Better than nothing, or better than average?

In ‘Visible Learning‘ John Hattie synthesised over 50,000 pieces of educational research in an attempt to find out which innovations in education really work. He looked at everything from family backgrounds, to the school children attend, to individual teaching strategies. His overall finding; almost every educational innovation makes a difference to achievement. Great news… or is it?

He argues that it is not great news at all, and that it exposes a fundamental problem with the way we approach teaching and learning. When we measure the effectiveness of innovations in the classroom we generally compare them to a baseline of zero. Do the learners make progress in their achievement when this innovation is introduced? If they do then it appears the innovation has been a success.

However, what Hattie argues we should be doing is not looking at whether innovations have an effect, but looking at whether they have a better than average effect. He looked at 800 meta analyses of effects on achievement, put them on a scale and found that the average effect is an effect size of 0.4. Therefore, he argues, we should be looking at embedding innovations which have an effect size of 0.4 or greater.

In practice, some innovations with a smaller effect size may well be worth it, particularly if they are very cost or time efficient to implement, but the big commitments need to have a better than average effect, not just an effect that is better than nothing. Even children left with no educational input and simply to develop without intervention show a better than nothing effect in achievement. In fact there is research, such as that of Sugata Mitra, which suggests leaving children to get on with it themselves may be the way to go… (Mitra, 2001, 2007).

There is, of course, much that could be debated about the methods of Hattie’s research, the problems inherent in meta-analyses, and the validity of the individual findings and subsequent ranking of innovations he undertook. However, as a general argument I think he makes a very valid point, one which I will be keeping in the forefront of my mind when trying something new in the classroom and evaluating the effect.

Hattie argues that accepting ‘better than nothing’ as justification for educational innovation has been damaging, as it legitimises teachers closing the door on their classrooms and implementing their own ‘innovations’ in an inconsistent manner. What we should be doing, he argues, is looking at the field of educational innovation and considering the cost and benefit of everything we are doing to have an effect on learners that is ‘better than average‘, not ‘better than nothing‘.

More from Hattie in his book, and on YouTube.


Hattie, J. (2009), Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Routledge: Oxon.

Mitra, S and Rana, V. (2001) ‘Children and the Internet: Experiments with minimally invasive education in India’, in The British Journal of Educational Technology, volume 32, issue 2, pp 221-232. Available at: (Accessed 15th July 2012).

Mitra, S. (2007) ‘Sugata Mitra shows how kids teach themselves’, TED. Available at: (Accessed 15th July 2012).






6 responses to “Better than nothing, or better than average?”

  1. Rob O'Brien Avatar
    Rob O’Brien

    Thanks for this Oliver. When schools, lead by principals as curriculum leaders, begin small and introduce Hattie’s ideas (e.g. one new pedagogical strategical giving feedback to students). We may see some student progress data to be generalised to other areas. “It is what teachers know, do, and care about which is very powerful in this learning equation”.
    Hattie,(2009. The research evidence is clear: great teachers give great feedback, and every teacher is capable of giving more effective feedback.” (Dinham, Feedback on Feedback, Teacher, 2008).


  2. Nick Dennis Avatar

    Oliver, you were at Paul Kelly’s talk at the Festival of Education – did you get the graph he showed illustrating intervention and cost?

  3. jessica(4oq) Avatar

    That was cool do you remember my website we made!!! From:Jess
    p.s hoped ya liked the performance…

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      Thanks Jessica for the lovely comment. Your performance was great, and I really enjoyed catching up with you all.

      Have a great time at Secondary school, and keep on approaching things with that enthusiasm and love of learning :).

  4. […] written about a key message of his work before on this blog and in my book, but today he said something else that really struck me; we talk so often about how […]

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