“The Hidden Lives of Learners” by Graham Nuthall

This week I read Graham Nuthall’s “The Hidden Lives of Learners” ready for the @EduChatUK discussion on Wednesday. It is a fascinating study of student behaviour and learning in the classroom, but I’m not sure it has any new implications for most teachers. I’m vastly oversimplifying here, but the key points of the book seem to be:

1)      Everyone learns differently depending on their prior experiences

2)      A concept needs to be revisited at least three times for it to be learnt.

3)      There are three separate cultural spheres at play in the classroom

I’d like to discuss each of these in turn.

1)      Everyone learns differently depending on their prior experiences.

Prior experience, the “nurture” aspect of the false nature/nurture dichotomy, is arguably the single most important factor in determining the performance and behaviour of a student in the classroom. Regardless of the school experience, a child that has spent the first four years of his life in an unstimulating environment in which he receives limited social interaction or parental feedback, and where the usual babysitter is the TV, will unquestionably perform less well than a child for whom the opposite is true. This is because success in the classroom relies on internalising “normal” social relations and a high level of cultural capital. The former allows the child to interact positively with adults and peers and the latter allows the child to make connections between his own knowledge and the new knowledge that he’s learning in the classroom (I have blogged about this previously in a post entitled “Ways to Change the Way we Differentiate”). So, although what Nuthall discusses is clearly true, it is not new. Good teachers have known this since ancient times. It’s very much an example of the “Matthew Effect”, as described by David Didau. What may be revolutionary for some teachers is the notion that we should try to gauge and understand a student’s prior knowledge base so that we can design learning experiences in such a way that they will connect to that prior knowledge, although I’m not even sure that we need to take such a vast variety of information into account in our formal planning, but rather we need to be aware of it so that we can differentiate effectively during our lessons in the explanations we give and the examples and analogies we use to clarify concepts for individual students.


2)      A concept needs to be revisited at least three times for it to be learnt.

When we want students to learn any concept we try to demonstrate it and give them chance to practice it in as many ways as possible. If we just tell them or show them something once or twice, there is clearly no way that this can then be committed to the working memory. What I loved in Nuthall’s book was the metaphor of a “learning landscape” that we have to allow our students to explore in many different ways in order to be familiar with it. You can walk through a landscape using many different paths, you can fly over it, you can draw it, photograph it, map it and describe it. In the same way we need to engineer situations that allow our students to explore concepts in many different ways. So for example, this week I’ve been trying to create lessons that will allow my students to explore how and why social relationships are affected by social media. Their homework was to transcribe some examples of their own social media use. We read two newspaper articles: one about how there are marked differences in how the genders take absorb “text speak” into their own spoken vocabulary; the second was about a young woman who tweeted about knocking a cyclist off his bike whilst driving. We watched a YouTube clip made by a freshman at an American university on how his friends use social media, and lastly the students were given the space to study and make notes on the transcripts they had brought in. This led to them being in a strong position to understand the concept we set out to investigate (the effect of social media on human relationships). Again, Nuthall’s assertion is probably correct, but it’s nothing new.


3)      There are three separate cultural spheres at play in the classroom

The argument that there are three social or cultural spheres at work in the classroom is an oversimplification. However, I can see that this is a really useful way to think about the classroom when dealing with the social aspects of learning. Nuthall suggests that the classroom is divided up into the public culture that we take for granted, controlled (in theory) by the teacher; the social sphere of the students that teachers are very often unaware of; and the private mental worlds of the students themselves. Students’ priorities are very much bound up in the latter two and to get them to engage with public sphere they have to be experts in designing and delivering exciting and engaging lessons. We have to be aware of the peer culture and try, as best we can, to tap into it and use it to our advantage. He gives some lovely examples of the sorts of conversations that students have in the classroom through transcriptions of recordings he has made. These show a variety of traits, from serious and active discussion of the topic, through topic related arguments about misconceptions and misunderstandings, to all out battling and bullying in an effort to recreate the social hierarchy in a new way. The implications for us as teachers are clear: we have to be constantly aware of what everyone in the room is doing and saying. This, obviously, isn’t possible, but we must at least try. Again, this is nothing new, and comes down, as always in the teaching trade, to the relationships we have with our students and the way we actively differentiate for individuals within the lesson. My issue with the three spheres assertion is that it dramatically oversimplifies things – there are in reality an infinite number of spheres in the classroom as people from different backgrounds and different social statuses interact with one another, negotiating and renegotiating their own personal and social identities through, and in spite of, the things that they learn or do in lessons.

Although I insist that there is nothing new in this book and that it simply serves to underline what teachers are, hopefully, already doing, it is still an important read for anybody involved in education, because it forces us to rethink how we deal with the issues outlined and gives us a vehicle through which we can actively think about and discuss them. Furthermore, it is worth reading just for the transcripts of the conversations the kids have. Some of these are laugh-out-loud funny, and some are desperately sad and tragic, particularly the racist name-calling that takes place as students from different ethnicities jockey to work their way up the hierarchy of their peer group. It is a book that should be on the shelf of the staff section of any school library and one that will help us to deal more pragmatically with the things that, as teachers, we often forget about or take for granted.


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About Andrew Warner

Mostly English teacher, AHT (T&L/literacy/CPD) & bibliophile. Irregular examiner, MTBer, armchair anthropologist & bassist. Fascinated by language & behaviour.

5 responses to ““The Hidden Lives of Learners” by Graham Nuthall”

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