Teachers make a difference. But students make a BIGGER difference

Ever since John Hattie’s paper, “Teachers Make a Difference, What is the research evidence?, and his subsequent publications on Visible Learning methods, teachers have been hearing the same message over and over again…

Teachers are the single most powerful influence on student achievement.

But that begs the question – are we? Are we really the most powerful influence on student achievement? What about the students themselves? What role do they play in the learning process? And how does that impact student achievement?

Teachers make a difference. Students make a BIGGER difference

Hattie believes that the greatest source of variance that can make a difference to student achievement is the teacher. And it’s his belief that we should improve the quality of teaching to “improve the trajectory of all students”. This line of thinking has been widely accepted in education, and has led to a huge growth in teacher development.

Hattie identifies the most effective strategies that teachers can employ to achieve the greatest gains in learning. In fact, Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership drew on Hattie’s research to produce the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers.[1] These standards define how expertise in teaching is recognised and developed over time within our industry.

The result? We now understand teacher expertise better than ever before. And that’s an excellent result. But it still fails to take us all the way, because it fails to fully take into account the role of the student.

The Role of the Student in Learning

While it hasn’t gotten the same air time, according to John Hattie’s own research it’s actually 
not the teacher that makes the biggest difference to student achievement. It’s the students themselves.[2] Hattie says, “students account for about 50% of variance of student achievement. It is what the students bring to the table that predicts achievement more than any other variable”.[3]

Hattie goes on to say “The correlation between ability and achievement is high, so it is no surprise that bright students have steeper trajectories of learning than their less bright students”[sic] [4]. In other words, he believes that the brighter students have a natural ability to learn which will lead to better outcomes for them than for their less-bright counterparts.

The Role of Learnership

I found Hattie’s comment about bright and less bright students both surprising and deeply worrying. In his research, it’s clear that he believes that teachers are made, not born[5]. Yet, he doesn’t seem to feel the same about leaners. But why couldn’t learners be made as well?

Reading Hattie’s paper now, these ideas are in in stark contrast to the many (many!) experts (such as Dweck[6], Ericsson[7], Costa and  Kallick[8] who recognise that intelligence is a malleable construct that can (and should!) be developed. Experts now agree – learners are made, not born[9].

But how do we implement that understanding into the learning environment?

Research (and experience) shows us that we can help our students develop expertise in learning. McKinsey and Company point to a growing body of evidence that shows that learning is a skill, and that mastering it is critical for success.[10]
Hattie himself attributes a significant amount of responsibility to the student (a 50% variance to be exact). And I’ve never met an experienced teacher that didn’t feel students could significantly improve their own achievements, if they just changed how they engaged in the learning process. Or to put it in Hattie’s words, if they just changed what they brought to the table.
John Holt reminded us that “Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners”. In other words, students won’t learn from teaching. They learn from their own engagement with the learning process. So, it just makes sense to focus as much on the activity of the learners as the activity of teachers, if not more so.
Instead of focusing on what quality teachers look like, it’s time to focus on what quality learners look like. It’s time to focus on learnership.

This is what the skill of learnership is all about. It’s about defining, and developing the skill of learning.

Let’s Rebalance the Conversation

Hattie’s research has profoundly and positively influenced teacher practice. As someone who’s passionate about education, I’m extremely grateful for his contribution to the art of teaching, and his positive influence on countless numbers of students.
But new research is here. We have a better understanding of growth mindset, of the  malleable nature of intelligence, the development of potential and of how teaching and learning can work together for better and better outcomes. Now is the time to rebalance our conversation. Now is the time to embrace the art of learning just as we embrace the art of teaching. Now is the time to start talking about the skill of learning and how we develop students as experts’ learners.
Now is the time to embrace Learnership.

Best Wishes,

[1] Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership 2011, Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, AITSL, Melbourne. Accessed at https://www.aitsl.edu.au/docs/default-source/national-policy-framework/australian-professional-standards-for-teachers.pdf.
[2] Hattie, J. (2003, October). ‘Teachers make a difference: What is the research evidence?’ Paper presented at the Australian Council for Educational Research Annual Conference on Building Teacher Quality, Melbourne. Accessed at https://research.acer.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1003&context=research_conference_2003.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] (11 June 2016). ‘Teaching the teachers’. The Economist. Accessed at https://www.economist.com/briefing/2016/06/11/teaching-the-teachers. 
[6] Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
[7] Ericsson, K. A., Charness, N., Feltovich, P. J. and Hoffman, R. R. (Eds.). (2006). The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance. Cambridge University Press.
[8] Edited by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick. ‘Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind: 16 Essential Characteristics for Success’.
[9] Boser, Ulrich. (2 May 2018). ‘Learning Is a Learned Behavior. Here’s How to Get Better at It.’ Harvard Business Review. Accessed at https://hbr.org/2018/05/learning-is-a-learned-behavior-heres-how-to-get-better-at-it.
[10] Christensen, Lisa, Gittleson, Jake and Smith, Matt. (7 August 2020). ‘The most fundamental skill: Intentional learning and the career advantage’. McKinsey & Company. Accessed at https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/the-most-fundamental-skill-intentional-learning-and-the-career-advantage.


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