Education expert John Hattie weighs in on the impacts of distance learning
Professor John Hattie’s Visible Learning framework needs no introduction to educators.
It has been used in schools across Australia for years now to deliver consistent, evidence-based learning outcomes and is the culmination of synthesizing more than 1,500 meta-analyses comprising more than 90,000 studies and 300 million students around the world.
Visible Learning helps educators to not only structure a lesson effectively (e.g. through learning objectives and success criteria), but also understand the extent to which different factors influence a student’s education (e.g. socioeconomic background, teacher efficacy and so on).
One factor that has gone under the radar is the effect remote or distance learning will have on the learning outcomes of Australian students, and Hattie addresses this critical topic in a recent online blog.
To begin, Hattie asks: “First, does it matter that students are not in the physical place called school?”
Hattie highlights that, although no meta-analysis exists on the effect on the length of a school year, traditional reviews show the effect to be “tiny”. Also, both Australia and the US have some of the longest school days and school years across all of the OECD countries, meaning we have some room to give.
“If we take out one term/semester of 10 weeks, [Australia and the US] still have more in-school time compared to Finland, Estonia, Korea and Sweden, which all outscore Australia and the USA on PISA,” Hattie says.
Hattie also mentions that data exists on the effect of teacher strikes and “lengthy shut outs”. He contends that the effect on student learning is very low before the middle years but increases “after middle school, especially in math”.
The education expert also refers to his experience as an advisor to the Qualifications Authority that oversees senior high school examinations in New Zealand. During the devastating earthquakes of 2011, Christchurch’s school system was severely disrupted and there was “a cry for special dispensations for high school examinations”.
Hattie argued the opposite, basing his judgement on “strike research, which showed no effects at this upper school level, with positive effects in some cases”.
“Sure enough, the performance of Christchurch students went up, and as schools resumed, the scores settled back down,” he says.
“Why? Because teachers tailored learning more to what students could NOT do, whereas often school is about what teachers think students need, even if students can already do the tasks.”
In summary, Hattie urges teachers and parents to not panic if students miss out on 10 weeks or so of face-to-face learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. He also recommends no meaningless “busy work” over the period and giving students sufficient opportunities to learn things they do not know.
After all: “It is not the time in class, but what we do in the time we have, that matters.”
The bigger challenge
Although Hattie asserts that time away from school does not result in devastating learning outcomes, he cautions that equity is a far more concerning factor.
“Students who come from well-resourced families will fare much better than those from lower resourced families: The effect of home resources is powerful (d = .51),” he says.
“I have rarely met a parent who does not want to help the child, but some do not have the skills. Remember, we made schooling compulsory because teachers are better at teaching than parents.”
There are, however, other aspects of the home that can be controlled and do have an effect on learning. These include parental involvement (.43) and particularly parental expectations (.70).
Hattie highlights that the effect size of technology has been low for the last 50 years, and remains so.
“The effect of distance learning is small (.14) but that does not mean it is NOT effective – it means it does not matter whether teachers undertake teaching in situ or from a distance over the internet (or, like when I started in my first university, via the post office),” he says.
“What we do matters, not the medium of doing it.”
Although some forms of technology are highly effective, such as interactive videos (.54), others such as laptops (.16) and mobile phones (-.34) have a minimal or even negative effect. However, Hattie explains these effect sizes have been undertaken in classrooms and are therefore “not so relevant in this crisis”.
For Hattie, social media is perhaps one of the best technological assets during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Marie Davis (2018) has explored asking students to use social media, such as Edmodo, to have students send questions and talk about what they do not know,” Hattie says.
“They are more likely to do this on social media than directly to the teacher. What an opportunity to exploit in the current situation!”
Some final thoughts on distance learning
In summarising his approach to best exploit distance learning during this pandemic, Hattie emphasises several key points:
- Optimising social interaction between peers and teachers
- Listen to student feedback carefully as you do not have the usual classroom cues to look out for
- Balance “precious knowledge with deep learning”
- Understand what it is to be a learner online
- Question how you can know your impact as an educator from afar
- Collaborate more with other teachers to share ideas, observations and tips
Finally, Hattie recommends that educators (and parents) acknowledge that the world is going through a difficult though temporary period and schooling will not look the same.
“Engage with parents to realize we as educators have unique skills and expertise (and are happy to share them), and not get upset if students are not spending 5-6 hours every day in the belief that school at home is but a mirror of the typical school day.”