The Purposes of Education. John Hattie and Steen Larsen

This book, published in 2020, will be discussed by the online Philosophy of Education Reading Network next week. The book records a series of conversations that took place between John Hattie, Professor of Education and Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and Steen Nepper Larsen, an Educational Philosopher from the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University.

John Hattie is known for his evidence-based quantitative research on student achievement and his book Visible Learning, which has been described as the largest ever synthesis of meta-analyses of quantitative measures of the effect of different factors on educational outcomes.

In a review of The Purposes of Education Steve Turnbull writes:

Hattie needs little introduction. He’s the “meta-man”, or to be more accurate, the “meta-meta-man”. His magnum opus, Visible Learning, synthesised more than 800 meta-analyses and became a handbook for educators worldwide, drawn no doubt to its user-friendly ranking of teaching strategies by their impact on learning outcomes.

If you do happen to be new to Hattie’s work, then there are plenty of articles about his concept of visible learning on the web. In a nutshell Hattie’s Visible Learning research synthesises findings from 1,400 meta-analyses of 80,000 studies involving 300 million students, into what works best in education, and comes up with 250+ influences on student achievement. (Hattie’s work has been ongoing over many years so the figures relating to number of analyses etc. change according to the date of reporting).

Source of images: (Click on the images to enlarge).

See also Hattie’s Visible Learning Metax website, where he shares his methodology and data

The significance of this book, The Purposes of Education, is that Steen Larsen is (or at least has been) a fierce critic of John Hattie’s work.  In the final paragraph of his 2015 paper ‘Know thy Impact. Blind Spots in John Hattie’s Evidence Credo’, Larsen makes the stinging comment:

One does not have to run (through) the big data of 240 million students to proclaim that well-prepared teachers are a sine qua non for teaching and learning. But this simple fact does not make deep and critical questions to John Hattie’s axioms, ways of investigating learning processes, use of meta-studies, and recommendations to educational stakeholders, superfluous. The concluding remark must be that the advantage of John Hattie’s evidence credo is that it is so banal, mundane and trivial that even educational planners and economists can understand it.

Steen Larsen questions whether learning is a visible phenomenon. Who should it be visible for? For him blindness is an inevitable part of educational seeing. He mentions that Hattie’s work is focussed on developing visible learning strategies for the teacher and that Hattie never actually talks to the learners. He argues that students, teachers and researchers are blind to each other’s rationales. ‘The teacher and the learner do not see the world in the same perspective’. (p.6)  He further argues that ‘learning can never be an instant, simple and visible phenomenon—neither for the teacher nor for the ‘key figure’, i.e., the learning subject.’ (Larsen , 2019, p.3). The effects of learning are sometimes not realised for years to come. Instead of focussing on quantitative analysis and a statistical approach to student achievement, Larsen suggests that we consider the notion of the German concept of Bildung, the idea that education might lead to ‘the edification and the eloquent formation of the individual’s character, wisdom, judgment, and fertile curiosity (Larsen, 2017, p.175).

It says something for John Hattie that he was willing to meet with his fiercest critic and have these intense conversations, in which they tried to answer the following questions:

  • What are the purposes of education?
  • Does educational data speak for itself?
  • What is the role of the teacher?
  • Is learning a visible phenomenon?
  • Is it important to teach and learn specific subjects?
  • What is the role of neuroscience research?
  • What is the relationship between educational research and educational politics?
  • What is the role of the state in education?

In this short video below (14 mins) Hattie and Larsen talk about the writing of The Purposes of Education in a very good natured way, but it becomes clear that, whilst (as seen in the book) there are things they agree on, fundamentally they have completely different philosophies of education.

Hattie claims that his research has been misinterpreted, but whether or not this is the case, his statistical, quantitative approach to student achievement has been very influential on government departments and policy makers for education around the world. Students/learners are now observed and tested more than ever before. Surely as Larsen says, ‘The purpose of education is much more demanding and challenging than enhancing visible learning processes and results.’ (Larsen, 2019, p.10)


David-Lang, J. (2013). Summary of Visible Learning for Teachers by John Hattie. The Main Idea, 1.

Steen Nepper Larsen. (2015). Know Thy Impact: Blind Spots in John Hattie’s Evidence Credo. Journal of Academic Perspectives Know, 1(1), 1–13.

Larsen, S. N. (2017). What is education? – A critical essay. In A. B. Jørgensen, J. J. Justesen, N. Bech, N. Nykrog, & R. B. Clemmensen (Eds.), What is education? An anthology on education (pp. 157-185). Próblēma.

Larsen, S. N. (2019). Blindness in seeing: A philosophical critique of the visible learning paradigm in education. Education Sciences, 9(1), 1–12.

Carsten Henriksen (2020). A New Perspective on John Hattie

Carly Boreland. (2021). The North Wind : A Critical Perspective on the Purposes of Education. Journal of Professional Learning, 1–4.

Will Fastiggi Summary of John Hattie’s Research

8 thoughts on “The Purposes of Education. John Hattie and Steen Larsen

  1. Lisa M. Lane December 14, 2021 / 7:17 pm

    I always liked Hattie because he undid a lot of summative evaluation with his work in formative assessment and feedback, and presented the idea that there are impacts on education beyond the control of the teacher. I don’t blame him at all for the contemporary focus on assessment tools which go back to the summative model, and I admire him for using statistics to subvert the traditional industrialized model of education, presenting ideas in a way politicians can understand. But that’s just me. 🙂

  2. jennymackness December 15, 2021 / 10:42 am

    Hi Lisa – thanks for your comment. I am curious to know whether you have ever used Hattie’s 250+ influences on student achievement to evaluate your own practice.

  3. Lisa M Lane December 15, 2021 / 8:09 pm

    Yes, there have been several versions of this. It was Hattie who first got me looking into influences in general, and reading the data more carefully. His work was followed by more studies delineating these influences. I began to realize that my pedagogy was only part, possibly a small part, of student achievement. As I refocused on creating an environment for learning rather than trying to force them to learn, things got better for me and my students.

  4. George LILLEY December 24, 2022 / 5:35 am

    Thank you, Steen says there are 2 – Hattie’s, I think he’s right. In this book Hattie seems to retreat from his fundamental claims that the effect size determines “what work best” & the rankings list ‘what works best’. But when Steen pushes Hattie on this & Hattie replies,

    “Too often, this ranking has been misinterpreted with some saying these top ranked are good, these lower ranked are bad.” (Larsen & Hattie, 2020, p. 18)

    “And they look at that effect-size table and say tick, tick, tick to the top influences and no, no, no to the bottom, and this was never my message.” (ibid, p. 28)

    Yet, at the same time in his series of Corwin Webinars, Hattie definitely and consistently denigrates influences with low effect sizes – see Corwin Mind Frames Webinar 2019 here –

    Patrick O’Connor (2020) wrote insightfully about Hattie’s switch to “The Story” narrative,
    “As Hattie’s statistics have come under greater scrutiny, his emphasis on the narrative value of Visible Learning has increased. He and Hamilton (2018, p. 46) insisted that ‘the key here is that it is the INTERPRETATION and STORY that help explain the findings that is a contender for a useful theory; not the data’.
    This emphasis is peculiar given that meta-analysis emerged with the promise that it offered, in the words of Gene Glass (1976, p. 3), who coined the term, ‘a rigorous alternative to the casual, narrative discussions of research studies’. Hattie’s remarks raise the question as to what exactly is the connection between the Visible Learning ‘story’ and education research data.” (p. 142)

  5. jennymackness December 29, 2022 / 11:23 am

    Hello George,

    Apologies for the delay in responding to you.

    Thank you for all this interesting additional information you have provided to inform thinking about this book. You clearly know a lot more about Hattie’s work than I do.

    Although I knew that Hattie claimed that his work had been misinterpreted, I am surprised that he, as a self-proclaimed statistician, is surprised. As Benjamin Disraeli is thought to have said, ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’ Statistics must surely always be open to interpretation and misinterpretation!

  6. George LILLEY December 31, 2022 / 12:01 am

    Yes, Hattie claims to be a statistician’s, however a few Statisticians have found major calculation blunders & question Hattie’s statistical ability. They also show Hattie has an Arts degree and a PhD from an Education faculty- no formal Stats qualifications. This maybe accounts for his great ability in creative writing and making up stories.

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