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Why you should read: The Hidden Lives of Learners by Graham Nuthall

Written By: Tom Sherrington
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This book is packed with insights about how classroom activities can shape understanding and memory.

Each pupil has their own world and peer influences – they make sense of the information shared in class in different, unseen ways.

What is it about?

The Hidden Lives of Learners is a posthumous account of the findings made by Graham Nuthall and his research team. Over several decades, they studied how children learn using a meticulous data-collection process, recording and observing lessons, testing and interviewing children, and triangulating all the elements to track how memory and understanding develop over time. Their findings include:

  • Every child remembers a different set of knowledge and ideas from any lesson. These are often different to what the teacher thought they were teaching
  • Children can appear to be compliant, engaged and productive, but not actually learn the material
  • Children’s prior knowledge and the frequency with which ideas are revisited are key for securing memory
  • Children are influenced by their peers to much greater degree than teachers realise when making sense of the material covered in class.

What are the main messages for teachers?

A central theme is that, unless you check, you cannot tell whether a child has learned something. You have to very deliberately engage with what they’re thinking as each pupil has their own world and peer influences – they make sense of the information shared in class in different, unseen ways.

Effective teaching needs to be highly interactive with a great deal of emphasis on finding out what children know so that you can respond appropriately to secure the desired learning.

Helpfully, the messages are summarised in the final chapter. They include:

  • Design learning activities with students’ memories in mind
  • Engage students in activities that enable them to revisit concepts
  • Monitor students’ evolving understanding of concepts
  • Focus on ‘big questions’ explored in depth because learning at a deep level takes time
  • Capitalise on peer culture to foster learning but, over time, encourage students to manage their own learning activities.

Top Tip

While you teach a class, remember the hidden lives of your learners, and never assume anything has been learned by any individual: check and check again later.

Want to know more?

Nuthall, G (2007) The Hidden Lives of Learners, NZCER Press

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