Educator Insights: Why Australia’s teachers should hold their heads high

Educator Insights: Why Australia’s teachers should hold their heads high

In the realm of educational research, few names resonate as profoundly as Professor John Hattie of the University of Melbourne.

His magnum opus, ‘Visible Learning,’ represents the zenith of a 25-year journey through the educational landscape, analysing an astonishing 132,000 studies that encompass the educational experiences of 300 million students worldwide. Professor Hattie’s quest was not just to gather data, but to distil it into meaningful insights, seeking to identify which educational variables wield the most significant impact on student learning.

As Australian education embarks on transformative changes, the rich insights of Professor Hattie provide a window into the potential future landscape of teaching and learning methodologies.

Below, The Educator speaks to Professor Hattie about his passion for education, how to revitalise the teaching profession, the role of AI in classrooms, and how to effect positive change in Australia’s schools.

TE: In your incredible career so far career as an educator and education expert, what is it that you are most passionate about?

It's kind of nice that you mention the word passion because you know, one of the little jokes I played in my first work was commenting that the common ingredient to success in a classroom is passion, but it's hard to measure. And the little joke is it's hard to measure because it's not. You can see it; you can feel it. And that passion of educators is really quite remarkable. To be specific about what I'm most passionate about, it is the expertise of educators. It's all around us and you can feel it, you can see it, and quite frankly, I'm terrified that we could lose it. So, it’s the hottest thing on the table.

TE: Teaching is such a noble profession, yet it is faced with a worrying workforce shortage crisis. In what ways can this be best addressed, do you think?

I want to start answering that by referencing the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where the ultimate answer to the meaning of life is ‘42’. But what is often missed is the very next part of that sentence – if the meaning of life is 42, what was the question? And that's my worry right now. I think we've got the wrong questions on the table. We're worried about supply and demand when we should be worried about attraction and retention. I'm deeply concerned that like if you want to be a teacher, and you want to stay in the classroom in your state – and in my state here in Australia, after seven to 10 years, your salary goes backwards compared to your peers – the only way that you can pay the mortgage is to get out of the classroom. I have no trouble with teachers who want to become school leaders, but that's the only way. And I really despair that the top 30% of teaching students in universities who don't go into the profession, they know that after seven to 10 years the salary goes backwards. I've got three of my own kids who are teachers, 10 and 12 years out. If they're saying, ‘well we want to stay in the classroom, but we can't afford to’. So, I think this is the serious problem that's confronting us right now. The other thing I think is interesting is why, at the moment, suddenly educators are allowed to talk about burnout, about stress, about violence, about all the negative things that go on. And don't get me wrong, they're real, they exist. But the skill of a teacher is coping with those things, and I put it down to this – during the Covid pandemic, teachers learned that their work didn't have to be so relentless. They could actually get off their Zoom call, go and have a coffee, put the washing on, feed the dog, get the dinner ready, and so on. They didn't have to walk out. And it's that relentlessness of the job that is causing many to leave. We know principals, they do 40 things an hour. If we take 10 things off them, they'll replace them with 15 other things. But during Covid, they didn't. And so, what I would say to your question about the teacher shortage crisis is that we need to make sure we are solving the right problem. Just finding people to stand in front of classrooms is not going to solve a problem. It’s the career structure of teachers. And if you think we've got a problem now, wait a few years when we have the problem of the school leadership shortage. We had a principal who almost went to court because of an accident where a tree fell on, and killed, a gardener. Now that is an incredible responsibility for a principal. And so, when you look at that and you say, why are we asking principals to take on everything now, part of the problem is they want to. I want the four-day week, and I think there's no reason that educators can't have a four-day week. I think we need to worry about that relentlessness. But seriously the biggest problem is our career structure. It is just anti-teaching and anti-teachers. And I think that's a serious problem.

TE: How do you think Australia fairs as a world class provider of education and which countries are leading the way?

Well, my days as the Chair of AITSL, I got to meet every Director-General and every Minister. In my nine years at Chair, that was 66 of them, because we change them a lot. And I had the same comment every single time I met a new Minister, which was that Minister, during the term of their office, it should be a badge of courage that they don’t go to Singapore, Finland or Shanghai, because excellence is here in this state right now. And so, I'm not interested in other countries doing better because they do it differently. They've got a different history, and a different culture compared to what we have. And I know that right here in Australia we have so much excellence. So, let's not look for that magic bullet or greener grass out there and say, ‘here's my problem’. We're actually pretty good here in Australia at working out problems in education and fixing them, but we are pretty hopeless at identifying success and scaling it up. I think I'm pretty good at searching literature when I ask how many articles and books I could ever find in the history of education about scaling up success. I'm up to seven, so yeah, we've got a serious problem. Go into any school. We work in about 10,000-15,000 schools a year around the world. And I've never ever been in a school yet where there aren’t pockets of excellence. So, my question is, have we got the courage to reliably identify that pocket of excellence, and create a coalition around those people, and invite the others to join? The biggest problem in education is courage. It's so much easier to do the easy stuff. We have too much variability within our schools, but we also have too much excellence that we're ignoring. I think that's the issue.

TE: The topic of AI is an increasingly complex one. What are your thoughts on how to best approach the initial regulation and adoption of this technology for both teachers and students?

Well, modern technology's been around since the 1970s, and there have been more than 200 meta-analyses on technology since then. The average effect [of technology] is very small, but I think what's happened in the last year with Artificial Intelligence Large Language Models such as ChatGPT is a game changer. It's going to be a before and after, and in terms of the point you raised in your question, it has come at us before we've had the discussion about guardrails. Banning it, I think, is kind of a good thing because everything in education that we ban turns out to be pretty good. So, we've done that. We now realise that was a silly thing to do. And so, we do have to get smart about it. But I hope that we get smart quickly. We've actually just written a paper on this, which is free on the web if anyone wants it. Looking at this, in some ways, it's a bit negative because there's some pretty nasty implications. But on the other hand, I just think it's so exciting in terms of what teachers can do, and what can happen. Remember the days where we used to talk about 21st century skills? They seem so old fashioned now. The skills students need with this new technology, we need to teach them about how to ask the right question. Just like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. We've got to get the right question on the table. Probative questions. We've got to teach them about assessment credibility. Is it true or false? We have to teach them about evaluative thinking. Is it good enough? We have to teach them about wise choices. I'm teaching myself to relearn Spanish at the moment using ChatGPT. At the end of the lesson I say to it, given what I've done, ‘what do I do next?’ It gives me some pretty good options. Now that's never happened before. I've needed a teacher. So, I need to know about wise choices. But the other one that we keep forgetting is that we don't need reading and writing as much. We need oral fluency, and that's something that's slipped out of the agenda. When you talk about the big five and the teaching of reading, there’s no oral fluency. And yet, that's what we do in the workplace. That's what we're doing right now, and I think we need to be a lot smarter. So, I think there's some pretty critical skills. Now, don't get me wrong, underneath it all, there is still precious knowledge, but the precious knowledge has to be interpreted. It has to be evaluated. So, I think it's a really powerful game changer. And the sooner we educators catch up, the better, because the kids are gonna get ahead of us.

TE: Going forward, do you think the way in which AI is expected to affect critical thinking skills will have a major impact on teaching techniques? Or is it still too early to tell?

I'm watching students now using it and they're much more creative than I could ever imagine. I think the other thing we need to remember is that during the technology revolution of the last 50 or so years, we've often forgotten that the biggest users of technology in the school system are our teachers. And I want to bring that one up. I also look at the research I do and that others do. There is virtually zero research on lesson planning, but every teacher every night creates lessons. Now, I can go into ChatGPT – and I did this with my son, who teaches 10-year-olds, the other day – he was teaching a particular novel. I said create a jigsaw lesson for 10 year olds relative to the Australian curriculum, blah, blah blah. Give me questions, give me this instantly. Now he looked at it and said, ‘I can improve on that’, and that was the right answer. I can improve on it. It's a really good basis. Students can put in assignments and have them marked go in and use the ACARA rubrics for writing and it will mark it instantly. It comes up with the next choices. And now that's going to upset a lot of teachers because they think it's their job. My argument is we need to teach our students to be assessment capable. We need to teach our students to drive their learning, and the person who needs to do that most is a teacher. So, I think it will make a big difference. We spend millions every year creating resources for teachers to use that don't need to be used. Why? We've got AI. It's there. So, I think it's a big game changer and I'm very excited about it. Again, we've got some pretty nasty guardrails out there, and we need to fix that. We have had some other innovations that have come in, too. But I hope that discussion doesn't detract from teachers learning how to use it very profitably.

TE: We truly live in fascinating times right now. What is your number one recommendation or request to affect positive change in education?

Just after the Covid pandemic, the Morgan Poll conducted a survey of the most esteemed professions in Australia and the top four were doctors, pharmacists, nurses, and teachers. Ninety percent plus, esteemed teachers. When we ask teachers themselves, at best, we get 40% saying they're esteemed. So, we have the problem. It's us. Don't tell us the public don't like us. The public actually really like us. And one of the things that they learnt during the Covid pandemic is we are not just glorified babysitters. I remember one parent telling me, ‘I didn't realise my child was such a horrible kid in the classroom’. We have some interesting kids in our classrooms. We do. And I just think it's marvellous how teachers handle them. Some parents didn't realise that we don't just corral 25 five-year-olds into a room and keep them busy all day. That would be a disaster. We are very good at what we do. And so, the number one request, I think I want the profession to promote is its own expertise. I want the profession to stand up and say, actually we are very good at what we do. But unfortunately, they don't. They get up and disparage themselves. In my nine years with AITSL when I sat on the Minister's side of the table, or the Director-General’s side of the table, I don't think I saw a single educator walk into the room and ask for resources for expertise. They wanted it for buildings. We wanted to tweak the curriculum. As if we are tweaking towards utopia, we want to do all the things about the structure of the schools. We want to just say, give us the money, and give us the autonomy. Now that's all important, but the most important thing is that expertise. And that's what I fear we'll lose. I look at other countries, going back to your earlier question, where the profession is asking for all the ancillary things and the government is saying, we're going to stop giving you those things because anyone can be a teacher. Well, that's not true. We have to invest in our expertise. So, my number one recommendation is that I want the profession to stand up and esteem its excellence. And I’ll go one step further. Last year I did a project in New South Wales on career structures of teachers. We went to 117 roundtables across the state and asked the leaders and teachers to build the policy. We didn't tell them, ‘here is a policy, react to it and build it’. They were stunning. Now some of them resisted; some of them had no experience, but I just think we're not tapping into an incredibly policy like every other profession that writes policy and lobbies government – we wait to be told. I just think that my number one recommendation is that as educators, you have expertise; value it; esteem it, use it.

TE: Finally, John, you've had such an esteemed and effectual career so far. What legacy are you hoping to leave within the Australian and global education landscape?

I hope that they say he cared, and that he was passionate. And if I have any influence, I want to be remembered as someone who tried to reintroduce the concept of expertise.