John Hattie, Visible Learning & Beyond

By | First Published: | Last Updated: 22 November, 2019

profile picture of john hattie author of visible learningIn 2009, John Hattie published his landmark book Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement.

He soon became known as the go-to-guru for all things education. But what does it all mean for classroom teachers and school leaders? The answer, quite a lot – but you need to be careful.


What Is Visible Learning?

The short answer is that Visible Learning is a book. A longer answer is that it a series of books.

Yet, a more complete answer is that it is:

  • A collection of insights
  • Gleaned from synthesising meta-analyses

Hattie’s work of collating meta-analyses started well before the book. It continues today.

And, his insights have developed along the way.


John Hattie & the History of Visible Learning

I first came across John Hattie’s work when I read his 1999 Inaugural Lecture on the Influences on Student Learning. But his work goes further back than that.

He (along with his colleagues) publicly published his first synthesis of research in 1987. He did so in a paper titled Identifying the Salient Facets of a Model of Student Learning: A Synthesis of Meta-Analyses.

In 1992, John Hattie published Towards a Model of Schooling: A Synthesis of Meta-Analyses.

He continued to build his database synthesising meta-analyses. As he did so, he:

  • Refined his insights accordingly
  • Published his findings in various academic papers

Then in 2009, he launched his now famous book Visible Learning.


Criticisms of John Hattie & Visible Learning

All research has its limitations, and John Hattie’s work is no different in this regard. Nor are my own writings on this site.

I personally published an Objective Critique of Hattie’s Visible Learning Research in 2015.

However, I believe a lot of the objections to John Hattie’s work had more to do with people not liking his message.

Yet, other concerns are genuine. Some of my own key concerns come not from the work, but from the overly simplistic conclusions that people may draw from it.

Detail & Nuance Are Important

Reading the commentary in the book helps here. So too does reading the:

  • Underlying meta-analyses
  • Individual studies sitting behind them.

Yet, most teachers don’t have time to do this.

This is one of the key reasons I started the Evidence-Based Teaching website. It’s a place where you can access bite-sized, digestible chunks of research written in a practical way.

Yet, these chunks include the nuance that is lacking in the factor names. For example, see my article on the Real Meaning of Teacher Clarity.

Context & Statistics Matter Too

It is not just the nuanced nature of factors affecting student achievement that matters. Understanding the contexts and the statistics used matters too!

Take, for example, the statistical measure of effect sizes. Not all effect sizes are directly comparable.

  • Some effect sizes measure the difference between how students did on a pre-test, and then how they did on a follow-up test. They had been exposed to a ‘factor’ in-between these 2 tests.
  • Other effect sizes compare students exposed to a factor, to a control group of students not exposed to that factor.

Hattie himself wrote that:

I think we agree that care should always be taken when interpreting effect-size

The context of the research studies can also vary. Consider the difference between research that measures the impact of a factor after students have been exposed to it for:

  • One year in a normal, classroom setting
  • Six weeks, in a one-on-one setting

Effect sizes are useful, and so is John Hattie’s work in Visible Learning. But they are not perfect. Another reason I started this site was to explain some of this nuance.


John Hattie & Visible Learning Live On

John Hattie’s work and the notion of visible learning did not stop in 2009. He has continued to update and expand his database.

He has also started to explore factors affecting student learning beyond school. For example, the use of cognitive task analysis in medical training.

He has periodically published these new and expanded insights. For example:


New Insights & New Concerns

John Hattie’s list of 250+ Influences On Student Achievement gave us some new insights as well as new concerns.

One of the most prominent insights was into the effective strategies students can engage in to improve their own learning. Teachers can also use these strategies to get their students engaged in the learning process.

Another notable insight was into factors associated with:

  • Deep learning
  • Transferring learning into unfamiliar situations

I will be unpacking these insights in future articles.

But there are also three key concerns, namely the:

  • Vague and unfamiliar labels
  • Inclusion of learning outside of formal schooling
  • Lack of underlying research

Vague & Unfamiliar Terms

Hattie introduced several vague and unfamiliar terms. For example:

  • Conceptual change programs (i.e. programs using conceptual change texts)
  • Classroom discussion (which actually measures the effect of specific small group discussion techniques on reading comprehension).
  • Elaboration and organisation vs elaborative interrogation

And, the list did not include any explanations of these terms.

However, this year, there has been work done by John Hattie and his colleagues to address this. And, I will continue to share digestible chunks of insight with you.

Inclusion of Learning Outside of Formal Schooling

Hattie’s list of factors expanded beyond the formal school setting. In itself, this is not a bad thing. People want to know what affects students learning outside of the school setting. And, even teachers within a school setting can glean insight from some of this work.

Yet, the inclusion of factors such as:

Can be misleading, especially as no further explanation was given. Again:

  • Hattie and his colleagues are now addressing this
  • I will continue to share little pearls of wisdom

Lack of Underlying Research

When John Hattie published his list of 250+ Influences On Student Achievement, he did not release the research that underpinned it.

Again, this is now being addressed. But for some time, it was not available, and this made the list far less useful.

A related concern lies in the nature and nuance of the underlying research. This is something I will continue to explore, and I will share my insights with you.


What I Have Learned from John Hattie

There are the obvious things, such as the likely impact of the various factors. And, on a personal level, I have always found John Hattie to be approachable and extremely helpful.

But the most profound thing I have learned is that teachers should be like doctors. Specifically:

  1. My success as a teacher is linked to the success of my students.
  2. Teachers may not be to blame for kids who don’t succeed at school (just as doctors aren’t responsible for heart disease). Yet, our actions can overcome many obstacles, and help kids succeed despite other inhibiting factors.
  3. I have a professional responsibility to start with evidence-based approaches to my work. Approaches that are more likely to help more kids succeed, just as doctors choose treatments that are most likely to work.
  4. I need to continually monitor the effect my chosen strategies are having and to adjust my approach if needed. Or, in Hattie’s words to be a student of my own effects, using student results as feedback on my own teaching.

And, as with medicine, new research will undoubtedly lead to even better approaches to teaching.

I no longer have a philosophically or politically grounded stance. Instead, I am happy to let the evidence fall where it may and change views when research shows it is worthwhile to change them.

However, I will cast an even more critical eye over successive attempts to change. Especially when such change involves adopting the latest educational fad.

These fundamental changes to my thinking have had a profound effect on me and through me on many others. I thank John Hattie for the difference he has made on my professional life.

John’s work informed my articles

shaun killian drawing

(MEd., MLead.)

Shaun Killian (me) is an experienced and passionate teacher, as well as a past school principal. After a heart transplant and having both my legs amputated, I am not yet capable of returning to work. Yet, my passion for helping students succeed has led me to use my time to research teaching and associated practices. I then share what I find in practical ways through this website. The greatest compliment I have ever received from a past student was I never left any student behind. That is mission of most teachers and I hope you find the information on this site useful.

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