Hi John. You’re Director of the Melbourne Educational Research Institute, what do you enjoy most about the role?
The best part of any academic role is the supervision of the PhD students. I just can’t believe that students pay to come to university, give up four or five years of their life, become immersed in a topic, read the stuff, teach me and I get paid for it. It’s a stunning option! Oh look, it’s just wonderful. And, you know, they’re on the cutting-edge, they’re passionate, they care, they want to do it and it’s just great to be around that sort of energy. That’s certainly the best part of the job.
You’re always updating your Visible Learning research. At present you’ve determined a list of 252 influences related to learning and achievement and that the new No.1 is ‘collective teacher efficacy’. Can you briefly explain what that means?
It’s an unfortunate title but that’s what it’s called. It’s about the adults in the school having the collective efficacy... they can improve the lives of all their kids, with high expectations and fed by the evidence of that impact. And it’s those latter two things that are often missing. Sometimes collective efficacy turns into a kind of growth mindset 'rah-rah-boom-dee-aye' - aren’t we wonderful. But it’s much more than that. And so I’m threatening to come up with a new label for it. But unfortunately when you do a meta-analysis it means it’s based on a number of researchers anyway, so it’s hard to change your momentum. But it is that high expectations and fed with evidence of impact. The thing that’s most stunning about it... it’s the collective. It’s not one teacher at a time and that’s a really great move because in education for the last hundred years we’ve seen teachers as individualistic people with their own classrooms and this says it’s the opposite.
So what about in terms of collaboration, are you seeing any evidence to suggest that that message is getting through and that teachers...?
Yes and no. You know, one of my worries is that there’s a whole huge world movement with professional learning communities and collaborations and networks and it’s all based on this notion of collaborative efficacy. But they forget: the topic’s got to be about the impact. And so many of them, they get networks together and professional learning communities and they talk about all the things that don’t matter. And so it’s a real missed opportunity and that’s the fear of it.
Are you seeing any evidence that parents are any closer to understanding that it’s teachers obviously that matter, not schools?
Oh look, I know in that Revolution School [TV series] the ABC did last year, they did a survey of parents here in Australia - a thousand. And what the parents want is negatively correlated with the evidence of what makes the difference. So sadly, parents want that which most harm their kids. And we’ve got a massive educative job to tell parents what makes the difference. Like, the dilemma is that once you go on to teachers, everyone wants to go on to bad teachers, and that’s not the message at all. The message is that there is incredible expertise amongst those teachers and we need to bottle it, catch it and grow it. But we never get that. And the worst... Teachers won’t talk about their expertise. They’ll talk about how they teach, they’ll talk about their kids, they’ll talk about resources, they’ll talk about best practice. They’ll never talk about how they think and then we’ve got a real major problem. And if I have any influence, it’s to try and change that around [inaudible]. Because if we don’t we’re going to lose it.
TIMSS and PISA figures indicate that the Australian education system is falling behind. Should we be hitting the panic button?
Oh well, yeah. I tried to come up with a term that didn’t imply panic but didn’t allow for complacency, which is our enemy. So the term I’m using is ‘we need a reboot’. Um, like when you reboot your computer a lot stays the same but you improve things. But we do need a reboot and you know the biggest problem is we have pretty low expectations. The biggest... Like the PISA results say that the majority of our backwardness in Australia is in our top 40 per cent. We have more cruising kids, cruising schools than anywhere else in the world. Once again that’s complacency. We don’t have a debate about what’s good’s good enough. We tend to think that if kids are above average they’re doing well. And there is our crime in Australia. We know that all the pleas for the resources go to the bottom half of the distribution. There’s no reason those kids shouldn’t get resources but no one seem s to be asking where is the resources, where is the business for the kids in the top 40 per cent. And like when you look at NAPLAN, as I’ve done over the same over the same period, in some states we’re going up. Now you’d say how can you go up in NAPLAN in some states and down in Australia? It’s because we’re not going up fast enough. Our expectations aren’t high enough. And that’s a real serious concern because it’s our competing partners are screaming ahead of us. You know, countries like Poland; many other countries that we would never have dreamed to say were better than us, now are. Because they have higher expectations and they have an obsession, also, about growth. We don’t, we have an obsession about standards; and the problem with standards, is that once you’re above the average we tend to forget about those kids.
Can you tell me about a teacher in particular who really influenced your life?
Well I continually go back to Mr Tomlinson. When I went through school... it was compulsory to do maths. And I was OK at it but if I had had the chance to get out of it, I would’ve. But we couldn’t. It was in the last year of high school, I had Mr Tomlinson and he was a very, very disciplinarian teacher – quite strict in the way they were in the early '60s. But he saw something in me I didn’t see in myself. He never gave up on any one of us. And we were a really strange group of kids... A little country place in New Zealand. He never gave up on any one of us. He treated us unbelievably fairly, no matter whether the brightest kid in the class, the struggling kid in the class – he was the same. And it was that sense that he saw something in us that we didn’t see in ourselves. And I’m still in contact with him; I made contact a few years ago. He’s no longer teaching. And I can similarly look at Rob MacDonald, who supervised my PhD. I look back and I think ‘What did he see in me?’ I was... went to Toronto as a PhD – a pretty ordinary student. He saw something in me that he drew out and I’m so ever grateful to him that he did that.
What drives you on? What gets you out of bed every morning?
... One of the things that keeps me going, even in the Visible Learning, is why am I keeping adding to them? I’m terrified that the next study will show the model’s wrong, and I want to be the first to show that. And so that’s what kind of keeps me going, that thrill of the discovery. Like, I spent a couple of hours today with a PhD student who’s just got his data in. And it was that first look and it was that first sense - oh my gosh! It sounds like a cheap thrill, but I really do get excited when people discover ideas and make connections and see things... And you know 90 per cent of them never work out but it’s still fun to try to find that thread of gold in there.
As a researcher, I would like to be remembered for... helping to make a difference to the lives of kids.
Away from my work, to wind down, I like to... read a lot of novels (I do about 150 novels a year). I’m obviously besotted with my grandchild and my kids – we spend a lot of time with them.
If I could swap roles with one other person, it would be... a student in a class with a great teacher. Oh my gosh! Wouldn’t that be fun?
My wife would describe me as... Thank God she’s not here tonight! Probably too intense. Not sociable enough.
My least preferred household chore would be... washing, because I can never get it right.
My most treasured possession is... my dogs. I have two bichons. We’ve had them for about 40 years – different ones.
My favourite couple of sporting teams are... The All Blacks and the New York Yankees.
After I retire, I’d like to... keep writing.