A model for teaching or an autonomous teacher?

“We don’t need PD on teaching practice – we are a Visible Learning school.” I was taken aback by this opening line from a school leader in a conversation about supporting teachers with their professional development plan, Michael Victory Executive Officer, Teacher Learning Network (TLN) writes.

The school has adopted the Visible Learning teaching model, based on the research undertaken by Professor John Hattie. All professional development in the school is now directed toward implementing that model.

Professor Hattie is Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne and Chair of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL). A quick Google search will provide you with an entrée to his work. In my role at TLN I have been an advocate of his original research that traced the influences on student learning. The element of that research that covered the impact of teachers on student learning has now morphed into a model for classroom teaching. In this article I want to raise some issues about the impact of adopting a school wide model of teaching (any model, not just Visible Learning) on teacher autonomy and therefore on teacher efficacy.

In schools we talk about teaching being collegial and cooperative. We have curriculum teams, project teams, professional learning teams and leadership teams. It seems teaching is a team profession. However, the core of teachers’ work is done by an individual in a confined space with a group of students.

Despite new (or recycled) pedagogies for open plan learning, team teaching, digital learning and the partnership with education support staff, the most common school image is still one teacher and 20 plus children. My question is, ‘What does that teacher need in that space to be the best teacher they can be for all of those students at every moment of every day?’.

Two possible answers come to mind. The teacher may require structure and systems to excel or alternatively, the teacher may need the freedom, the skill and the knowledge to make good judgements. Before coming to a consideration of the two responses I want to take a brief detour through some Australian education history.

Phases of educational change

Almost 10 years ago, Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley mapped the impact of educational changes on teaching. They tracked three phases of educational change in western democracies, including Australia, since the 1950s.

In the first phase, governments and centralised systems (for example the Catholic Education Office) invested in building a school system, in the training and development of teachers to staff those schools and providing broad curriculum guidelines on what to teach. Teachers once employed in schools were given discretion and autonomy in the creation and delivery of a curriculum for their local context. Hargreaves and Shirley characterise teaching in these years as showing great innovation but suffering from inconsistency. Many who trained and taught through the 1970s and 1980s will remember this period with great nostalgia, but perhaps it was not good for teachers, students and parents in all schools.

The second way followed the economic philosophy of the Reagan and Thatcher years. Two trends developed – the first was the need for education to justify the spending of every government dollar through improved performance data. The second was the rise of the education consumer, the student and parents, who were to be offered choice. Rather than diversity this led to standardisation of practice and a loss of professional autonomy for teachers. This is where many Australian schools are in 2018, and I argue that a ‘Visible Learning school’ is in this phase.

Hargreaves and Shirley trace a third way which seeks a balance between professional autonomy and accountability. They suggest that some Australian schools have entered this phase. They propose a fourth way in which there is community wide commitment to ambitious improvement targets for schools (working with business). Those improvements arise from evidence (less focus on data), peer to peer sharing across schools and prudent accountability.

The autonomous teacher

Finding a pathway between structure and autonomy begins in the classroom. Every day in every classroom there are hundreds of moments when one student appears to have grasped a concept or idea and looks to the teacher for affirmation, for feedback and for the pathway to consolidate the knowledge, while another student looks up in confusion, helpless, and at a loss as to what is being asked of them. In that situation, is it a single model of teaching or ‘wise situated judgement’ that is required.

The phrase, ‘wise situated judgement’ is from Gert Biesta, whose educational philosophy and thinking is spreading across Europe. At the core of his argument is that education is not like a machine. Inputs and outcomes cannot be weighed and measured easily. Education is a relationship business that involves risk, complexity and weakness. Biesta argues for “judgement rather than recipes”. The importance of judgement is that it implies an openness to the future and not just recognition of what has worked in the past.

What is needed for the future?

All teachers have a responsibility to build agency. We need to develop a range of pedagogies and teaching strategies. We need to build knowledge and skills in assessing and evaluating student progress in the classroom. We need to build a rich understanding of the curriculum. We need to know each of the 25 children in the classroom. This means a commitment to ongoing professional learning, with colleagues, through our union or professional development networks such as TLN. A teacher’s professional responsibility is to be the best teacher that they can be for every student in every class at every moment of every day. We need to be able to respond to those ‘moments’ that arise in the classroom.

Schools have a responsibility to create the structures and systems that enable teachers to make wise situated judgements. This does not mean imposing a single teaching model in the classroom. A well led school with a clear purpose will create the structures and systems that support teacher growth and development. Teachers will find security in the structures of the school and be more prepared to take the risk to be innovative, try new things and build their agency. It starts a cycle of growth, rather than one of limitation. We do not eliminate teacher inconsistency with standardisation of classroom practice; we promote diversity of expertise by focusing on teacher development.

As teachers we also contribute to structures and systems. As teacher unionists we work with colleagues to bring about changes in school structures and systems that promote teacher agency and autonomy. We work together on class sizes, face to face teaching time, access to professional development and extra-curricular responsibilities.

Where the school structures and systems are responsive to the local context and teachers take responsibility for building agency, then every teacher is well placed to make an autonomous decision in that critical moment in the classroom when that student looks to them, and they are the only person in the room who can promote that child’s learning.


Biesta, GJ 2013, The beautiful risk of education, Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, Colorado.

Hargreaves, A & Shirley, D 2009 The fourth way: The inspiring future for educational change, Corwin, Thousand Oaks, California.

Hattie, JAC 2009, Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement, Routledge, London and New York.

Hattie, JAC 2012, Visible learning for teachers: maximizing impact on learning, Routledge, London and New York.