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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

John Hattie Releases ‘The Politics of Distraction’

By Peter DeWitt — June 18, 2015 4 min read
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By allowing the debate to focus on what schools can do for us and not what we can do for schools, we create an argument that schools can only lose. John Hattie

In the world of education, we are surrounded by distractions that have resulted in one-sided monologue, rhetoric focusing on the negative, and very little dialogue in sight. In a new research paper published by Pearson Education...yes...Pearson Education...John Hattie is hoping to help us focus on what matters, and he is not pulling any punches in the process.

In the interest of full disclosure, I work for John Hattie as a Visible Learning Trainer since 2013. I am not out to promote his research report or his work; instead, I’m sharing it because I think it’s important. I think this works matters, and believe we will be better educators when we focus on what really impacts learning. And I appreciate that you will indulge me in building my case.

The first time I met John Hattie was at the Festival of Education in New Zealand. After taking a leave from being a school principal in a community I loved to work to become a Visible Learning trainer, it was an important meeting for me. I wanted to connect with John.

I remember thinking, and later talking with John about it, that he was controversial, which I liked. I wanted to work with someone who provoked me to think differently. However, Hattie does not consider himself, nor does he mean to be, controversial. For him it’s about the research and what it means. Hattie has collected the largest meta-analysis ever done in education, and Visible Learning is the top-selling academic book ever published.

His research comes from developed countries, and the studies have been peer-reviewed and completed. Unfortunately, despite Hattie’s desire to not be considered controversial, his research definitely makes people upset. I believe it’s less because of his findings, and more about what people interpret from his findings. Although it may also be about the fact that his research forces people (with an open mind) to question their long-held beliefs.

It all comes down to effect sizes and how we approach them. An effect size shows the effect that a particular intervention has on learning. John found from the Visible Learning research that the mid point of effects was 0.4. This was also supported through his analysis of large national student achievement databases (including USA) where the average progress made annually was 0.4. Anything with a .40 effect size or above is shown to provide more than a year’s growth for a year’s input., It is not about what works - because everything works - it is about what works best! After all, if something has a negative or even limited effect on learning...why do it?

Over the years since Hattie published his groundbreaking book Visible Learning, he has been revered by many, and fighting others on the interpretation of his work. School, state or ministry leaders looked at the influences that had the top 10 effect sizes and decided that is where they would spend their time, energy and resources. The only issue is that Hattie’s work shows that is less about the top 10 and more about how you approach the top 10. Simply doing them is not enough.

Enter in the Politics of Distraction (Read here).

The Politics of Distraction

Being a researcher, Hattie noticed that what the research said was important, and what policymakers and leaders were doing, often detracted from one another. He has some interesting insight on standardized curriculum. Hattie found that those making decisions would often make decisions based more on politics than what the research said.

He divided those distractions in the Politics of Distraction into the following areas:

  • Distraction 1: Appease the parents
  • Distraction 2: Fix the infrastructure
  • Distraction 3: Fix the students
  • Distraction 4: Fix the schools
  • Distraction 5: Fix the teachers

For example, one way to appease the parents is through reducing class size. Class size is one of those topics that come up often in education debates. Districts, states and ministries of education spend a great deal of money to reduce it, but it doesn’t have as high of an effect size as it could. This is where educators and smaller class size advocates get angry. Hattie has never said that teachers should have 35 students in their room. Additionally, Hattie isn’t saying that, considering the research, class size does not matter yet.


Because according to the research very often teachers who have reduced class sizes from the year previous do not teach differently, which means the class size had a small effect on learning. If reduced class sizes are going to work, teachers need to incorporate different types of instruction, effective feedback and other influences that have a positive effect on student learning.

Another area of concern is the difference between schools. Debates about school choice, charters and private schools are often very heated and never-ending. Hattie writes,

To date, too much discussion is focused on between-school differences when the greatest issue is the differences within schools. The variance between schools, based on the 2009 PISA results for reading across all OECD countries, is 36 per cent, and variance within schools is 64 per cent. For Australia, it is 18 and 72 per cent; Canada, 20 and 80 per cent; Finland, 8 and 92 per cent; New Zealand, 16 and 84 per cent; the UK, 24 and 76 per cent; Sweden, 9 and 91 per cent; and the USA, 30 and 70 per cent.

Hattie goes on to write,

There are many causes of this variance within schools, but one of the more important (and one that we have some influence to reduce) is the variability in the effectiveness of teachers. This does not mean that all teachers are bad; it means that there is much variability among teachers in the effect that they have on student learning. Nearly all teachers, school leaders, students and parents know about this variability - although it is too often absent in discussions about policy, teaching and schools. Such discussion means asking some very hard questions; hence, the politics of distraction are often invoked to avoid asking them.

In the End

There are some obvious things that readers of the Politics of Distraction need to get passed as they read. One is that it is published by Pearson. In the US, especially states like New York, Pearson is not seen as a friend of education. They are seen as a friend of standardized testing. Try to focus more on the content and less on the publisher.

Lastly, read it with an open mind and a reflective spirit. Many people seem to approach some of Hattie’s research with a very visceral reaction. Many times John is not saying things are not working, but he is saying things are not working as well as they could.

The paper is over 40 pages long but touches deeply on all of those topics that we focus on in education. Hattie’s hope is that we can look at them and learn from them, but not keep getting distracted by them.

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(This post has been updated to further clarify my association with John Hattie.)

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.