The Effects of School Are Overplayed

Piers YoungNotesLeave a Comment

John Hattie’s book Visible Learning is a (dense) treasure trove of statistically backed educational research. He looks at 800 meta-analyses of school research and then analyses them for effect. The idea is essentially to try to come up with a way of measuring how much good various initiatives as compared to, say, a child’s natural development.

This snippet, with my highlight, is fascinating, I think. And it gives a sense of the way Hattie uses statistics and research to tease out the critical from the cosmetic.

The effects of schools too often are overplayed—particularly in developed countries. Take two students of similar ability; in many developed countries it matters not which school they attend. Many of the school effects are structural (e.g., architecture of school, timetabling differences) or working conditions (e.g., class size; tracking, or streaming, of classes; school finances). Of course these are important, but they do not define the differences in student achievement: they are among the least beneficial influences on student achievement. That has not stopped these structural and working conditions becoming the most discussed issues in education. Indeed, one of the fascinating discoveries throughout my research for this book is discovering that many of the most debated issues are the ones with the least effects. It is a powerful question to ask why such issues as class size, tracking, retention (that is, holding a student back a grade), school choice, summer schools, and school uniforms command such heated discussion and strong claims. Such cosmetic or “coat of paint” reforms are too common. So many structural claims involve the parents (more homework), lead to more rules (and therefore more rule breakers), have hints of cultural imperatives (quietness and conformity is desired), and often include appeals to common sense (reducing class size is obviously a good thing!). However, the most powerful effects of the school relate to features within schools, such as the climate of the classroom, peer influences, and the lack of disruptive students in the classroom—all of which allow students and teachers to make errors and develop reputations as learners, and which provide an invitation to learn.


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