An interview with Professor John Hattie

Like most Australian teachers, I first heard about Professor John Hattie’s work in an undergraduate lecture theater. Despite the caffeine buzz and the limited nutrition damaging my body, I was impressed and inspired by the prolific work executed by Professor Hattie in the name of improving education outcomes in Australia and beyond. Professor Hattie is renowned for his research in student engagement and measurement of quality teaching and learning.

For some reason his name stuck in my mind after that introductory lecture and I actually went home and researched and read some of his papers. What I read sparked my interest in the differentiation between expert teachers and novice teachers. I realised that age and experience do not necessarily determine the quality of your teaching practice. It was an exciting thought for me that as a new teacher, I could still contribute positively to student achievement. Back then I didn’t know I’d find myself teaching in some really challenging educational contexts, but what I read in Professor Hattie’s research has helped me enormously in my day to day work.

So, as you can imagine, I was delighted when Professor Hattie agreed to speak with me about the attributes that make a great teacher and the current issues in teaching retention.

According to Professor Hattie’s research article “Teachers make a difference” (2003) teachers account for about 30% of the variance in student achievement. This is the largest influence outside of individual student effort. This highlights just how significant the impact that quality can have on a student’s life.


Screen Shot 2013-11-09 at 2.05.20 PM



Professor Hattie is a New Zealand native, who currently lectures at Melbourne Graduate School of Education.

‘Professor Hattie’s work is internationally acclaimed. His influential 2008 book Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement is believed to be the world’s largest evidence-based study into the factors which improve student learning. Involving more than 80 million students from around the world and bringing together 50,000 smaller studies, the study found positive teacher-student interaction is the most important factor in effective teaching.’ cited here

Some of his teaching accolades are as follows:

  • Outstanding reviewer for Educational Researcher, American Educational Research Association (AERA), 2010
  • Hedley Beaer Award for Writing in Education, Australian Council for Educational Leadership, 2010
  • Distinguished Teaching Award, University of Auckland, 2010
  • Outstanding reviewer for Educational Researcher, American Educational Research Association (AERA), 2009
  • New Zealand Finalist, International IMS Learning Impact Awards, 2007
  • Highly Commended, Bearing Point Awards for Innovation in Technology, 2004
  • Inaugural SPANZ Leadership in Education Award, Secondary Principals Association of New Zealand, 2004
  • Highly Commended, Bearing Point Awards for Innovation in the Public Service, 2004
  • Excellence Award for Use of IT in Education, Computerworld New Zealand, 2003
  • Member, American Psychological Association, 2000

Despite his remarkable career and accomplishments, he had a way of making me feel like an equal. He was friendly, as most New Zealanders are, and spoke with a confidence that comes from years of contributing to the discussion of practices in the education system.

It’s interesting to see data supporting what we all know – that new teachers are not supported in the classroom. What impact do you think this has on teachers?

J: Looking at the trajectory of teacher learning, we see that teachers gain almost all of their understanding of the profession in the first two years of teaching. This shows why those first two years are so critical for teacher development. Many people say they didn’t learn enough about the profession at teacher’s college. This is why many new teachers experience, what can best be described as, transition shock.

Stepping into the classroom as a graduate is a huge shock for many people. In Bruce Johnson’s paper, Conditions That Support Early Career Teacher Resilience, it says that “In Western countries we know that between 25% and 40% of beginning teachers are likely to leave the profession in the first 5 years.” It’s frightening to think that so many teachers are leaving the profession, particularly in the current climate with growing exit rates due to the aging population and retirement. Why do you think the attrition of new teachers is so high?

J:  One of my criticisms in Australia is that we’ve dramatically over saturated the market with teachers. The Ex-Director General of Queensland told me just a couple of weeks ago that last year in Queensland about 1,500 students graduated from teacher education programs, only 54 of them got jobs.

What about the quality of teachers that are left in schools?

J: A colleague of mine tracked the first two years of the careers of two groups of teacher graduates. One group were “A” or high achieving graduates the other were “C” or average performing graduates. What she discovered was that once the graduates entered a school, the schools made every effort to undo the what graduates learned at university by telling them, this is just the way things are, this how we teach.

My colleague then did an analysis of those schools to look at how successful the graduates were. In New Zealand we have an inspector system that helped answer that question. Her findings were that if you take the “A” graduates and you put them in not so good schools and you stifle their practice by telling them “this is how we teach”, about 70% of them leave. If you take the “C” graduates and put them in the not so good schools, around 60% of them stay. Conversely, if you take those “C” graduates and put them in good schools about 70% leave. And when you take the “A” students and put them in the good schools about 80% stay. And so the point that she was making was that the experience of those first two years is truly the biggest predictor teacher retention.

Bruce Johnson argues that the teachers want support, but that’s an interesting one too, because the thing that got me into this area was a study back in the 1990s by the same colleague of mine who interviewed first year teachers and within six months. They were asked, “What’s the best thing that could happen in terms of developing your career?” Close to 100% said, “Just leave me alone.” The government’s going to put money into inducting teachers and one of my problems with this is that the government’s approach to induction is where they give new teachers additional release time in the first two years of their career, instead of appropriate mentoring. This has been one of the biggest failures in the world, where they’re giving that money to induction as opposed to the system.

When they’re not in the classroom, most new teachers go in the staffroom and sit alone and prepare or mark.  Of course you need that time but there’s no development.  Denmark’s an interesting place, where they’ve always had teachers on class four days a week and they’re supposed to spend one day working together.  They’re in the process now of cutting that back because it’s not working for them.

For about the last 30 years we’ve had 40% to 50% of people leave the profession within 4 to 5 years for many reasons that I’ve mention. First year’s miserable out there. Also, we’re not necessarily losing just the good ones or the bad ones – it depends the nature of the school experience.

With regards to your 2003 paper Teachers Make a Difference, you mention a number of factors that affect student achievement. Some of these factors are student learning and student home environment. According to your findings 30% of the variances in achievement attributed to teacher input. Why do you think that teachers play such a crucial role in student learning? 

J:   Certainly, just to qualify, I’m saying that the larger source of variance, that we have some control over, is the teachers. The students have more variance, but the reality is we often can’t change what the students bring to us. And when we made the rules back in the 1800s that schooling was compulsory, it was based on the notion that expertise was better than parents.

We have to encourage everybody in the profession to improve.  Teachers learn most of what they know in their first two years. In those first years, schools expect teachers to be outstanding, but that’s absurd. And so I’m quite driven by the notion of looking at how we can collaboratively get all the teachers making a difference.

You write a lot about visible learning. How important do you think it is to see learning through the eyes of your students and why do you think that’s so significant in terms of effective teaching?

J:  A recent study by Bill Gates, comes to mind, where he put webcams in about 3,000 classrooms over a 3 or 4 month period and 60% of those teachers did not have a classroom discussion once.  Every teacher that you meet will say, “Oh, not me.  Not me.”  But when you go and actually look at it, most student’s experience in the classroom is learning how to look like they’re listening. And so my argument is how do you turn that around by saying, “Hey, your job is to listen through the ears of the students?”

Let me just comment on the kind of thing that we’re trying to do down here to break this. We had a dean of a teachers’ college down here about 7 or 8 years ago who decided to he wanted to change the traditional approach to training teacher.  He was an audiologist so he came from of the clinical practice model. The first thing you should learn to do is to diagnose where the student is in terms of ability and what their success should look like. The second thing is you should have multiple interventions so that if one intervention doesn’t work you must try a different one. The next part is to evaluate your impact.

Current in class teacher assessment tends to exclusively on teacher performance. Is this the full picture?

I have a former colleague who did a study where he put microphones on kids every morning and every afternoon. Then he would go home and listened to what the kids said. He did that for years and then he wrote a book called The Hidden Classroom, the premise being that 70% to 80% of what happens in the classroom are unseen or unheard. And when you’re a new teacher it’s probably 80% to 90% that you don’t see or hear.

So I have the argument, that it’s a sin to go in the class and watch a teacher teach because all you end up doing is saying, “You could have taught more like me.” What you should do is go in the class and watch how kids are learning.

The interview with John was insightful and inspiring. I have asked him if he would be willing to speak with I’m a New Teacher more regularly and he graciously accepted.

What questions would you ask him if you had the chance?

You can find more of Professor John Hattie’s writing here.



Posted by Mathew Green on February 23, 2016  /   Posted in Interviews

One Comment

  1. Rebecca Wolkenstein November 18, 2013 12:23 am Reply

    I would ask him about class layout and whether/to what extent that affects behaviour management. I have heard it said in some schools that ‘such and such a group are too immature to handle a more organic set-up’. Sounded like setting low expectations to me…

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Whether you’re a casual teacher, permanently employed, working as a support teacher or on a temporary contract with your school, you are directly involved in educating, training and shaping some of the greatest minds that this world is yet to see.
^ Back to Top