School systems around the world spend billions on education “fixes” that, the evidence shows, are unlikely to deliver the impact that American parents are seeking and that students deserve.
One reason these “fixes” persist is that they are seemingly plausible. For example, take the familiar call for smaller class sizes, where many rigorous studies have found little impact. The explanation for such small gains is found in the messy reality of classrooms and the hard graft of changing teacher practice: In smaller classrooms, most teachers continue to teach in the same way that they always have. It’s simple, really — if you don’t change the pedagogy, you won’t change the learning.
Or take the popular “fix” of increasing school choice and inventing new types of schools. The mistake here is to misunderstand the unit that matters, which is much less the school and much more the classroom. Again, it comes down to the teaching skills and practices that the students experience.
What should we do, and how can we find a way through the forest that almost every intervention in education seems to have some supporting evidence (and a plausible narrative) that it makes a positive difference to student learning?
To answer this question, I used a new method (well, it was new in the 1980s) called meta-analysis, which allows researchers to merge many studies into one big study to estimate the average impact of the intervention in question. Then I went one step further and began synthesizing the meta-analyses.
This synthesis now contains more than 1,200 meta-analyses and 60,000 studies, representing about 250 million students. It allows us to move beyond asking, “what works?” and to start asking the more important question: “What works best?”
My claim is that the greatest influence on student progression in learning is having highly expert teachers and school leaders working together to maximize the effect of their teaching on all pupils in their care. I’ve called this Collaborative Expertise and describe it in more detail in a paper published by Pearson in June entitled “What Works Best in Education: The Politics of Collaborative Expertise.”
At its heart it involves:

  • Developing and nurturing inspired and passionate teachers who are experts at working out where students are in their learning, delivering multiple learning interventions each with a high probability of success and then re-starting this cycle in light of the impact achieved.
  • Creating a shared understanding of what one year’s worth of student learning should look like, and then getting all adults in the school to work to deliver that for each and every student, irrespective of their different starting points.
  • With that shared understanding in place, going on to create ways for all teachers to come together to share defensible evidence of their impact — and impact is what is important, this isn’t about sharing war stories in the teacher’s lounge.

What’s great about this list is that all of these strategies can begin now; they don’t require any permissions, and they cost relatively little. They are all related to the core of learning and teaching, and this is what we should be talking about even though this does lead into a difficult — but vital — acknowledgment that teachers do vary in their impact on students.
Acknowledging this shouldn’t lead us into the trap of proposing things like teacher performance pay — another topic where it is difficult to find a model that has made much, if any, difference to student learning. A much better approach is increasing the effectiveness of all teachers.
In my work, I have seen the transformational impact that this approach can have. Under the Visible Learning banner, my colleagues and I have worked with schools and teachers across the world to put the theory of collaborative expertise into use. One such school is the Wolford Elementary School in McKinney, Texas.
Students at Wolford Elementary were achieving good results. Despite this, teachers couldn’t shake the feeling that they weren’t as engaged in their learning as they could be. So they asked students what they thought good learning was all about. To the teachers’ surprise, the majority of pupils associated learning with good behavior in class.
In order to help students grow in autonomy and awareness as learners, school leaders developed a team-based program for teachers. In the teams, educators found a safe place in which to talk and share their expertise, which resulted in the co-design of challenging and engaging lessons using proven instructional practices.  Further, through their work together, the teachers developed a deepened focus on their role as evaluators responsible for constantly assessing their impact on student learning.
Wolford Elementary is a different place today, with the single biggest change being that language and behavior now focuses on learning, as opposed to teaching. Professional conversations abound, and teachers view themselves not as instructors, but as active facilitators of learning. During walkthroughs and classroom observations, school leaders note higher levels of student engagement in learning, and teachers are seen trying out instructional strategies like classroom discussion, reciprocal teaching, concept mapping and worked examples.
There is every reason to believe that if we leave behind the distractors and embrace Collaborative Expertise that we will see the changes in learning that American students deserve. This isn’t calling for some Utopia. It’s about having the courage to dependably recognize the excellence that is around us and building a coalition of success based on this excellence and inviting others to join.
This is where policymakers, parents and philanthropists should devote their energy (and dollars). If they do, the benefits will be manifest, powerful and exciting.
“What Works Best in Education: The Politics of Collaborative Expertise” by John Hattie is published as part of Open Ideas at Pearson, a series featuring independent insights on the big unanswered questions in education. Click here to find out more.