Getting Feedback Right: a Q&A With John Hattie

Not all critiques are useful, says John Hattie

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John Hattie has spent his career trying to pick through the "big ideas" in education to find what has the greatest effect on student learning. But the New Zealand researcher said it took him a decade to realize he was looking at one crucial aspect of learning all wrong.

"I used to think giving more feedback and better feedback was the answer [to improving education], and it's the exact opposite: How do teachers and students receive feedback? How do they interpret it?" said Hattie, currently the director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, in Australia.

Clear, actionable critiques of everything from a student essay to a new discipline policy are essential to continuous improvement, he said, but they are also one of the most common techniques that trip up schools. "Feedback costs. You have to do it again and again, because it wasn't good enough, and people don't want to hear it," Hattie said. "So how do you switch the conversation from giving feedback to helping students receive feedback?" And perhaps the most critical question, he added, is how school administrators can ensure teachers are receiving and acting upon feedback on their own work.

In his newest book, Visible Learning: Feedback, slated for publication in August, Hattie digs into how the culture of both the classroom and its students can affect how feedback works, and what research suggests teachers—and administrators—can do to create a culture in which adults and students encourage each other to keep learning. Education Week sat down with Hattie to talk about what he's found. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)


What do people most often misunderstand about feedback?

There's very little research on how students progress; there's a lot more research on how teachers think students should progress. We asked 1,000-plus teachers what they meant by feedback, and it was very much focused on [answering], 'How am I doing? Where am I going?' We asked many thousands of students what they meant and it was simple: 'Help me know what to do now.'

Best-selling author and researcher John Hattie
Best-selling author and researcher John Hattie

One of the ironies is that students who are above the average are less likely to ask for the 'what now?' feedback because they can usually work it out on their own. The kids who are below average really want that dialogue, want the information—and they're the least likely to get it. They get 'correct, incorrect, you could improve here'—checks and crosses that give them no information.

When teachers spend hours and hours writing comments, if there's no feedback providing concrete steps for the students to improve, students will argue themselves blue in the face that they never received anything. The key question is, does feedback help someone understand what they don't know, what they do know, and where they go? That's when and why feedback is so powerful, but a lot of feedback doesn't—and doesn't have any effect.

Are there differences in how students absorb feedback at different ages?

There are changes over time. Up to around age 10, there's a lot of compliance behavior. Kids think coming to school means, 'Sit up straight, do your work, and watch the teacher work.' ... They want personalization. We know, for example, when teachers give feedback to the whole class, every kid knows it's not about them and they tune out.

By 12, there's a lot more peer involvement and therefore kids welcome feedback much more if it's done privately than they do if it's done publicly. And all of us, regardless of age, welcome praise.

There's been some debate here in the States about the role of praise in teaching students. What do you think?

Teachers, being nice people, have a lot of praise for kids who struggle. The problem with praise is that it has zero-to-negative impact on improving the task or the work. That isn't to say you shouldn't praise kids, because that's the essence of a lot of relationships. But you should separate it, so when you are talking about the work, you should be talking about the work, not the person. If I tell you, 'Here are things you should change to improve,' and then I tell you how good you were, the next day, what do you remember? You'd remember the praise; that dominates.

Praise does make a difference to relationships, and obviously building relationships is critical. But I remind people that the reason to build a relationship is so that you can talk about the errors.

What kinds of feedback are most helpful to teachers early and later in their careers?

The first four or five years of a teacher's [working] life, they are hungry for information about, 'Am I doing it right?' 'Is it good enough?' 'Am I having the kind of impact you expect?'

Unfortunately, many get diverted very quickly into, 'Have you got the right resources?' and 'Is it interesting?' There's one teacher I'm shadowing at the moment who spends all her minutes marking the kids' work and creating resources [for the classroom].

She's going to be exhausted in a few years' time and she's going to say, 'No one supported me,' because she's being taught that the only good teacher is a busy teacher.

But a good teacher is a teacher that has been prepared to have a discussion about the impact [of teaching on student learning.] One of the most effective [instructional practices] is teacher collective efficacy, teachers working to support each other and understand what their impact is. I worry that a lot of the professional learning communities that are being set up to [improve teacher efficacy] are not focusing on [collective improvement], but are focusing once again on curriculum resources and assessment.

In talking with people outside of education, what's the most common thing that they love and think is effective, that is not at all?

We asked 1,000 adults what they wanted most to invest in, in schooling, and it was all negatively correlated [with improving education]. … It's all the structural things, the things they can see: different kinds of buildings, different kinds of curriculum, different kinds of assessment, academies, smaller class sizes, all these things. If you want a bigger budget to get new computers or to reduce class size, the public would do it; if you wanted to invest that money in building [teacher] expertise, they wouldn't.

We need to be smarter about educating parents about what learning looks like, and how successful many teachers are at acting on learning.

Under ESSA, states are rethinking their assessments and accountability for schools. Is there anything you think they should be considering, to help schools improve?

Every child, no matter where they start, is entitled to a year's growth for a year's input. Here's the irony: Teachers have at their fingertips thousands if not tens of thousands of measures of achievement, but very, very few measures of growth. So I think it's incumbent on the system to provide teachers with the resources they need to do their jobs. … The whole model here, the psychometric model seems to be, create brilliant tests and then demand teachers use them.

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But if teachers don't find value in them, they shouldn't use them. I think for a lot of the tests around today, if teachers weren't required to use them, they wouldn't use them. I'm a strong believer in … helping teachers have these discussions and when they defend their impact, to be able to use a variety of methods, not just the compulsory method.

Can you think of one clear, low-hanging fruit to help teachers improve their instruction and feedback in the classroom?

[In a study of about 12,000 classrooms in the United Kingdom], we found on average teachers talked about 89 percent of the time; that's not a lot of listening. What we want teachers to do is to interview students about, 'What don't you understand about what I said when I made these comments?'—so we start to focus on how the teacher's comments are being received. I do think the power of teaching is in the art of listening.

Vol. 37, Issue 36, Pages 8-9

Published in Print: June 20, 2018, as Getting Feedback Right
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