It’s How, Not What

I played hours of baseball growing up. Hundreds if not thousands of hours. My brother and I played nearly every afternoon, weather permitting. The batter’s box was an island of dirt in a sea of well-tended lawn. The legs of our pants were perpetually grass-stained. On weekends, we’d ride our bikes around the neighborhood for away games played in friends’ backyards and empty lots. I played Little League every year I was eligible.

If John Hattie had researched the factors influencing baseball ability instead of factors that influence student achievement, he likely would have found things like:

Playing catch with dad, effect size of .7
HItting off a tee, effect size of .42
Hitting off a pitching machine, effect size of .31
Playing baseball during free time, effect size of .89
Playing in a sanctioned league, effect size of .62

An aspiring major-leaguer aware of such findings might conclude that the more he did of the high impact strategies, the better ballplayer he would become. But he would be wrong. I know from experience. Because in spite of the hours I put into the game and the many different ways I practiced, I was terrible.

I stunk for a very simple reason: While I did the right things, I did them the wrong way. 90% of the baseball I played was with a plastic bat and a whiffle ball. Most of the pitching I faced came from the arm of my brother, who was three years younger than me.

It wasn’t what I did that mattered. It was how I did it.

I worry that some teachers make the same mistake I did while attempting to find baseball glory. John Hattie’s research, Robert Marzano’s 41 Elements of effective teaching, the What Works Clearinghouse and many other data-based guides all send the message that it is what teachers do that matters most. The data and the way they are presented tell teachers that if you do the right things, you’ll be an effective teacher and if you do the wrong things you won’t be. It’s a dangerous message to send, which is why Hattie and Marzano seem to constantly be clarifying and warning against the misuse of their research.

Teachers are not guaranteed success in any area of their practice if they simply swap out one way of doing things for another. As in baseball and in life, it’s not what you do that matters. It’s how you do it. While this applies to literally every aspect of your teaching, let’s examine three.

Group Work

According to Hattie, cooperative learning has an effect size of .4, while cooperative learning compared to individual learning has an effect size of .55. Marzano cites cooperative learning as one of nine high-impact instructional strategies that are most likely to improve student achievement. But every teacher knows that there is nothing magical about cooperative learning. In some classes, students will learn much more with it. In other classes, their learning will suffer.  In almost every class, some students will benefit from cooperative learning and others would be better off on their own. The difference is not whether a teacher has students work in groups. The difference is how well students work in groups.

Mike Schmoker, in the video below, points out what we all know about group work: it’s overused, frequently a waste of time, and is heavier on the group than on the work. Schmoker recommends having students work in pairs not because he thinks group work is a bad idea but because he rarely sees it done effectively in real classrooms. He cares more about how than what.


If you are great at teaching kids how to work in groups and your students do it effectively, then keep putting them in groups. But if your groups devolve into bickering, off-task chitchat, and tears, then you’re better off teaching in another way.

Public Discipline

You don’t have to look very hard to find parents and teachers who believe that educators should never publicly discipline a child. Some believe it’s embarrassing for students, that teachers are shaming them in front of their peers. They claim that such teachers are destroying the culture of the classroom. They criticize the focus on compliance by saying it only teaches students to respect authority instead of instilling in them self-regulation strategies they will be able to use when on their own with no one telling them what to do and how to do it. And while public discipline could do all of those things, it doesn’t have to.

Interestingly, you rarely hear parents complain about public discipline in sports. No mom claims the referee who put her son in the penalty box for two minutes for tripping is trying to shame her kid. A basketball player who commits a foul has a whistle blown at them. The entire game stops to see what happened. The referee points at the offending player and then reports the call to the official while standing at center court for literally everyone in the audience to see. No one seems particularly concerned about the player’s mental health. In football, the entire team is punished for an infraction committed by a single player. No one ever mentions the unfairness of such a thing.

Read More: In Defense of Public Consequences


Even at Ron Clark Academy, which is often held up as a model for what schools should be, teachers use old-school behavior management techniques. From a visiting teacher:

“Mr. King was leading the students through a discussion about political cartoons. Here, we saw kids be kids. Sure, they were civil, they were polite, but it was the first glimpse that, yes, they do have minor discipline issues, and they deal with them. Students sign their name to a whiteboard when they commit an infraction, and it is done in such a way that the lesson never stops. Others are not watching the offender, but are still glued to the lesson. They are tracking Mr. King as he speaks.”

Like group work, public discipline is not inherently good or bad. A jerk of a teacher certainly could use it to humiliate, but so could a cop, a boss, or a referee. It’s not public discipline that’s the problem. It’s how it’s done.


You have surely heard that teachers should not spend much of their time being the star of their classrooms. They should be “learner-focused” and act as a guide on the side instead of a sage on the stage (excuse me while I barf)While direct instruction is important, teachers should keep it short, or do it in small groups, or flip their classrooms and allow students to learn via video. What they shouldn’t do is stand at the front of the room and lecture for 30 minutes at a stretch.

Well, maybe. Or maybe teachers who suck at lecturing shouldn’t do it and those who are spellbinding storytellers should keep doing exactly what they’re doing. How to know? Do your students learn from your lectures? Do they listen? Is there evidence of their learning?

There is nothing wrong with the lecture format. The millions of views TED talkers receive are a testament to that. Some people are really good at it. Others not so much. Again, it isn’t what these teachers do that makes a difference. It’s how they do it. If you’re a great speaker and you can hold your students’ attention while enthralling and inspiring them, then lecture. If not, try other methods.

The list could go on and on. Every aspect of your classroom is subject to the same rule: It’s not what you do, but how you do it. Posted learning goals won’t do a thing if you never refer to them. Feedback has an effect size of .7, but not if the feedback comes 10 days after the completed work. Response to intervention has an effect size of 1.29, but only if it’s implemented correctly.

So how should teachers use research like Hattie’s and Marzano’s? My recommendation is to try some things that are supposed to work. Then assess whether they actually work with your students. If they do, keep doing those things. If they don’t, stop or do them differently. As a teacher, you are not going to be adept at using every strategy the research says you should use. Find the ones that work for you and your students. Focus less on what you do and more on how you do it.



One Reply to “It’s How, Not What”

  1. Murph: You keep hitting that nail right on the head! So many great teachers of so many learning domains/disciplines – all of them as I observed during my teaching career quite different. Even within the same faculty. But students would speak glowingly of those teachers – so it had to be the how. The things which worked for me and my classes – out of my quite different approaches (i.e. not necessarily traditional) were not even tried by my colleagues – yet somehow students weren’t up in arms marching with placards demanding a revolutionary change or cessation of change. Our different teaching styles were not a competition among the staff. We followed the pathways which fitted or suited our paedagogical experiences and philosophy – and our students adapted to us (so it seemed to me). One of the successes for me during my many years teaching in Japan was to ensure a regular pattern to my classes – so that even for those unable to “hear” in the early part of the year – they were soon able to judge the activity or participation required according to the time frame point reached in our 50 or 90 minute lessons. The parameters and the expectations were laid out and adhered to. Oh – and pair work became my preferred level of “group” work, too. And building the dynamic of co-operation – I would in the first semester at least ensure that the partner in the weekly pair work was someone new – students are more likely to “perform” when called upon if they are interacting “on stage” in front of friends (broadly speaking) not in front of others as unknown cliques. We are all in this together… We get better from each other – like working in companies where the dynamic is the group or team – co-operation paramount for the success of all.

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