What’s wrong with a Guru if it brings about improvement in the classroom? We’ve talked for too long

Over the last few weeks I have been putting the finishing touches to the 2016 annual report. Something that a principal is required to do as part of the reporting requirements that falls within the scope of their role. While it’s not one of my favourite jobs, it does force me to reflect on the school’s progress over the course of a year. The report then becomes available via the Department’s ‘Schools Online’ portal.

Interestingly, a passage that I wrote in the report has forced me to challenge a recent article published by Scott Eacott in School Leadership & Management, 2017 titled ‘School leadership and the cult of the guru: the neo-Taylorism of Hattie (Source Link). On page 2 and 3 of my report I wrote

The staff at West Beechboro understand through professional reading, targetted professional development, matched with high levels of student achievement, that it is what we do in the classrooms that has the biggest impact on our students’ learning. We are investing thousands of dollars on ensuring that every teacher shares a common understanding around the delivery methods of the programs that we are using, are applying the same delivery techniques to each program and that they understand that it’s what we are doing with the strategies, the programs, or essentially the tools, that is having the biggest impact. In 2016, the school community formally acknowledged and endorsed the school’s instructional pedagogic framework. This became known as the Effective Teaching Model (ETM).

 In acknowledging the importance of ensuring that everyone had a common understanding of what our ETM looked like in terms of lesson delivery, I drew our staff’s attention to the work done by John Hattie in ‘What Doesn’t Work in Education: The Politics of Distraction.’ This piece formed a part of the series ‘Open Ideas at Pearson’ that was intended to bring independent ideas and insights to a wider audience. Staff were already familiar with this work, as well as that carried out by Stephan Dinham and, while they understood the common messages of both researchers, as a school leader, I feel it is important that these messages become embedded within our culture of teaching and learning at West Beechboro. 

Now if I was to accept what Eacott (2017, p. 2) is stating, then I have entered the ‘Cult of the Guru’ or more specifically the ‘Cult of Hattie’ potentially, I may even see him as “the saviours of Australian educational leadership’ (2017, p. 11).  One problem with this stance is that it potentially assumes that I only look to Hattie for a solution. The reality however, and this is certainly the case for many within my leadership circle, is that Hattie is only one of many researchers that we consider in bringing about improvements within our schools.

Eacott (2017, p. 9) states, “The significant shift here is that while forms of evaluation are external to the teacher the current trends have shifted the burden of proof – for performance – onto the teacher. That is, teachers must be able to demonstrate their impact on student learning. Scaling that up, school leaders need to be able to show evidence that the actions they take, including the structures they put into place, have a demonstrable effect on student learning.” I would argue that I do not see any issue with this shift. Surely, as the school’s leader, the outcomes of decisions that I make should rest with me. Further to this, the actions of the teachers should rest with them. It would seem ludicrous to be doing something, with the intention of improving outcomes, and then not measure the outcome. Ultimately though, and this is why I work hard to put structures in place to ensure consistency, I am held to account so I will make sure that espoused theory and theory in use are aligned. 

Interestingly, and possibly more of a concern to me anyway, is that while Eacott is critical of Hattie, ACEL and even to some extent Marzano in what they have to offer leadership, he offers no alternative to the quandary that he sees with the decline in Australian education. In fact, he has done what has plagued leadership circles for years. Eacott has said that we need to improve things, acknowledged that there is a problem, criticised what is being done, but offered no alternatives for leaders to follow. He has muddied the waters, and then left the pond.

If, as Eacott (2017, p. 11) espoused, “To subjectify oneself to a single figure is to elevate that individual to guru status,” then I will be sure not to take Eacott at his word for fear of adding to the ‘Cult of Eacott’. I fear that when Eacott (2017, p. 11) stated that “What the Australian school leadership community arguably needs is more rigorous and robust work and more significantly, dialogue and debate (to which Hattie is a part) not the blind adherence to a single guru.” that he may have overlooked the work of Louden, Dinham, O’Donoghue, Clarke, Fullan, Hargreaves, Masters and Caldwell, to name but a few.


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Principal West Beechboro Primary School 2014 Western Australian Primary Principal of the Year Leadership Consultant; Commentator: Level 3 Distance Coach

2 thoughts on “What’s wrong with a Guru if it brings about improvement in the classroom? We’ve talked for too long

  1. Dear Ray, thanks for engaging with my recent paper School leadership and the cult of the guru: the neo-Taylorism of Hattie published in SLAM. It was quite serendipitous that I came across your piece as I do not check LinkedIn very often and I was not previously following you on Twitter. Feel free to copy me in should you ever want to engage with my work – either supportive or critique – as I am more than happy to discuss. One of the greatest issues in educational leadership as a field in Australia (and internationally) is parallel monologues (something I have also written on). Engaging one another in dialogue and debate in crucial to advancing thinking and practice.

    The stimulus for my paper came from students in my classes being rather polarised by Hattie. There were those that laid claim to working in ‘Hattie Schools’ (a label I have heard at my last two institutions), and those who were significantly turned off any time Hattie came up. In trying to nuance the claims as I workshopped with my class, I called upon Raymond E Callahan’s classic Education and the Cult of Efficiency and his observations of the spread of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management in US public schools in the first half of the 20th century.

    Since the publication of the article I have received a steady stream of emails, tweets, DMs, and calls from sympathetic readers thanking me for raising the issue and being willing to say what many are thinking. I have also had to respond to a complaint to my employer regarding the paper, and now of course, your post.
    In relation to the specific argument that you raise:

    First, your initial claim is that if you accept my argument you have entered the “Cult of the Guru/Hattie”. Based on what you present as evidence, I would not make such a claim. Therefore, you are trying to make a claim that I have against you when I have not, and then refuted the claim that I never made in the first place. The fact that you explicitly indicate that you drew on multiple sources rather than a single piece of research or guru means that I would not use this label against you. I do stand by my claim that at scale Australian educational leadership discussions are susceptible to the Cult of the Guru. What you are actually highlighting here is the value of context in any argument. This is interesting because Hattie excludes context from his argument. In drawing upon multiple sources, you are actually supporting what I propose to be the solution to the problem (despite your claim that I do not provide a solution).

    Second, the longer quote you take from the paper is somewhat taken out of context in the way you discuss it. In-principle, I have no problem with accountability. I see teachers as located in a web of relations, much more than a single measure can capture, and this is at the heart of the problem. My argument in the paper is that in reducing the measures of performance to a single measure we accept a singular version of the world. That is, a single version of what schooling is and can be, and this raises questions about who decides and for what purposes. Accepting a single version to the exclusion of all others is highly problematic.

    In response to what you see as most concerning, I do in fact provide a solution to the Cult of the Guru: Dialogue and debate – which from the title of your post I assume you reject as a solution. That said, your own example of drawing on multiple sources is a case in point. My goal with the paper was to provide the means through which school leaders and teachers could debate the merits of any individual piece of research or superstar (often from overseas, but not always) conference speaker. It is through this purposeful dialogue and debate that schools and their communities can make informed decisions about what is most appropriate for their students at any given point in time.

    Finally, and taking stimulus from your conclusion, I do not want you to take me at my word. I actively encourage dialogue and debate. There is no single answer and I like to encourage problem posing more than problem solving. Ask any student I have had in my classes for the last decade or longer. I do not want to build a Cult of Eacott, I want rigorous and robust dialogue and debate and not accepting matters at face value or because of who says them. It is only by engaging in the conversation of the world, rather than a single source, that one is educated.

    Thanks again for taking the time to engage with my paper.

    Kindest regards

    BTW Apart from arguably naming a few others who could be labelled gurus at times (e.g., Hargreaves, Fullan, Caldwell), it was good to see you draw attention to WA-based scholars such as Bill Louden, Simon Clarke, and Tom O’Donoghue who often get overlooked in discussions.

    • Thank you for taking the time to respond Scott.

      The “Cult of Guru”, by its very nature, is a contentious label given that any individual can, and in fact does, take a statement out of context or in isolation and use it to make for themselves a justifiable argument (either for or against). In fact, and you and I are likely to agree on this, Hattie is not the issue but rather the indivudlas in the way that they quote or use his material. Take for instance the matter of class size. Many will quote Hattie in saying that class sizes do not impact on student learning. However, this is not actually true. Hattie is actually saying that the research indicates that class size does not matter. He has even openly stated that class size should matter, but it doesn’t in the research that has been carried out. While everyone seems to quote the Visible Learning books, many seem to overlook his 2013 work “International Guide to Student Achievement” co-edited with Anderman.

      This work provides a vast collection of works from international scholars who present brief empirically-supported articles that examine predictors of academic achievement across a variety of topics and domains. These works don’t tell people what to do in their schools and classrooms, but rather provides a volume of research that summarizes what is known about the major influences shaping students’ academic achievement around the globe. Individuals can apply this knowledge base to their own school and classroom settings in an effort to support student learning.

      The word guru is, more often than not, bestowed upon individuals by others. Take for instance the case of Gardener’s ‘multiple intelligences’ which then somehow was transformed into “learning styles” something which Gardener did not do, other did. In fact while everyone has read his first book very few have read the second book. This potentially ties in which you reference to context, something that is continually overlooked in many cases when arguments are being put forward. The longer quote that I drew from your paper did exactly that, removed the context, a deliberate act on my part. The issue with education is that it will always come down to the views of one or a few who ultimately have the biggest impact on educational outcomes. Actually, I will re-phrase that to educational inputs as I feel that we are not very good an measuring outputs.

      With reference to the term ‘Hattie Schools’ I also feel this is more often than not a term that is imposed on a school by others and then simply gets accepted as the local vernacular rather than being something that appears on a brochure introducing the school. Again, in a similar situation, the term ‘Fleming School’ is another recent phenomenon that schools are sometimes labelled with. Certainly this has been the case in Western Australia for schools where John Fleming has had an influence. I have a particular interest in this given we have worked with Fleming and have been given this label, despite us also having Louden, Hollingsworth & Ybarra, Moates and Hammond work in our school with staff.
      I feel the cult of Hattie is potentially what is needed to get our system waking up to itself as under the current mindset teachers do not, and will not, take responsibility for the effectiveness of their instruction. They do not, and schools in this situation will not, acknowledge the instructional deficit that permeates the culture of the school.

      It is important that school communities move away from preconceived notions of what works and the fads that so often appear within the education system and consider what grounded research is and has continued to identify as successful instructional and leadership practices many of which Hattie directs readers to. They need to look beyond the person and consider the message.

      Possibly one of my favourite reads is Hattie’s 2015 paper “What doesn’t work in education: The politics of distraction” because, for me, it attempts to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that we engage in so much debate about things that don’t matter and this is where I have an issue with dialogue. So much of the dialogue simply draws energy away from doing the things that matter.

      As for ‘polarisation’ this will always exist, and certainly does well beyond Hattie. Just try engaging in open dialogue around constructivist theory and explicit instruction and I am sure that you will elicit a similar reaction not just from your students but within your institution.
      Thank you for your response and debate

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