Hard lessons for better leadership

I’ve been feeling a mixture of guilt, fatigue and overload over the past month as I grapple with work commitments and university study so the blog has gone somewhat quiet of late.

But I couldn’t help notice this article by Professor John Hattie published in the Age Newspaper.

A FEW days ago, not long after the state school teachers union launched a campaign for smaller class sizes, one of the world’s leading scholars on school improvement arrived in Melbourne and uttered heresy.

Speaking to hundreds of school principals at a conference, Professor John Hattie said there was a way to overcome the problem of how to get more teachers involved in appraising and improving each other’s skills. You could increase class sizes in return for giving teachers a day off during the week to work together on preparing and evaluating lessons.

Demands for smaller class sizes have been a central and often successful plank of most industrial claims pursued by teachers over the past century. Many continue to believe reduced class sizes help to lift student achievement. The conference audience seemed slightly stunned by Professor Hattie’s idea.

But the feisty New Zealand educator, who has worked with hundreds of schools in Australia and New Zealand, says he has road tested his ideas with teachers and most would choose to have a day off for co-operative planning rather than face fewer students in their class.

“What we as teachers tend to do is argue for more or less instead of saying we have to do things differently,” he says. “We’ve reduced class sizes so often throughout the world, thousands and thousands of times, and it’s had a positive but very limited effect on student achievement.

“I don’t understand why we always want the thing that has the least effect on student achievement, compared with many other alternatives. It may make us feel more comfortable. It doesn’t change our workload because when we’ve done it, teachers say their workload stays the same.”

Professor Hattie’s internationally acclaimed research includes summarising the findings of more than 50,000 studies worldwide that have examined the influences on student achievement. His work measured the effect size of each influence. On his scale, class size had only a modest impact, while a factor such as feedback from a teacher to a student on how they could improve had a big impact.

Such work by Professor Hattie and other researchers, sifting through evidence to identify practical factors that contribute to student improvement, is becoming highly prized by schools experiencing unprecedented levels of public and government scrutiny.

It’s an interesting point he raises and I would suggest not quite so coincidental that its raised at this time when schools start to plan structures for the coming year – we ,at our school, have just started discussions at the industrial consultative committee level on school structures based on funding models [schools funding tied to student enrolment numbers].

His article went on to make a connected point on school leadership [instructional leadership in particular – to which I am committed to]

Unfortunately Australian principals are mired in tasks that don’t have much influence on how their students perform academically. Thirty-two per cent of their time is spent on administrative tasks, much higher than the international mean of 22 per cent, according to an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study. The proportion of their time spent on staff development, instructional leadership, and parent and community relations are all lower than international means.

Professor Hattie says school leaders need to shift their focus to see themselves as chief evaluators of student and staff achievement in their schools.

“We all love to blame someone for giving us the administrative work, but on the other hand we love to do a lot of that stuff,” he says. “We love to design our buildings and worry about our finances. But there’s not a great deal of evidence that they make a difference to anything and the instructional leadership stuff is hard. It’s so much easier to sit back in the office and worry about whether you’re creating enough space for your teachers and not to know about their impact on student achievement.”

A colleague of Professor Hattie at Auckland University, Professor Viviane Robinson, has analysed different styles of school leadership. Her research shows that principals who are instructional leaders share crucial characteristics.

They review and interpret test scores with teachers, their staff meetings frequently focus on instructional issues, and they ensure teachers work together to co-ordinate the instructional program within and between grades. They also ensure high academic standards are communicated to all students, teachers and parents, are highly visible throughout the school, and insist that the class atmosphere is conducive to learning for all students.

Some principals have a transformational style. Their common traits include setting directions, inspirational motivation, buffering staff from external demands and securing a high level of autonomy for the school. The Robinson study found that the effect on student achievement of instructional leadership far outweighed the impact of transformational leadership.

Professor Hattie says transformational leaders in schools are impressive but they are often rare individuals. Therefore it would be wrong for principals to be seduced by a model of leadership forged in the business sector and better suited to it than the field of education.

“If you look at the evidence, transformational leadership does have a positive effect but it’s quite trivial compared to the principal who really cares about the impact we’re having on student learning and puts that at the forefront of every discussion in the school; who works with the teachers so they understand the impact they’re having on all the students; who worries about the ways in which we’re teaching most effectively is right.

“It’s hard work and it’s a heck of a lot harder than being a transformational hero but those kind of principals make the difference.”

This point about instructional leadership [being strengthened through participation in Instructional Rounds] is the feature of my thesis. This leadership shift [from administrative to instructional] is many ways easy to say and hard to do – and it comes, like all cultural shifts, with push back from many teachers and parents alike.  These points  perhaps might be the focus of another post – for I continue to experience push back as I strive towards a greater instructional focus.

Hattie went on to say about teachers and data

“It’s about getting teachers to see learning through the eyes of the students, what are the things we do that work best,” says Professor Hattie.

“Statements without data are just opinions and we love to do that. My job is to put the evidence on the table and plot the impact. What’s really stunning is we see that we do have a positive impact on student achievement.”


There are just so many points made here – its just important that we read, use and interpret data and reflect as a profession. Some of the decisions are hard to make in communities and its even harder when not everyone agrees – there are mixed messages being spread to everyone – this is the mess of cultural change.

I’m interested to hear about other school communities facing similar decisions.

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3 Responses to Hard lessons for better leadership

  1. nina davis says:

    As a classroom teacher, I would like to know what size classes Professor Hattie would recommend for lower, middle and senior primary. I haven’t been able to locate this information and feel this would be important to know. I’m not convinced yet! Teaching is also about relationships.
    Cheers Nina

  2. Greg Whitby says:

    Mark you hit all the right notes here. Hattie has to be listened to if we are serious about lifting student achievement by improving good teaching.
    This will demand innovation and change to several “sacred cows” of existing practice. I see good examples of it everywhere but we have to scale it so all kids benefit. The profession can feel confident with academic support from people like John Hattie

Interested in your thoughts