In fact, Hattie is supported by a considerable body of research; for instance, North American writers Lorna M. Earl and Andy Hargreaves, who observed lessons no more interesting than watching a haircut in progress. Researchers talk of students drowning in a sea of teacher ”blah”.
The difficulty is that so many people consider themselves experts on schools because they once attended one.
Long-winded accounts of subject matter may have once worked for teachers but young people these days are different from those of the previous century. Their attention spans are shorter, a product, perhaps, of constantly changing multimedia stimuli. They expect – indeed, demand – to be entertained.
Their world is high-tech and their attention is rarely captured by drab or monotonous presentations, which makes engaging in learning one of the chief tasks and difficulties of the modern educator.
The emphasis in schools has changed from teaching to learning and, quite rightly, the critical issue for a teacher is not the quality of their own narrative teaching but rather what their students are learning.
For them to learn effectively, and particularly to master the skills of ongoing learning, of processing apparently limitless information and of developing discernment, they need to be active, not passive, learners.
They need to be ”doers” who can find and process information, rather than just listeners.
Hattie is right: if teachers talk their students into oblivion, the teachers’ knowledge on display might be impressive but what the students gain in terms of content, skills and wisdom will be limited.
Good teachers certainly explain work clearly and test their students’ understanding with strategic questioning. They are masters of content, passionate and excited about their subject, convey a deep interest in their students as people, set high expectations, imbue their students with the confidence to succeed and give students feedback so they know how to improve.
Depending upon their subject, they utilise a wide variety of teaching strategies, working with mind and hand, desk-based and experiential learning, books and screens and also sometimes make their own products.
None of this is to suggest that teachers abrogate their authoritative role as teachers. In fact, I suspect one reason Hattie’s remarks have attracted such opposition is that they have been misunderstood. There have been, in the recent past, advocates and exponents of a laissez-faire style of education where teachers step so much out of the limelight, they are virtually disempowered and become co-workers and purveyors of optional suggestions for students. This can be very unhelpful, as young people, by virtue of their relative immaturity and lack of life experience, can flounder without firm guidance and direction.
To those who experienced, in their own education, regimented rows and stern, highly punitive, teachers, contemporary education can appear chaotic, even anarchic. But there is a real difference between chaos and the energy and noise that is part of creative learning.
At times, the quietest classroom may exhibit simply sullen orderliness rather than actual learning. The touchstone of a quality classroom is not whether it is silent apart from the teacher’s voice but how much real learning is taking place.
Good teachers are firmly in control, allow discussion and its attendant noise only in so far as it is educational, and direct and shape student learning. The best teachers know how much to talk, when to listen, how to motivate student interest and engagement and at what point to unleash the students, under supervision, as active learners, engaging richly and deeply with the learning material.
The notion that there was a fixed canon of important knowledge that teachers could impart to students has been overwhelmed by the knowledge explosion of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. While it remains the case that there is an essential core of knowledge that is fundamental to our identity and civic awareness, most educators would agree that it is critical to equip students to be life-long learners.
Continued learning will be essential as knowledge continues to expand and therefore knowing how to learn (which includes experiencing active learning in school) will become more important than simply mastering content. Knowing how to learn is vocationally relevant, as employers expect staff to enhance their skills in a workplace setting.
Research shows that, when children are at school, the fundamental difference in their educational outcomes is made by teachers. Their role is critical, seminal, formative and potentially transformational but that task won’t be done if they just keep talking.
Dr John Collier is Head of St Andrew’s Cathedral School Sydney. He is the chair of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia NSW/ACT Branch.