Book title: The Hidden Lives of Learners
Author: Graham Nuthall
Publication date: 2007
1. What is your overall impression of the book?
This book attempts to distill Graham Nuthall’s 40 years’ experience of research in classrooms into 176 pages. While being grounded in academic research, the book is readable, widely accessible and relevant to real learners in real settings.
Although he spent his career writing academic papers, in this book Nuthall wanted to present his many years of findings in a format that allows teachers to develop their understanding of his research in relation to their own contexts. Unfortunately Nuthall died before the book was completed, but his wife worked with other academics to complete it.
The Hidden Lives of Learners focuses on how different students experience the classroom and the learning processes they go through. Nuthall suggests that if teachers have a deeper understanding of this, we will have a better understanding of what will work with different students.
Nuthall makes it clear that this is not a book telling teachers how to teach. He believes teaching is about “adjusting to the here-and-now experiences of particular students” and making decisions as lessons progress.
2. Who do you think would benefit most from reading the book? What will they learn?
This book is widely accessible and suitable for a range of educators and my colleagues who have read it have found different sections particularly interesting. I was taken by Nuthall’s ideas surrounding mixed-ability teaching, whereas my friend, an extremely experienced drama teacher, found the chapter on peer culture most interesting.
This is not a ‘how to’ type book – more a book that encourages reflection in light of the evidence presented. It encourages the reader to make connections between their experience and the observations and conclusions it presents so it may be of particular value to an educator with some years of experience.
3. What did you think about the quality of the writing? Please consider the tone, structure and ideas. Does it suit the audience?
This is a very readable book. It is fluently written and the excerpts from interviews and observations help to clarify the concepts.
The chapter structure enables the ideas to build, culminating in a summary chapter at the end of the book. The first chapter focuses on commonly held beliefs about teaching and learning. Nuthall looks at how difficult it is to judge teaching due to its interactive nature, and disagrees with using test scores to evaluate teachers and schools.
A chapter on myths and misconceptions about assessment is followed by a chapter on understanding how students learn and remember what they have learnt. Other ideas include: that students need to encounter information three times to learn it, moving it from short-term storage in their working memory to their long-term memory; life in classrooms and how learning is influenced by teachers, peers and social relationships; prior attainment and how Nuthall’s research suggests that if all students have the same experience, ‘low-ability students learn just as much as the high-ability students’.
Wilkinson and Anderson wrote the final chapter to pull the book together following Nuthall’s death in 2004. They discuss conclusions about learning and summarise the implications for teaching as:
- Design learning activities with students’ memories in mind
- Engage students in activities that enable them to revisit concepts
- Monitor individual students’ evolving understanding of concepts
- Focus on ‘big questions’
- Capitalise on the peer culture to foster learning
- Over time, encourage students to manage their own learning activities.
4. Please discuss the research used to underpin the ideas. What evidence does the author use? Is it robust and up-to-date?
Nuthall’s research team worked with teachers and students, carrying out observations in classrooms over a period of many years; Nuthall was active in this field for four decades, much of this spent in New Zealand. The focus of the book is Nuthall’s own research, but he supports this with reference to the work of others. Readers wishing to explore his research in more detail will find a list of additional classroom-research publications by G.A Nutthall at the back of the book and can also visit his trust's website.
Students wore individual broadcast microphones and miniature cameras with zoom and wide-angle lenses were used to capture the rich detail of the classroom. This approach was supported with interviews and pre- and post-tests.
When considering whether the evidence is robust we can use the words of Nuthall himself: ‘We have tried to make sure that each finding has come up at least three or more times before we consider it reliable. But ultimately it is the professional teacher who is the best judge.’
5. What did you learn from reading the book? What ideas/approaches/practice will you change or adopt as a result of reading this book?
This book has encouraged me to pay particular attention to the design of activities in my classroom and make sure that students interact with information I am presenting them with. I have worked on developing my questioning to check understanding and prevent misconceptions evolving. The idea of students needing to encounter information three times so they can recall it in the long-term has stuck in my mind too; I have built this into new lesson plans and will revisit older plans to tweak them in this way.
6. Could you share a quote from the book that particularly resonated with you?
‘If you the reader see gaps or want to question his assertions, so be it. All he would ask is that you read it [the book] and apply what makes sense to you as you seek to understand the hidden lives of learners.’
Jill Nuthall, 2007 – Acknowledgements at front of book