Hattie, Strawman Fallacy and Gurus in Education

“He was impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance.” (Graham Greene)

Nothing is more annoying, and in certain cases more dangerous, than a pseudo-intellectual. You know, one that skims a brief article here, reads a little bit there, and then makes a “compelling” case against something. Worse is, however, when his or her blog post gets re-tweeted over and over again so that it becomes a mantra in education.

To me, this ultimately boils down to ethics. I understand your desire to change the status quo or to advance a certain view (value, belief, theory, or whatever you have in mind), and for sure this revolutionary intent and constant war against the current state of things is part of what we call “passion”. What I do not understand is the misuse of information in order to promote this change.


This week I came across this blog post (Three Shockers from the Guardian) in which its author criticizes three articles – one related to collaborative learning, the second to problem-solving, and last to Hirsch’s developing of the Core Knowledge Program.  What I find most ironic is that the blogger is definitely *not* aware (dare I say not well-read?) about each of the points he attacks. He uses random quotes from Hattie’s work Visible Learning and cherry picks from the effect-size list only what would serve his intention. Moreover, he shows lack of reading of Hirsch’s work and brings a straw-man argument to engage in the debate. I would like to analyze his post as I find that more and more educators slowly fall back into accepting gurus in education they most relate to and discard little by little the qualities that make us critical thinkers. For that, you need to read widely. Secondly, you have to learn more viewpoints, to be literate in terms of learning theories and pedagogy, and to analyze a lot of research – including those that create cognitive conflict and disprove some of the beliefs you hold. Thirdly, examine your own philosophy of education and see where your biases lie.

Let us then start with Hattie.


1. Hattie and Visible Learning

It is not difficult to see in Hattie’s work several principles that are actually conflicting with a “traditional” education as it is conveyed by many bloggers – from the construction of knowledge to differentiation and Grant Wiggins’s backward design (p. 119), the entire book is in favor of focusing our effort and attention to how learning rather than teaching occurs.

Here is the effect-sizes list (edition 2012). Note that many of the influencers that I intentionally highlighted are the ones usually under attack by traditional teachers (sorry for the label, but many are very open and vocal about it, as if it is “progressive” or “traditional” that makes good teaching).



“(…) learners construct and reconstruct knowledge and ideas. It is NOT the knowledge or idea, but the learner’s construction of this knowledge and ideas that are critical.” (p.22)

Excuse me, but this is damn important. It is the basis of constructivism, a “progressive” learning theory (Do not mistake it for an instruction theory – that will simply show you have lost the argument. Make the difference between the two.)


One of “the least effective methods seem to not involve peers” (p.94). How is that for the importance of collaborative learning?

“The effects of peers on learning is high, d=0.52. Peers can influence learning by helping, tutoring, giving feedback.”

“Cooperative learning is certainly a powerful intervention. It exceeds its alternatives: cooperative learning vs. individualistic learning (d=0.59), cooperative vs. competitive learning (d=0.54)

“(…) an art of teaching is seeing the commonality in diversity, in having peers work together, especially when they bring different talents, errors, interests, and dispositions to the situation.”

*(Side note: The OECD report on PISA 2012 also found that collaborative learning environments triggered better results in terms of academic achievement – p. 28)


Many “traditional” educators dismiss the distinction between the two on the basis that they are artificial constructs meant to obscure and claim that they only add to the education jargon. Well, if you are a traditional educator yet still make references to Hattie’s work, do please keep in mind that he *does* make a distinction between the two and addresses that several times in his book. As a matter of fact, he dedicates an entire chapter to Conceptual Understanding (ch.5).

“To make teaching and learning visible requires an accomplished teacher as evaluator and activator, who knows a range of learning strategies to build on students’ surface knowledge, deep knowledge, and conceptual understanding.” (p.21)

That is exactly why I argued in the previous blog post that Harry Web was completely wrong about another work (Making Thinking Visible or How to Debate Poorly). I work in an IB school (Hattie also mentions International Baccalaureate – p. 63) where conceptual understanding is the primary aim. IB philosophy stems from a constructivist theory yet is found to be academically challenging by all students.


Traditional teachers favor a teacher-directed instruction and have an excessive aversion to students communicating learning (see my reply to Old Andrew on language and thinking here).

language thinking

But what do we find in Hattie’s book?

“Teachers talk between 70-80% of class time on average. Across the grades, when instruction was challenging, relevant, and academically demanding, then all students had higher engagement and teachers talked less – and the greatest beneficiaries were at-risk students.” (p.80)

“Teachers love to talk – to clarify, summarize, reflect, explain, correct, repeat, praise. About 5-10% of teacher talk triggers more dialogue engaging the student. Please not that this not how teachers perceive what happens in their classrooms but what IS happening – as shown by video analysis, class observations, and event sampling.”

“When highly effective and other teachers were compared (Hardman, Smit, and Wall, 2003) the former had more general class talk and less directive talk.”

The amount of research showing how a dialogic classroom impacts learning is overwhelming – see pages 80-83.


Hattie writes about “low levels of intellectual demand”, references Lingard (2007), and lists other “observational studies that highlight the overpowering presence of teachers talking and students sitting passively waiting.”

*NOTE: Low-level cognitive demands do not occur solely in teacher-directed instruction. I saw (and decried) the busyness of active classrooms where students were engaged in hands-on but mind-off activities.


Traditionally, differentiation is viewed with suspicion and questioned on the basis that knowledge alone and by itself will enhance critical thinking in students – therefore, differentiation or certain thinking routines are not needed. I already posted on the latter, rather flimflam ideal (Critical Thinking or Opening Pandora’s Box) and Hattie devotes two pages on Differential Learning and Phases of Learning, emphasizing the importance of both.

“Teaching the ‘whole class’ is unlikely to pitch the less correctly for all students.”

“This leads to the importance of differentiated teaching – but without jumping too quickly to ‘grouping’ students in homogeneous groups. The aim is not to retain the students in the phase of learning, but to move them +1 beyond their current phase. So often, this can be aided by students seeing the different ways in which their peers engage in learning, sharing understandings and misunderstandings, recognizing that challenge is common to the bright and struggling, and seeing that they can work through their learning together.” (p.126)

*Please note that ability grouping is ranked with an effect size of 0.12, way below the minimum of 0.4 (0.4 is considered the minimum for a strategy to effectively impact learning).


When talking about expert teachers, Hattie states (according to his overview of research):

“(in their classes) it is a climate in which error is welcomed, in which student questioning is high, in which engagement is the norm.” (p.29)

Moreover, he dedicates several pages to questioning itself as a way to counteract the passivity of learning and to avoid teacher talk. He cites research that shows that teachers ask many questions (200-300 per day) but “the majority of questions are about ’the facts, just give me the facts’”.  He exemplifies how the use of questioning improves learning:

“The effect size of adjunct questions was 0.40 which shows that there can be important gains.”

  • CURRICULUMChallenge, not necessarily progression

I brought this up because I see too many traditional educators claiming that a curriculum that is well-structured and enables progression will result in excellent learning. Hattie discusses different curricula (including the IB, for instance) and makes the following remark:

“One difference across different curricula can be in order or progressions: some objectives fall before or after others. There is too little evidence as to what is the best order and even, in some domains, whether there is indeed an order.” (p.63)

“It is the notion of ‘challenge’ that is most important.”

It is interesting that he concludes,

“…the debates about desirable curricula in a democratic society are often presumed to be answered by these test-outcome-based questions (n.n. testing and standards) rather than based on a debate about what is worth preserving in our society, and what is worth knowing in order to live the desired good life.” (p. 63)

*Critical pedagogy rings a bell?…

CONCLUSION: If you do enjoy bringing Hattie in your discourse make sure you do your reading. As with any academic work, Visible Learning can be misquoted and misrepresented to further a certain take on education.


II. The straw-man argument, Hirsch, and pseudo-reading


“How can you challenge the world if you don’t know anything about it? It is poorly educated pupil, ignorant about the world around them, who becomes passively accepting of their lot.” (I quoted from the blogger’s article)

Not unusual, this is the straw-man of educational debate and it is amusing (OK, many times it is disturbing) to see how many blog posts begin with the same fallacy. Let’s see what “straw-man” means in terms of logic and debate:

By exaggerating, misrepresenting, or just completely fabricating someone’s argument, it’s much easier to present your own position as being reasonable, but this kind of dishonesty serves to undermine honest rational debate.

To the same extent traditional teachers misrepresent the progressive view (who on earth endorses ignorance and puts it on a pedestal?), the same way progressives view traditional teaching as “indoctrination” and equate it with rote learning and/or learning disconnected facts. The author of the post uses exactly this type of fallacy when he tries to counteract Tait Coles’s criticism of Hirsch’s core knowledge project. Period.


I, for one, have been working in a “progressive” system (International Baccalaureate) for 12 years now and knowledge is not only NOT minimized, but emphasized in each stage of a spiraling and extremely demanding curriculum. And if you did not know, IB schools are among the highest-performing ones in the world. As Hattie noted, curricula do not vary much in term of objectives but rather in the challenges they pose. Constructivism, like any other learning theory, works provided that certain criteria are met.


Having read Hirsch’s The Making of Americans as well as The Knowledge Deficit (I bought them both), I need to inform the author of the blog post of a few things.

  • Hirsch has been involved in research on reading and writing in the 1970s, and before teaching at Virginia University he had understood the importance of background knowledge in the comprehension of texts. (p.13)*See my post using Hirsch’s idea, Teaching Reading Strategies Is Great. Not.; also, the importance of knowledge – Who Is Afraid of Knowledge?
  • Hirsch was *not* inspired to advocate for a common core knowledge curriculum – he only justified his choice in terms of historical legacy. The idea of a common school dates back to the 1880s. As a matter of fact, Hirsch himself mentions the Common School Act (1812) passed by New York State, and the very first chapter of The Making of Americans starts with the description of such school (see the photo I took – p.2).

2014-03-02 01.57.49

“In a relatively short period, from 1837 to 1853, every state legislature in the North passed into law most of the key features of common free school systems. To prevail in these hard-fought battles, common school advocates, working largely through the Whig Party, had to convince a majority of their compatriots that common schools could play a critical role, not just in providing people a more equal chance at education, but in consolidating the country’s culture around republican, capitalist, and Protestant values. (…)
To this day, the values and the curriculum of the “common” public schools remain skewed towards the cultural institutions and beliefs of traditional American Protestants. ”

(Carl F. Kaestle, Professor of education, history, and public policy at Brown University; paper source –  Victory of the Common School Movement: A Turning Point in American Educational History, U.S. Department of State publication Historians on America. )

  • Hirsch can *easily* come across as a supporter of cultural hegemony. From page 9 on, the reader encounters way too many references to “the Founding Fathers” (p.9), the “brilliant American Founders”, the “political genius of America’s Founders” (p.11) and the list may go on. Regardless of the concept Hirsch advances (core knowledge) and the evidence he cites, the consistent use of such descriptions does make one doubtful of his balanced approach to cultural diversity.
  • The Making of Americans is informative at best and, at its worst, contradictory. A simple example is his consideration of methodology: in the first chapter we are assured that “I praise education world’s emphasis on humane teaching methods” just to be baffled later on by his favoring of “whole class lectures” based on “a curriculum set in advance.” (p.45) Whole-class lectures with 6 or 10-year-olds – now that is something to explore.

I personally, have no interest in promoting or criticizing Hirsch’s reform view. He focuses on the American society and culture, and, as such, it is for the American educators, public, and education policy makers to debate it. What is, however, questionable is the way many traditional teachers cite his work to justify this or that argument, ignoring the context in which his reform has developed.


More often than not, we are directed to The Project Follow Through, one of “the largest and most expensive  experiments in education” in the U.S. Unlike biased traditional teachers, who easily fall in an echo chamber type of thinking and blogging, I tweeted a few times about this project despite being a “progressive” educator – precisely because I consider information a source of understanding and one should not disseminate information selectively, according to personal beliefs.

The project found that direct instruction worked (unlike the other models proposed). Although there is criticism surrounding it (what project, research or study lacks its critics?), one does have to ask: why is it that  only ineffective “progressive”models of teaching are always brought forth and the ones that work (IB schools are an example) are never cited? Does direct instruction work? Of course it does. Does that mean other instruction theories don’t? Not at all.   Think of national education systems. Finland and China can’t be more apart in terms of values, of teaching philosophies and methods. Yet both have top results on PISA.

(Anecdote, from my Twitter interactions with a teacher who pointed at the ‘effectiveness” of the Chinese system:  He kept mentioning it while I defended the importance of values. When he moved onto a more personal territory, he admitted that, indeed, he would not have his children study in China. What to get from this? That it is OK to promote effectiveness at the cost of values, but it is also perfectly fine to deny your own children access to such an “effective” system? Hm. )

This Farm Animal approach (“four legs bad, two legs good”) is, to me, the laziest intellectual stance. Dichotomies are mostly theoretical – in real life, as it is the case in education, there are too many grey lines to surrender to a simplistic black-or-white definition.

From what I have seen from many UK-based tweeters, what is considered “progressive” teaching there is a myriad of busy lessons, low-demanding cognitive tasks (at times I did not know whether to laugh or cry when reading  from David Didau that potatoes were hid around the classroom to enhance understanding of the life of  Irish peasants during the Potato Famine), and an over-focus on forced collaboration all the time ( I tweeted many links about social loafing, the importance of individual input, and the dangers of group work). As such, I DO empathize with these teachers’ reactions towards this type of“progressive” teaching. However, this is not even progressive teaching – it is pure pedagogical illiteracy that transferred into methodology.


1. Read. A lot.

2. If you tweet or blog, do all of us a favor so we can think critically: present all sides of an issue, all research available and all the evidence . I am a “progressive” teacher but I tweet and blog about educational fads (such as learning styles, multiple intelligences, BrainGym, “learning-pyramid” – you name them), as well as bring opposing “traditional” views – Kirschner, Hirsch, Hayter et al., and conflicting research or critiques of it from different academics.

3. See point 1.


4 Responses to “Hattie, Strawman Fallacy and Gurus in Education”

  1. Reblogged this on Psychology & Statistics Tutor:Mentor and commented:
    I must make time to finish reading this!

  2. Excellent example of leading by example.

    Enjoyed reading it.

    Thank you


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