“Constantly ask yourself if your students have achieved their objectives”

Wokandapix, pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
Wokandapix, pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

For education researcher Klaus Zierer, teaching is a process of constant questioning and improvement. He explains how today’s teachers can deal with society’s challenges while in turn challenging their students. He also points out flaws in education policy.

Sabine Gysi: Is there such a thing as a perfect teacher?

Klaus Zierer: A perfect teacher? I don’t think so. There are a lot of good teachers. Teachers vary widely, and that’s a good thing. But despite their differences, good teachers share certain fundamental beliefs and attitudes, or – as John Hattie and I put it – mindframes. For example, they understand that learning must be challenging. In other words, it should not be too easy or too difficult; learning takes place when students are appropriately challenged. I’m sure that all good teachers know this.

Another example: Good teachers make sure that teacher-student relationships are positive. That can be done in a variety of ways; teachers find their own methods of achieving that goal.

SGy: You and John Hattie have compiled a list of factors that – to varying degrees – influence student learning. If I were a teacher, I would have this question: How can I possibly take into account all of the important factors?

KZi: That would be a hopeless task – to look at Hattie’s study and pick out the factors that have the greatest effect, and then to try to account for each one. Remember, his original list included 138 factors, and now there are 250. And the dataset is continuing to grow. It would be impossible. The important thing is to identify the “story” that lies behind all of those factors, which reveals the characteristics of effective teaching and successful learning.

“There’s no single approach that will always work. Constant reflection and questioning are essential.”

That story is about providing challenges, creating positive relationships and establishing a culture that deals appropriately with mistakes. If I, as a teacher, have a fundamental understanding of these things, I will find it relatively easy to take certain factors into account in my teaching. It is therefore better to first concentrate on your own attitudes, convictions, beliefs, or mindframes so that you can find the right path forward – and then to try out various approaches, geared to the specific situation, to see whether or not they will be successful.

SGy: You mentioned that a good teacher needs to challenge students – all students. But students are very different, and they are shaped by diverse environments. How can teachers avoid demanding too much of some students and too little of others?

KZi: You’re absolutely right – given that students are so heterogeneous, there is no single pathway to success. What we need are methods that can be adapted to each situation; depending on the composition of the class, they will be more or less successful. Teachers, too, differ widely. Some methods will work well for a given teacher, while others won’t be successful at all.

I was once asked to use a puppet to teach a foreign-language class. It was a disaster. I’m not a puppeteer. For another teacher, the idea of using a puppet to act out a scene might have been perfect; the students might have found it fascinating.

As teachers, we need to be continually asking ourselves: Is the method I’ve chosen effective? Is there evidence that it is successful? There’s no single approach that will always work. Constant reflection and questioning are essential.

John Hattie and I have a mantra: “Know thy impact!” In seeking to challenge students, the first step is to recognize that you must constantly ask yourself whether your students have achieved their objectives. That will tell you whether you are asking too much or too little of them – or whether, perhaps, the level of challenge happens to be exactly right. To use our methods appropriately, you need to undertake this kind of questioning and look for evidence that students are indeed being challenged.

SGy: Would you say, then, that every teacher should be a researcher too, to some extent?

KZi: Hattie once pointed out that research is a task for experts. Scientists conduct research; teachers shouldn’t be researchers. Instead, he said, the emphasis should be put on teachers as evaluators of their impact.

It’s an important distinction. Evaluators use the resources that are available, the tools that have already been developed. Researchers develop and invent new things. It is important to remember that, especially given what teachers are expected to accomplish every single day.

SGy: But if teachers serve as evaluators, then they probably also need to provide feedback – to researchers, for example. 

KZi: Definitely. Interaction between the two systems should be encouraged. When teachers experiment with different approaches, they can offer valuable feedback for science; conversely, science should provide ideas for use in practice. I would estimate, however, that 80 percent of academic studies are of no relevance to teachers. They may be a waste of time. So the interaction between the two systems is very important.

“I would estimate, however, that 80 percent of academic studies are of no relevance to teachers.”

SGy: Let’s talk about digitalization in the classroom. Some see it as a solution to every problem, others as causing the downfall of the school system.

KZi: I think we have to take both perspectives seriously. I’ve always been eclectic in my approach: We need to try everything, then keep what works best. That’s true of digitalization, too. We can’t ignore the fact that our children are growing up in a digital world, and that digitalization is part of our lives. So it would be absurd to say that schools and digitalization have nothing to do with each other. At the same time, I should note that some studies – not just opinions – show that digitalization can have negative consequences, too.

From an educational perspective, this means that we need to take both aspects into account. We must take advantage of the benefits of digitalization while also recognizing its limits. A reasonable approach to media education should include media design, media use, media criticism and media literacy.

“The guiding principle, for me, is pedagogy over technology.”

The guiding principle, for me, is pedagogy over technology. In other words, technology should be used in the classroom if it clearly provides added value, and it should be kept out if there is no evidence of its benefits. If you use technology, you need to take a sensible educational approach and ask yourself what its use means for the human beings concerned. How will they benefit?

Human beings must never become a means to an end, nor should they become dependent on technology. Instead, technology should be a tool. This discussion is not new. Take the invention of the printing press, for example. Even centuries ago, some people were thrilled with a new technology, while others were harshly critical. History shows us that the sensible middle course is always best.

SGy: How are policymakers dealing with these challenges?

KZi: They are often very short-sighted, in my opinion. Education policy, like any kind of policy, is influenced by power considerations. Politicians want to retain their seats from one legislative period to the next; that’s only human. If they want to be reelected, they are constantly seeking solutions that will produce quick results and accommodate all concerned, so that everyone will be happy.

But we know that the best solutions in education are not always the ones that enjoy widespread support. Let me give you a school-related analogy: Students would be happier if they never had to do homework. Of course. Homework requires time and effort, and it can be tedious – so why should I have to do it?

“The goal, ultimately, is to arrive at a common vision of what schools should be.”

But we know that homework, embedded in a reasonable context, can be very important. When it comes to education policy, as in the case of homework, paying attention to the loudest voices in an attempt to be popular and retain power is very often not the best solution. Sometimes you have to take the long view. From time to time it is necessary to make uncomfortable decisions, and the benefits of those decisions, for everyone, become apparent only later on.

When it comes to education policy, this is what I would like to see: Policymakers who more often have the courage to choose a difficult path. They should recognize the value of reasoning and discussion; they should try to find common ground when inevitable disagreements arise. The goal, ultimately, is to arrive at a common vision of what schools should be.

Klaus Zierer is a Professor of School Education at the University of Augsburg. He taught for five years in primary and secondary schools. In 2009, he was a Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of Education, University of Oxford; in 2011, he was Professor of Education at the Carl von Ossietzky University, Oldenburg. He is an Associate Research Fellow of the ESRC-funded Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance (SKOPE). His research interests include international aspects of school education, learning and teaching, teacher education and professionalization.

In their latest book, 10 Mindframes for Visible Learning, John Hattie and Klaus Zierer define the ten behaviors or mindframes that teachers need to adopt in order to maximize student success.