Aarhus University Seal

A new perspective on John Hattie

What happens when an educational philosopher from the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University travels to Australia with a bag full of critical questions for the man who invented the concept of visible learning? He meets a different version of John Hattie, a man who can discuss not only learning effects, but also equality, justice, and even Bildung as the whole meaning of education.

John Hattie has been a dominant figure in Danish and international education policy over the past ten years. His concept of visible learning has had a dramatic impact. Countless teachers and school managers have been on courses and attended conferences to learn more about this magical phenomenon, which was linked to learning outcomes and used to help the Danish school reform overcome its teething troubles. Even though Hattie warned the minister of education at the time against this school reform, particularly against the increase in teaching hours. And despite the fact that Hattie has never actually supported the idea of compulsory learning outcomes, explains Associate Professor Steen Nepper Larsen from DPU, Aarhus University.

He has frequently reviewed Hattie’s books, and it’s no secret that he has been one of Hattie’s fiercest critics. Hattie gained the reputation of being the person whose ranking lists of factors generating the greatest learning effects in schools legitimised an evidence-based education system which was directed by learning outcomes. But while working on his review of 10 Mindframes for Visible Learning in 2017, Larsen started wondering whether there was more to Hattie than met the eye.

“I realised that Hattie had started to ask philosophical questions: It’s not just about how we educate people, but also about why we educate them. It’s not enough to simply measure learning effects. Hattie believes that we also need to discuss the reasons why we do what we do,” explains Larsen.

So he contacted Hattie and suggested that they should write a book together. Hattie thought this was a good idea, and in the spring of 2018 Larsen took him at his word and went to Australia to meet him.

Video: Steen Nepper Larsen makes an introduction to The Purposes of Education

Subtitles in English are available

The article continues beneath the video

A philosophical lens

They met regularly over the course of a fortnight at the University of Melbourne, where Hattie has an office on the fifth floor. They discussed a range of basic questions relating to education viewed through two different lenses, which is how Routledge describe the book Visible Learning and Educational Philosophy on their homepage.

According to Steen Nepper Larsen, the concept of educational philosophy encourages some degree of caution before falling for a scientific or theoretical paradigm.

“The book is also a basic study of the way in which education has been designed and practised throughout history, and how the meaning of educational concepts changes over time. For instance, creativity is no longer regarded as an ability possessed only by God, who created the world out of the void. Nowadays it is a competence which everyone is expected to learn in order to cope with a competitive world. And learning has changed from being a dynamic concept of resistance to old-fashioned school methods and learning by rote, into being a management concept with compulsory learning outcomes. In other words, educational philosophy involves working with differences between the meanings of words and the power they possess,” he explains.

And finally, according to Larsen, educational philosophy involves thinking fundamentally about what is at stake when people are exposed to education – or to pedagogical activities in the broadest sense. The primary point of concern is the relationship between teachers, students, and the content of the teaching.

“In this relationship the most interesting thing is not me or you (i.e. the teacher and the student), but the issue that we are going to explore together – whether this is plankton or the teachings of Plato. The relationship between you and me is deprioritised in favour of the object being studied, which should make us both wiser as we study this object together. This triangle is not mentioned by Hattie, who focuses instead on the learning effects of specific factors. And the teacher is the most important single factor in Hattie’s system, so learning primarily involves the relationship between teachers and students. The most important thing is what teachers actually do to students, and how teachers can achieve the greatest learning effects by reflecting on their own actions and appreciating the needs of each individual student. But Hattie makes the fatal mistake of claiming that in principle the content of the teaching has no influence on learning effects, because he is adding legitimacy to the widespread notion that it is more important to learn how to learn than to study a subject in depth,” says Larsen.

It’s also worth remembering that when people are exposed to the influence of educational institutions, they are transformed from being private subjects into being fully competent citizens.

“In other words, the main objective of education is not to provide people with a good income for the rest of their lives, or to turn them into productive agents in the service of the state. The aim is to ensure that they become competent, critical participants in debates relating to the social community to which they belong. Hattie shares this view,” explains Larsen.

What about Bildung?

And let’s not forget the concept of Bildung, which is something very close to Steen Nepper Larsen’s heart. The concept relates to the kind of personal and cultural maturation that occurs during the education process. The introduction to the book presents these conversations as a meeting between Mr. Visible Learning and Mr. Bildung – with Steen Nepper Larsen’s position being rooted in the 19th-century German tradition. And it’s true that the discussions of Bildung in the book take their point of departure in 19th-century philosophers such as Wilhelm von Humboldt and G.W.F. Hegel, as well as in the 20th-century philosophical hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer, which Larsen introduces to Hattie. The discussions link these ideas with the modern concept of character formation in the OECD’s Future of Education and Skills 2030 programme.

“Hattie is deeply concerned with the question of how we form people through education. He has very little time for private schools, adopting what you could call a classical welfare-state take on schools. Education is for everyone, and is therefore an issue which should be addressed by society as a whole. So it’s the state’s job to create the best schools for everyone,” explains Larsen.

Putting it briefly, Bildung is all about keeping an open mind when you meet the education system, and becoming a different person during your educational journey. For Humboldt Bildung involved the richest possible exchange between the individual and the world, which at universities means between students, teachers and fields of science. Steen Nepper Larsen was surprised that Hattie seemed to view things in the same way – although he expresses it differently. The aim of education is not simply to confirm the identity that you already have. Nor should it propel you towards a predefined final identity, giving you a diploma to confirm that you have achieved specific learning outcomes and can therefore now perform specific functions in society.

“Hattie believes that educational planning to ensure or even guarantee that certain goals are achieved has now gone too far, and that nobody is prepared to take risks any more. And this is precisely where Bildung comes into the picture as the third path between the two other identities. A path which is not predefined and which must never be defined, because it only exists as a result of ongoing interaction between the individual and life itself. In this sense, educational philosophy involves viewing education as a transformational journey into the unknown, a place where you can meet other ideas and other people and surprise yourself,” says Larsen.

John Hattie and Steen Nepper Larsen’s book of conversations is called The Purposes of Education, and the plural form in this title was chosen deliberately. After all, education has multiple purposes. Hattie is worried that the politicians will reduce these purposes to narrow learning outcomes that have been defined centrally.

“Hattie’s ideal involves using schools and education to create social equality and justice. He wants schoolteachers to be aware of the needs of all their pupils, and to help each one of them to become a happy and self-confident individual,” says Larsen.

Critique is a gift

He didn’t expect Hattie to be so open to critique.

“He ran my Danish reviews through Google Translate, read them before we met, and pointed out certain things that he thought I had misunderstood and certain things he disagreed with. He said he regarded critique as a gift, and was pleased to be taken seriously. But I’m also aware that Hattie might regard the chance to write a book of conversations with a philosopher as a good way to preempt any accusations that he lacks a sense of deep reflection about his work,” underlines Larsen.

However, this fear of being turned into some kind of alibi for Hattie did not lead Larsen to doubt the usefulness of his project.

“I think it’s sad and very unproductive when different theoretical positions in science continue to argue without ever sitting down to talk to each other. So my Hattie project was one way of testing something I believe in: the idea that you can actually have a fruitful dialogue with someone with whom you fundamentally disagree. And who you think has had a damaging influence on Danish education policy – including not least the idea that learning is (or must be) visible at all times. One of Karl Marx’s fundamental ideas was that if you want to hone your critique, you need to meet the object of this critique. It’s no good pointing the finger at something you disagree with without learning about it first,” he says.

Can learning ever be visible?

The concept of visible learning is untenable from a philosophical point of view, claims Steen Nepper Larsen. His main problem with Hattie is that learning is so complex that it can never actually be seen. And nor can anyone say what might make learning visible.

“The idea that you can push certain buttons to create a form of learning that is almost immediately visible and measurable is patently mistaken. What kind of criteria could possibly enable you to do that? Comparisons of average grades, or data about levels of well-being before and after the teaching? Hattie’s translation of complex processes of learning and cognition into outcome goals with a very small time factor goes against everything we know about how people as historical beings gain complex social experiences,” explains Larsen.

He believes that teaching should influence the life we live, and needs to be used and tested in various forms of practice before we know whether we have actually learned anything from it – and if so, what we have learned.

“Learning takes time. But visible learning is short term, being uninterested in time horizons of 10 or 20 years. The things we learn as students or individuals can only be regarded as effects when they have taken root inside us, when they can be expressed in the social and cultural communities to which we belong,” says Larsen.

He underlines that many researchers are interested in the question of how learning actually takes place.

“Concepts such as unconscious, implicit or physical leaning all challenge the notion that learning can ever be visible. There’s always a lot more going on beneath the surface than we are aware of. And who has ever been able to identify and see clearly at a single glance what goes on in a learning brain, in a learning body, in social interaction with the world and other people?” asks Larsen.

Visible learning is based on what Steen Nepper Larsen calls a naive empirical short-circuit.

“As far as I can see, the point of departure must always be awareness of the fact that there’s more going on inside and between students than meets the eye. And Hattie is actually open to this kind of philosophical consideration. He has learnt from his philosophical role model (Karl Popper) that there can never be a one-to-one relationship between the world and what we think we know about it. So Hattie understands that learning is a complex business which can’t actually be reduced to the visible effects of teaching,” says Steen Nepper Larsen.

The problem is that schools adhering to the visible learning paradigm focus purely on obvious signs of visibility such as test results, average grades and data regarding well-being.

“The risk is that anything that is not immediately visible is regarded as uninteresting, for instance the long-term cognitive development of the students, their pleasure in each other’s company (whether or not they get good grades), and whether or not their background in a specific social class is gradually being transformed,” he says.

What about the individual?

According to John Hattie, learning effects are not influenced by the nature of the subject being taught. When Steen Nepper Larsen asks him whether the same factors are involved in the creation of visible learning irrespective of the subject being taught (history, sports, chemistry or domestic science, for instance), Hattie replies that there is no statistical evidence indicating that the subject in question and the content of the teaching have any significant effect.

“We pay a high price for the way in which visible learning is generalised and introduced as a concept in education systems all over the world. For instance, universal best practices are developed for how a school can achieve the best possible learning effects. And these best practices are independent of the individuals involved and the subject, time and context in question. But in my view didactics can never be a constant. It’s a variable which depends on the content being learned in the subject concerned. Best practice simply cannot exist in educational contexts. There will always be actual people involved. And time, language, body and context will always play a part in preventing us from acquiring sufficient evidence for the efficacy of any one particular technique or method. It’s not like medical science,” says Larsen.

John Hattie regards statistics on education as important because they can give us a scientifically based overview of what works best when it comes to creating learning.

“But even though Hattie’s approach to education is statistical and therefore consists inevitably of generalisations, he is aware that each school needs to consider the students who go there. Hattie is aware of the importance of the individual – that’s what he told me, at least. And yet I had regarded him as a statistician pure and simple,” concludes Larsen.

John Hattie and visible learning

John Hattie, born 1950 in New Zealand, Professor Emeritus at the University of Melbourne, is the man who defined the concept of visible learning. He believes that visible learning occurs “when teachers see learning through the eyes of students and help them become their own teachers”.

For teachers it’s all about making their goals and the steps taken to achieve them visible to the students, while evaluating the process along the way. Teachers need to give students regular feedback on their work, while students need to give feedback to themselves and each other.

Visible Learning. A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement presents a number of meta-studies on the learning effects of various measures taken in schools. These meta-studies are based on more than 50,000 individual studies involving more than 80 million students all over the world.

Based on this data, Hattie draws up his famous and notorious ranking list of 150 measures taken by schools based on their measurable effect on the results achieved by students. Hattie has pointed out that the learning effects of these measures depend on the context in question. So you can’t simply choose the top ten in the list and ignore the bottom ten, for instance.

The principles behind visible learning have been turned into a school development programme called Visible Learning Plus, which arranges seminars and runs school development projects all over the world.

Source: visible-learning.org


Who is Steen Nepper Larsen?

Steen Nepper Larsen is an associate Professor at DPU, Aarhus University. Research areas: education studies, philosophy of science, and educational philosophy and sociology. He teaches on DPU’s Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programmes in education studies.

Further information:

John Hattie, Steen Nepper Larsen: The Purposes of Education. A Conversation between John Hattie and Steen Nepper Larsen. Routledge, 2020

Steen Nepper Larsen: Know Thy Impact – blinde vinkler i John Hatties evidens-credo. in: Jørn Bjerre et al.: Hattie på dansk. Hans Reitzels Forlag, 2017