Hattie & Donoghue propose a new conceptual model for learning

This morning Tim van der Zee (@Research_Tim) pointed me to a new publication by John Hattie in Nature that he co-wrote with Gregory Donoghue in which the man from Visible Learning fame and his colleague propose a new conceptual model of learning that looks like this:

The abstract makes the intentions clear:

The purpose of this article is to explore a model of learning that proposes that various learning strategies are powerful at certain stages in the learning cycle. The model describes three inputs and outcomes (skill, will and thrill), success criteria, three phases of learning (surface, deep and transfer) and an acquiring and consolidation phase within each of the surface and deep phases. A synthesis of 228 meta-analyses led to the identification of the most effective strategies. The results indicate that there is a subset of strategies that are effective, but this effectiveness depends on the phase of the model in which they are implemented. Further, it is best not to run separate sessions on learning strategies but to embed the various strategies within the content of the subject, to be clearer about developing both surface and deep learning, and promoting their associated optimal strategies and to teach the skills of transfer of learning. The article concludes with a discussion of questions raised by the model that need further research.

Tim asked me what I made of this. Well, I like people who are ambitious, and this seems like a very ambitious endeavour. Lately I’ve heard some people discuss that education is missing a grand theory, something like Piaget’s theory or something like Freudian theory. Although both theories have been debunked to a certain extent, they were important building blocks when people started thinking about both cognitive development and the development of personality. At first I thought this model was an attempt to deliver such a great theory, and it is – kind of – but not for people in practice. I feel too stupid to pinpoint possible flaws, I need to read it much more to do this if there are. Instead I want to explain why it’s nothing – yet – for my students.

What I like about the model is that it tries to combine a lot of elements:

The model comprises the following components: three inputs and three outcomes; student knowledge of the success criteria for the task; three phases of the learning process (surface, deep and transfer), with surface and deep learning each comprising an acquisition phase and a consolidation phase; and an environment for the learning (Figure 1).

But at the same time this is maybe one of it’s weaker points. I’ve read the full article – a couple of times – and it reads as a great overview of elements influencing learning outcomes, and there is a theory lying beneath the model, that Hattie and Donoghue ask to explore, but if I look at it from the perspective of my students in teacher training I have the impression we’re not there yet, just because it’s too much. The skill, will, thrill is – as Casper Hulshof wrote on twitter – very neat. The idea that different approaches can have different outcomes, is something that can’t be repeated enough. It sounds very logical, but I see the opposite being uttered and practiced on almost a daily basis. I could continue explaining what the worth is of all elements, but the combined model can blur too much for my students. Well, this is my impression today. I’ll chew on everything a bit more.

To conclude, from the paper, I want to cite this paragraph from the comments section:

Like all models, the one proposed in this article invites as many conjectures and directions for further research as it provide a basis for interpreting the evidence from the meta-synthesis. It helps make sense of much of the current literature but it is speculative in that it also makes some untested predictions. There is much solace in Popper’s 93claim that ‘Bold ideas, unjustified anticipations, and speculative thought, are our only means for interpreting nature: our only organon, our only instrument, for grasping her. And we must hazard them to win our prize. Those among us who are unwilling to expose their ideas to the hazard of refutation do not take part in the scientific game.’ Further research is needed, for example, to better understand the optimal order through the various phases; there may be circumstances where it may be beneficial to learn the deeper notions before developing the surface knowledge. It is highly likely that as one develops many ideas and even relates and extends them, these become ‘ideas’ and the cycle continues.94 We know much, but we need to know much more, and in particular we need to know how these many learning strategies might be better presented in another competing model. Such testing of a bold model and making predictions from models is, according to Popper, how science progresses.

As I said, I like ambitious people, and I like even more ambitious people who dare to take a risk and asked to be confronted.


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