Review: The Hidden Lives of Learners by Graham Nuthall

This book covers an extraordinary insight into how students learn.  The notion that students only learn what is taught to them by teachers is out-dated.

In fact, students learn through three main channels with differing layers of visibility.

1) Visible layer (Teacher managed activities)

2) A) Semi-visible (Peer culture/relationships/instructions)

B) Semi-invisible (Individual Behaviour: Self talk, scribbles)

3) Invisible layer (Mental processes, Background Knowledge)

Within these layers, one of the most important aspects is that the amount of background knowledge a student has often determines the amount that can be learnt.  As information arrives and is sorted in working memory, the brain tries to link these ideas with schemas from the long term memory to make these concepts worth remembering.  Nuthall talks about a “brain filter” sifting out irrelevant information.  As a result, if there is nothing for new information to attach itself too, it is more easily forgotten.  Contrarily, if there is a depth of background knowledge then new information is more easily transferred into long term memory.

Nuthall goes on to say that students needed, on average, to see the complete set of information on at least “three different occasions” for material to be learnt.

Interestingly, if “low-ability” and “high-ability” students had the same experiences, they were found to learn the same amount.  However, high ability students often did learn more because they had a greater depth of background knowledge originally.

Finally, peer culture is incredibly powerful.  In fact, a student is more likely to worry about what their peers think about them than their teacher.  This is crucial for a teacher to understand and try to use to their advantage.  Discussions between peers can lead to substantial gains in student learning if harnessed in the right way.

Possible practical implications

1) Teachers/Schools should try and create a culture which overrides that of the peer culture.  By doing this, students are held to the school’s expectations and worry less of what their peers think around them.

2) Peer Culture –  At the end of a lesson, ask students whom they would give praise/merits to and why.  From experience, the responses are rich, extremely powerful and often give an indication to what is important to them.

3) Regular knowledge exams across the whole school will help disadvantaged students increase their background knowledge to compete with their non-disadvantaged peers.

4) Explicitly teach learning skills (how to revise).  Teach approaches such as (Look, Cover, Write, Check) for students to learn.

5) Use and embed pre/post tests to make invisible learning more visible, gaining valuable information about background knowledge.  One can then also assess after the post-test what they do know/still don’t know so teaching practice can be analysed to see what can be improved in the next teaching sequence.

Finally, it really is a fabulous read and one that I would highly recommend every teacher has on their bookshelf: