A talk with John Hattie about inclusive education, teacher training and learning styles

Last week I had the chance to talk with John Hattie with a couple of other teachers and teacher trainers from Flanders as part of the Make Learning Visible-conference in Amsterdam. I blogged about this meeting in Dutch, but received a couple of messages from people if I could translate this post. So I finally did (long train rides do help). There was one rule during the conversation: we had to call him John, not sir or professor. So we did. I can’t discuss all the topics we talked about, but I want to summarize 2 big themes and a small one.

As both the Netherlands and Flanders are involved in a shift towards more inclusive education, a large part of the meeting was on this topic. John Hattie was pretty much a closed book on the matter if he is pro or contra. Inclusive education has a small effect size for learning, but that’s not really the discussion.

He did mention what kind of approaches you better do or leave.


  • Collaboration, collaboration and – you guessed it – collaboration. Essential to this is that teachers who are looking for help and who can’t find answers will leave the profession, despite the fact that they can be experienced and even great teachers. Actually, a bit further in the conversation John explained that often the most experienced teachers, often also good ones, are less inclined to seek help with new challenges such as inclusive education.
  • Support for – and this may surprise some – the teachers, not for the children. A bit provocative he claimed: if you have few resources, don’t let any psychologist or other expert in the classroom to visit children, but make sure that teachers can reach them easily. Even better: make sure every single school has a  ‘resource teacher’.

This last point becomes clear when you check his “Don’t”:

  • “teaching aids”, persons who help the teacher – or most of the times the pupils with extra needs – during class. John explained that research has shown that this kind of teaching aids can have even a negative impact on learning because the actual teacher will devote less time to the child who actually needs more attention but also because often the teaching aids are actually too nice. They want to help the children and don’t challenge them enough. He acknowledged that many people will disagree as everybody (pupils, parents and teachers) like teaching aids, but for John learning is central so if you got limited resources: support the teachers.

A second main theme in our discussion was teacher training. In Visible Learning John shows that the effect on the learning of the pupils of teacher training is close to nothing. John smiled when this was mentioned and explained that many countries now are planning to abolish teacher training, but that was not what he intended. John is nowadays involved in the thinking about teacher training in New-Zealand and he has a clear vision:

  • Any training institute needs to measure the effect of their training, more specific: do the children who are being thought by your trainees or newly trained teachers learning something. If not, act.
  • Central to his approach is that teachers first need to learn how to diagnose the learning process of their pupils. They need know where they are in their learning process. In a next step the soon to be teachers need to learn a small range of didactical approaches, including direct instruction.
  • Do note – he added with a smile – that at first there is no room for class management or subject-related didactics. Those topics will be part of the in-service training. He also mentioned that nor the students nor the institutes are quite happy with his plans, but to him the focus of any starting teacher should be on one thing only.

It was the first time that I’ve met the man and so even before the actual roundtable discussion, I asked the question that I’ve been carrying for quite a while. In his first book on Visible Learning from 2009 Learning styles still received an effect size of .41 which wasn’t that bad, in all other books (and translations of the first book) this was changed to a much lower figure – what seems to me more correct as it’s a big educational myth. Again John had to laugh when I asked this. He changed the score because he received some critique because he hadn’t checked the quality of the meta-studies that he’d used. And concerning learning styles, this comment was more than correct. Most of the studies were actually quite poorly designed and even one of the studies was in fact a – not so good – master thesis of a student that was published by his professor without even mentioning the original author. Taking everything into account, the effect size dropped.

To conclude a little personal note. I gave our book on educational myths to John and to my surprise he asked me to sign the book. I did, but it should have been the other way around, but I forgot to bring my copies of his book.

4 thoughts on “A talk with John Hattie about inclusive education, teacher training and learning styles

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