When I was growing up I sought out books that mirrored my world. I can name the narratives that walked me through my tortured teens, or those books that helped me attempt proper adulting. From each reading, familiar character became both a reflection and a fragment of myself. 

When I became a teacher, few books inspired in me a stirring of interest. Reading about teaching felt bloodless, characterless. I didn’t even read the usual tip-laden chart-toppers about buggers behaving or lazy teachers. Of course, I pored over exam specifications and the texts I taught. I made the annual pilgrimage to hear the vital mysteries shared by exam board-Buddas. But little really changed in my day-to-day practice. 

The first book that caught my interest was a then obscure piece of research by Graham Nuthall, entitled ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners’. It was this nuanced and wise book that charged me with a new-found interest in exploring education. I described it thus on Amazon a little while later (in 2014):

Reading it triggered a intellectual curiosity that had been deadened by a mix of tiredness and endless bloody target-setting (oh, and coursework… making lots of coursework). 

My HOD self, working harder and harder but lacking direction, was seemingly seen by Nuthall’s cameras:  

“In most cases, there is a description of what to do and how to do it, but no description of why it might work. There is no explanation of the underlying learning principles on which the method or resources have been constructed. The result is teachers are constantly being encouraged to try out new ideas or methods without understanding how they might be affecting students learning. It’s like being told how to drive a car without being given any understanding of how the car and its engine work.” (p14)

In 2013 and 2014, I was seeking out some formula that may have been whispered in the halls of OFSTED, whilst knowing what OFSTED were describing wasn’t in sync with my classroom. I knew far too little about how the engine of the classroom worked. 

In Nuthall’s research, capturing thousands of hours of life in the classroom, it helped newly crystalise a rationale for my moment-by-moment decisions. It posed reasons for so many of my near-hidden classroom failures. It revealed to me how research could inform my practice. 

Wise principles of learning

In 2013, I still was busy grading lessons with the best of them. Who wasn’t assured that when teachers stood up and taught, well – pupils learnt stuff? And yet, in the videos and transcripts of Nuthall’s research, a more accurate and problematic picture emerged: 

“Our own research shows that students can be busiest and most involved with material they already know. In most of the classrooms we have studied, each students already knows about 40 to 50 percent of what the teacher is teaching.” (p24-25)

…but that 50 percent is not evenly distributed. Different students will know different things, and all of them will know only about 15 percent of what the teacher want them to know.” (p35)

It seems too punch-you-on-the-nose obvious, but this principle, that learning happens in the heads of very different individuals, profoundly shook so many of my simple notions of ‘outstanding’ lessons and how learning happened. 

Nuthall’s conclusion:

“Because of these individual differences in prior knowledge, as well as the differences in the way students engage in classroom activities, each student experiences the classroom differently, so much so that about a third of what a student learns is unique to that student; it is not learned by other students in the class.” (154)

It is so bloomin’ obvious that ‘each student experiences the classroom differently’, but at the same time, I found it fresh and new upon first reading. When you think hard about it, you are forced to consider the implications for curriculum design, judgements of teacher effectiveness, indeed, the very notion of school improvement. 

So, what do we do? We need to concentrate on engaging them in classroom activities, don’t we? That’ll ensure they all learn. Well, Nuthall scotches that convenient solution: 

“There is a strong tendency to equate motivation with learning. Much of what goes on in classrooms is based on the belief that if students are interested and involved in an activity, they will learn from it. Being attentive and engaged is equated with learning. However, students can be highly motivated and actively engaged in interesting classroom activities, yet not be learning anything new. Learning requires motivation, but motivation does not necessarily lead to learning.” (p35)

Nuthall shone a light on the nuanced complexity of the classroom and so many 2013 assumptions fell away. I wanted to read more and better understand the hidden classroom. 

The half-hidden peer culture that can cultivate learning

You don’t need to scratch too far into your own memories of school to remember the importance of your classmates. What my teachers said mattered, but sometimes what my friends said mattered just as much.  

Nuthall paints this picture with precision:

“When there is a clash between the peer culture and the teacher’s management procedures, the peer culture wins every time. As I said before, more communication goes on within the peer culture than within the school and/or classroom culture.” (p37)

My very notion of ‘feedback’ was made richer by Nuthall’s insights. It was unlike a simple tennis match between teacher and pupil: 

“Exchanging relevant information (answers, procedures, directions) occurs very frequently in most classrooms whether the teacher is aware of this happening or not.” (p87)

“The concepts that students have of their own abilities and worth are constantly shaped by their classroom experiences, especially their interactions with other students… This process seems based, in turn, on a process of constant comparisons as students hear others talking in public and private contexts and judge whether or not they could have said the same things or answered the same questions.” (p94-95)

Feedback came along in my book marking, yes – but that was a week later than the timely nudge from their partner. It made me recognise what I already knew, but hadn’t fully articulated, that there was a powerful peer culture that mattered in helping determine to what was learnt in every classroom.

Nuthall’s careful collection of insights offers some sage proxies for learning that could even wrangle the complexity into something intelligible:

“We discovered that a student needed to encounter, on at least three different occasions, the complete set of the information she or he needed to understand a concept. If the information was incomplete, or not experienced on three different occasions, the student did not learn the concept.” (p63)

We shouldn’t be beguiled by this simple ‘rule of three’, or the seeming accuracy of 50 percent, but they do offer us ballast to make the crucial ‘sensitive adaptations’ that Nuthall describes every teacher making in the classroom. Reading a book like ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners’ can unlock so much about how to steer practice in the classroom, as well as guide questions about the construction of the curriculum. 

‘The Hidden Lives of Learners’ mattered to me as a busy teacher and leader. It offered up a way of looking at things and brought order to my muddled thoughts. A good book can do that for you.

Related reading:

  • If you are yet to be convinced about Hidden Lives, read Tom Sherrington‘s superior blog on re-reading Nuthall – HERE.
  • Watch Jan Tishauser‘s researchED Amsterdam (2018) talk on Nuthall – HERE.