Post-Pandemic Learning: Let’s Use ‘What Works’ and Avoid Those Time-Wasting Zombie Teaching Practices

By Cathy Gassenheimer
Executive Vice President
Alabama Best Practices Center

Almost every teaching practice has some effect. It’s the degree to which it improves learning that matters. That’s a paraphrase from John Hattie and Klaus Zierer’s book, 10 Mindframes for Visible Learning.

The loss of instructional time during the Covid-19 pandemic makes it more critical than ever for teachers to use instructional strategies that have the greatest impact. This link will take you to John Hattie’s effect sizes of instructional practices that – if implemented correctly and used consistently – can have a dramatic impact on teaching and learning.

As you scan down the effect sizes below the “hinge point” (0.4), the list also captures what some researchers have labeled “zombie” teaching practices (see the link to Bryan Goodwin’s article below). These are oft-used strategies that may have some positive results but are less effective and may not be the best choices when time is an issue. And when isn’t it?

Hattie has continued to refine and improve his list of effects since his first published list in 2009. If you are new to Hattie’s work or need a refresher, this article is very helpful. Several effects have risen to the top tier over time, including teacher collective efficacy and “teacher estimates of achievement” (the accuracy of a teacher’s knowledge of students and how that knowledge is used to design instruction). Other high-ranking effects include:

  • Student self-reported grades
  • Piagetian programs
  • Response to intervention
  • Teacher credibility
  • Providing formative evaluation
  • Micro-teaching
  • Classroom discussion
  • Comprehensive interventions for learning disabled students
  • Teacher clarity
  • Feedback

(See this glossary for explanations)

If you aren’t sure what some of the effect descriptors mean, try a Google search phrased something like: What does John Hattie mean by [micro-teaching]? You’ll find an explanation for just about any term!

“What Works” Will Be the Focus for ABPC Networks This Year

Like John Hattie and his colleagues, educators like Robert Marzano and Bryan Goodwin also make the case for using proven instructional strategies. We’ll be bringing the work of all these experts together during our ABPC professional learning sessions this coming school year.

In fact, we’re using Marzano’s The New Art and Science of Teaching as the guiding text for the 2021-2022 Powerful Conversations Network. This link will take you to the table of contents and an overview of the book.

Six “Zombie Practices” to Avoid

McREL’s Bryan Goodwin will also be a resource for us this year. In a recent article for the “Research to Practice” issue of Educational Leadership magazine, Goodwin identified six “Zombie practices” that need to be set aside in favor of more effective teaching.

He defines Zombie practices – in lively language! – as “those dispelled education theories that research shot down long ago. They creep up in studies, shuffling around, mumbling in the reference lists, or moaning loudly in blog posts.”

So what are perceptions and practices that refuse to die? Goodwin mentions six:

  1. Students have different learning styles
  2. Students learn best through unguided discovery
  3. Students should learn to read through authentic reading
  4. Students don’t need facts, just critical thinking skills
  5. If it’s worth teaching, it’s worth grading
  6. Smaller classes produce better results

You can read Goodwin’s justifications for rejecting these beliefs in the linked article. Rather than comment on all the Zombie practices here, I’ve chosen two to single out:.

► “If It’s Worth Teaching, It’s Worth Grading”

Goodwin’s analogy, comparing grading to the creation of art, resonated with me:

You wouldn’t grade an artist in the midst of creating a masterpiece (“Looks like a block of marble to me, Michelangelo”), but that is, in effect, what we do when we grade learning at every step along the way.

We all learn from our mistakes. Why penalize a student for something they haven’t yet learned when later they can demonstrate mastery? Why spend countless hours grading every single assignment, when students can take practice tests and grade themselves or use peer grading? Focusing on mastery and giving students grades that really matter will advance learning for all.

“Students Learn More When Classes Are Smaller”

Well, maybe, if the teacher adjusts instruction so that students receive the benefits of smaller classrooms. But it’s less about class size than teacher practice. If teachers continue to use lecture and whole group instruction as their default model, student achievement won’t change for the better whether they have 15 or 30 students.

Reducing class size is a very costly proposition. What if, instead, we provided more planning and collaborative time for teachers to work together to craft top-notch lessons and brainstorm strategies to reach struggling students? As Hattie has discovered in his meta-research, this tapping into collective teacher efficacy is the real power move that accelerates learning.

Teaching is a craft. And, just like in every other craft-based profession, there are a set of most effective practices. Now more than ever, students need to teachers to use them consistently and productively, with growing mastery.