In late 2018, John Hattie and Arran Hamilton published a ‘White paper’ entitled “Education cargo cults must die”.

An intriguing title; but what’s its message?

What are the cargo cults?

Hattie and Hamilton suggest that:

“Cargo cults develop when organizations or individuals spend their meager resources on the wrong things, declare success and congratulate themselves on a job well done—despite strong evidence to the contrary.”

In the white paper, they argue that a lot of education’s costs are fixed, like infrastructure building and maintenance, admin costs and – the biggie – staff salaries and benefits. Only 4%, they maintain, is spent on the “the procurement of education products/resources for use in the classroom and for in-service teacher professional learning.” So, they believe: “A well-spent 4% could be the proverbial “silver bullet” for education.”

What we do is most likely also influenced by a whole mess of biases, they suggest. These biases and influencers on practice which, among many they highlight, include (1) authority bias – where greater weight and accuracy is given to the opinions of an authority figure, and (2) confirmation bias, where we “collect and interpret information in a way that conforms with, rather than opposes, our existing beliefs.”

Another bias they identify is anecdotal fallacy – so, as they say, “Beware of testimonial porn.”

‘Not invented here’ is another biggie, as is the ‘bandwagon effect’, where we believe “something works because a large number of other people believe it works” and ‘conservatism’ is where we are not able to revise our beliefs sufficiently, even when we are presented with strong contradictory information.

Finally, there is what they call the ‘Ikea effect’ – where there is greater buy-in because the end user has been involved in building the product. However, this may limit the extent to which solutions are effectively localized and adapted.

In addition to these cargo-cult notions, a newspaper article by Tony Featherstone in the Sydney Morning Herald last year highlighted the use of short online modular training by organisations to ‘sheep dip’ their employees. This process, he maintains, is focused on providing cheap and cheerful compliance and ‘fast food’ focused training rather than providing really effective continuing professional development that helps their employees learn and improve practice.

Food for thought!