Exclusive interview with Professor John Hattie, part 1.
Professor John Hattie is a researcher in education. His research interests include performance indicators, models of measurement and evaluation of teaching and learning. John Hattie became known to a wider public with his two books Visible Learning and Visible Learning for Teachers. Visible Learning is a synthesis of more than 800 meta-studies covering more than 80 million students.
Since the publication of his books, John Hattie has continued to collect and aggregate meta-analyses to the Visible Learning database. His latest dataset synthesizes 1,500 meta-analyses of 90,000 studies involving more than 300 million students. This is the world’s largest evidence base into what works best in schools to improve learning .
Times Educational Supplement: TES once called him “possibly the world’s most influential education academic”.
John Hattie is Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne, Australia, since March 2011. Before, he was Project Director ofasTTle and Professor of Education at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. He holds a PhD from the University of Toronto, Canada.
He was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2011 Queen’s Birthday Honours, for services to education.
In this two part interview with Professor John Hattie we will discuss retention, evaluate reasons why children are retained, we will look into consequences of retention, prevention of retention, assessment in the Netherlands, objectivity of assessment, quality of teaching methods and the role of teachers in the retention process.
Background information: The Netherlands is the European leader in retention. On average in European countries 7, 3% of children repeat the class. In the Netherlands, it is 22.4%. Retention is extremely costly for the state budget of the Netherlands and equals 500 million euros per year, or 3% of total government spending on the primary and secondary education. Additionally government misses out more incomes related to the fact that children/students who get retained will work less long and therefore pay less premiums and taxes. The estimated costs of this are 900 million per year. So, the total costs of retention is 1,4 billion euros per year. This is equivalent to more than 80 euros per person.
Not only the national purse shows that retention is a bad idea. It is also backed up by international research. Retaining a student doubles the chance of later drop out, retaining twice almost guarantees drop out. Moreover, promoted students score better than retained students on social and emotional adjustment, and behavior, self-concept, and attitude towards school. Dutch Central office of the planning studies (Centraal Planbureau) is calling schools for alternatives.
Children from a family with a different linguistic and cultural background have a chance 4 times bigger to repeat the class. In the Netherlands these children also belong to the group which more often has to repeat the year at school. According to the latest report issued by a special Dutch government organization controlling the quality of education: Inspectie van het Onderwijs these are the nominal numbers: 15,8% of children with no migration background repeat the class in the Netherlands as contrast to: 21,6% children with the western immigration background, 21% not western 2nd generation and 27% not western 1st generation. Children with a migration background are also more often advised to continue their education at a lower level of a secondary school. So the immigration background defines the future of the child.
Beata Bruggeman-Sekowska: In your publications you repeatedly say “Retention is one of the few areas in education where it is difficult to find any studies with a positive effect’ [i]. ‘Overall the effects are negative for the retained students’. ‘It is difficult to find another educational practice on which the evidence is so unequivocally negative’[ii]. Can you elaborate on it? Why do you think retention is so counter-productive and not advisory for children and not efficient for schools?
Professor John Hattie: No single intervention by schools is worse than retention. The major reason why retention is so harmful is that the child is subjected to the SAME curricula, often the SAME assignments, often the SAME form of teaching and what this child needs is DIFFERENT teaching – the first time did not work. It also set a clear expectation of failure. There can be many other reasons, but the fundamental effect is negative – just do not do it.
On average in European countries 7, 3% of children repeat the class. In the Netherlands, it is 22.4% and the Netherlands and Portugal are the leaders in this field. Publication ‘’Expensive Class Retention. Experiment with more creative methods ”[iii] issued by Centraal Planbureau (central office of the planning studies) states that retention is extremely costly for the state budget of the Netherlands and equals 1,4 billion euros per year. What is your comment on it?
Shocked at this 22% figure – so much damage being done! There is systematic and powerful evidence that this is one of the more negative decisions we make in schools. There are nine meta-analysis on this topic, covered over 250 articles, and close to 100,000 students with an average effect of -.32 – which ranks 270th (almost the bottom – out of 277) of all influences. When we take only those studies where two students with comparable achievement scores are considered and one is promoted and one not, this almost doubles the negative effect. Moreover, promoted students score better than retained students on social and emotional adjustment, and behavior, self-concept, and attitude towards school. This achievement effect should shock us, but the equity issue should embarrass us – 80% of the students retained in the US are children of color (African American or Hispanics). Retaining a student doubles the chance of later drop out, retaining twice almost guarantees drop out.
The most reasons why children in the Netherlands repeat the class can be classified into 3 groups: children related, class-related and school-related.[iv] Children related can be the cultural and language background. In your studies you have proven that a child from a family with a different linguistic and cultural background has a chance 4 times bigger to repeat the class. In the Netherlands these children also belong to the group which more often has to repeat the year at school. What could be the reasons and is the child completely responsible for this situation?
Imagine a Netherlands child going to school in Shanghai. There will be major language, social, friendship, culture differences — of course this is going to take some time to adjust and then proceed on the learning trajectory they might have had before they left the Netherlands. This is what is like for many coming from different cultures into the Netherlands schools. This demands great programs for adjustment and integration, while respecting the culture, norms, and prior influences. A child should not be punished by retention because schools do not have great programs.
Class and school related reasons. What do you think about the fact that class and school can have so bad influence on the kids that they have to repeat the class?
The following characteristics emerge for the class:
- class size (the bigger the group the higher chance of retention);
- instruction quality (if this is low, then there are children who repeat the year);
- time planning (if it is inefficient, then there are more children who repeat the year).
The following characteristics emerge for the school:
- not enough facilities for pupils;
- little contact with parents;
- unfavorable learning climate;
- insufficient work targeted on results
- difficulty dealing with differences between students (differentiate).
Every student should be continually evaluated in their learning growth across all subjects; and whether they consider this class and school is an inviting place to learn. The quality of the interpretations forms such evaluation evidence is the key for excellent teachers. Such interpretations should be triangulated with evidence from the tests, the child’s voice about their growth, and artifacts of work. They should be shared with other educators for their interpretations, and they should be enacted upon. All this is what helps progress students at an optimal pace and reduce any need to make the students repeat again because we have failed the first time. We must seriously question our methods if it takes a year to discover we have failed this child.
The most often reasons why teachers decide to let the kid repeat the year in the Netherlands are:
- the development of students is linear and step-by-step. The curriculum from one year is conditional for understanding curriculum from the following year;
- if weak (er) students repeat the year, the classes become more homogeneous. This allows teachers to give instruction more efficiently and to deal with more difficult subject matter. Finally, they can better meet individual student learning questions;
- If children are expected too much of, if they face difficulties they should repeat the year and this would give them ‘breathing room’, which has a positive effect on their self-confidence.
What is your comment on that?
I cannot agree with the premise – as in any one year there is always a wide range of abilities and achievements; there is no defence for a lock step year curriculum when any year group has children with 3-5 years range. Maybe retention may lead to more homogeneity – but who does this privilege. The best classes are heterogeneous to an extent as difference is the essence of ensuring maximum focus on all students. If retention provides “breathing room” why is there so much evidence that it indeed does the opposite – it chokes.
What is the alternative to retention? And what requirements have to be met to offer this alternative?
The major alternative is social promotion – having the student advance with his (80% are boys) peers. But ensuring that in the subsequent year there is appropriate differential and personalised learning.
Note, in a year group there is a 3-5 year spread of achievement – so it does not make sense or claim that a particular child should be held back – when the next year up will include many peers. Some claim students should be helped back for social reasons – but again the evidence is that holding back does not necessarily fix these social issues – a specific intervention to address the social issues is needed but why punish the child because it took a teacher a year to diagnose this!!!
Next week the 2nd part of the interview with Prof. John Hattie.
Photo cover: Pixabay Kokomo Cole
- [i] Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta- analyses relating to achievement. London/New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis group.
- [ii] Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta- analyses relating to achievement. London/New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis group.
- [iii] Centraal Plan Bureau (2015). Zittenblijven kostbaar. Experimenteer met alternatieven. CBP Policy Brief.(1-18) https://www.scribd.com/document/252906207/CPB-Zittenblijven-in-Het-Primair-en-Voortgezet-Onderwijs
- [iv] Driessen, G., Mulder, L., Leest, B. & Verrijt, T. (2014). Zittenblijven in Nederland: een probleem? Tijdschrift voor Orthopedagogiek, 53, 297-311.
- Definition: In the article and the report the following definition has been applied: A person has a Western background when he, she or legal parents were born in Europe (excluding Turkey), North America or Oceania. Indonesia and Japan are also counted among the western countries. If a person or legal parents were born in another country, according to the definition, this person has a non-Western migration background.
Migration background determines child’s career at schools in the Netherlands
‘’Schools should provide additional support to bilingual children’’
‘’Teachers: have and show more empathy to bilingual children’’
‘’Find a school that not only listens but also really hears you’’
‘’Bilingual children have two language systems and this makes them different from monolingual children. Not better, not worse, just different’’