap Mr. Hattie warns about. Teachers always want to talk about teaching rather than learning. It is important to keep the eyes focused on learning and see everything through that lens. Everything at the school–the classroom, the staff room, the administration–must all be focused on maximizing learning. Assessment is not just for the students; assessment is how teachers know what their impact is, how administrators know what is happening, how parents and the public can see what is happening. Knowing the effects of education/interventions/policies/approaches, discussing the effects, and displaying the effects are how to improve the current situation. This will require mindset changes for learners, their parents, teachers and administrators. But the beauty of this system is that there is a clear purpose and it is informed by data. That is something to rally around.

The research in the book provides merely a rough guide, however. The studies are from a wide range of subjects and schools and countries and you will likely find yourself wishing that it was more specifically aimed at your particular discipline. There is plenty of room to tweak things for your own specific situation. But the data are a good challenge to anyone wedded to a certain approach for no other reason than habit. Some approaches have been clearly shown to be better and need to be given more prominence in any program. Everything is up for discussion, however,  and through carefully monitoring learning and having an open dialogue better classes, better courses, better schools and better, more professional teachers can be realized.

I highly recommend this book. It is an important book. It will make you think and re-assess your position on the way you approach your craft. It is a book to be read by teachers, discussed by teachers, and referred to when making decisions on teaching and policy. This book has the power to make us teachers stop whining and making excuses. We are the agents of change, data-informed, positive change.


According to Dr. Hattie’s calculations, anything intervention with an effect size of 0.40 or higher is very positive and has thus demonstrated a benefit to learning. Here are the effect sizes for the approaches/interventions listed in the beginning of this post.

  1. feedback (0.75)
  2. repeated reading programs (0.67)
  3. teaching  strategies (0.62)
  4. peer tutoring (0.55)
  5. homework (0.29)
  6. ability grouping (0.12)
  7. whole language (0.06)
  8. using television (-0.18)





What Works Pt. 2


Let’s start with a quiz. Of the following, which do you think has been found to have the greatest impact on learning? Put another way, if you could only implement one or two of the following , which would you go for? Ready? Here they are:

  1. providing computer-assisted instruction to all learners
  2. reducing class sizes
  3. making the school day longer
  4. getting all students to come for summer school
  5.  implementing rapid formative assessment.

Tough choice to make, isn’t it? As it turns out, rapid formative assessment trumps them all, and another 17 interventions as well according to Yeh (2011). Providing better formative feedback for learners had the greatest impact on learning outcomes, and it was among the cheapest to implement. Student achievement gains are impressive; Black et al. (2003) found an increase in the rate of student learning  of around 70%. Yes, se ven ty per cent.

In yesterday’s post, I talked about how debate as a central activity in the curriculum of higher level high schools might be a way to move away from the exam-centric focus that now prevails in most shingakkou. Debating requires students to think, research, listen, and argue.   These are skills. They are observable by the instructor and the students themselves. They can be tried, observed, given feedback (both formative and summative), and adjusted. Performance goals are clear. This is critical: students must do something in class that teachers and other students can see and give feedback on as they work toward the goals. In this way, an emphasis on the task, the process, and self-regulation emerges (Hattie, 2012).

Pedagogically, this would involve a sea change of a shift at many schools here in Kanagawa, from English as knowledge to English as a set of skills. That would also shift students from being receptive in class to being productive. And it would shift the role of the teacher from being the sage on the stage to being a facilitator/coach. This shift is necessary. And that is not just an opinion, the research cited above is clear on this.  What is needed in English classes is for students to perform–actively produce something in the target language–and receive feedback. Then using that feedback, they make adjustments.

Many teachers may not be convinced. Certainly, many English teachers see their job as to teach the content and then wait for the tests to see how the students have done. It is up to the students to take or leave–embrace or ignore, take notes or doodle, study or not–the content of the lessons, the content of the teacher’s explanations. So the “good” students prepare for tests and the “bad” students don’t prepare enough and the teachers have their expectations confirmed or dispelled when the exam results come back. Everyone gets the same lesson, everyone gets equal opportunity to take or leave the content, and everyone gets the same test. It’s fair. And yes, teachers prod and encourage students. There are often quizzes along the way or other systems in place to check progress. But what I want to argue is that there should be a greater  focus on production and skills, and greater use of real meaningful formative feedback so students can see how they are doing on the tasks, with their approach to learning. The way forward involves the regular use of productive activities conducted in an environment where (rapid) formative feedback is enabled and maximized, preferably activities that build in complexity as learners progress: projects, presentations, and debating are some that seem to fit the bill.


Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C.,Marshall, B., and William, D. (2003). Assessment for Learning- putting it into practice. Maidenhead, U.K.: Open university Press.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Oxon, UK: Routledge.

Yeh, S. S. (2011). The cost-effectiveness of 22 approaches for raising student achievement. Charlotte, North Carolina: Information Age Publishing.

What Works

The holy grail of English language teaching in Japan, the thing every educator wants to know, is what is the most effective and most efficient way to successfully teach English. It’s an impossible question, however, since there are many learners at different levels studying for different purposes. Success is rarely defined clearly: it might mean getting through a textbook, or reaching March without losing too much sleep or hair. For higher level schools, it usually means being able to obtain ‘certification’ by passing one of the many proficiency tests offered, or for seniors, doing well on the Center Exam or other university entrance exams.

But tests are only one measure of success, and not always the best one. Japanese students are pretty good at taking tests. As I’ve said before, “you learn what you learn in the way that you learn it.” And if you spend a lot of time focusing on tests, well, then you become familiar with test formats and develop strategies for attacking questions. But you don’t get good at English–that is, practical English for use between humans like the kind used in international  business,  academics, or government–without learning to use it and then actually using it. Companies are frustrated by the large numbers of people with certification but no practical skills. This has led a number of companies, especially ones hoping to expand beyond Japan, to enact pretty strong policies.

Often, the biggest lost opportunities involve the more capable students. It is nothing short of a national tragedy that the most capable learners often spend their high school English hours listening to droning explanations of grammar and vocabulary mechanics, line after line, paragraph after paragraph, all in the name of entrance exam preparation. And when they finish at school, they head off to cram school for more of the same. This system may help kids get into university, but it does them no other favors. It is not good for the learners, it is not good for the teachers, and it is not good for businesses that need a workforce with better English (and other) language skills.

But there is hope for these higher level schools. On the weekend I observed the early rounds of the All Japan High School English Debate Tournament held this year in Chiba. Visit the website for more info, but you can’t really get a sense of the amazing things these kids can do without seeing them debate. I mean, wow! Granted, these are kids from the best schools in the country, but still, it was very impressive to see them perform. I was expecting the prepared speeches that opened the debates to be very good and then everything else to be a series of pauses, mumbles, and jumbled utterances. But I was so completely and pleasantly surprised. They presented arguments, they listened, they analyzed, they asked questions, dissected arguments, and summed up. It was all in English, sometimes choppy, sometimes with phonological problems, but always understandable and often stunningly good. What I saw was the best of the best, but I became convinced that debate is a valuable activity for students at higher level high schools. I think it is a good alternative  to the English for Exam Purposes that passes as the be-all and end-all at most higher level schools now. It allows the students to practice all fours skills, develop critical thinking and higher level thinking skills, and develop research and presentation skills. In many ways, I think that debate may be just what shingakkou need.