Reflections on The Hidden Lives of Learners

Reflections on The Hidden Lives of Learners

Graham Nuthall’s research focused on individual student learning. His team set up cameras in classrooms and had students wear microphones so that every conversation, discussion, comment, and under-the-breath remark could be captured. This incredible undertaking allowed researchers to take an in-depth look at precisely how classroom experiences shape student learning. The Hidden Lives of Learners is a challenging, but fascinating, book. It reinforced some of my classroom practices, made me question others, and forced me to really think about what my students actually experience and learn in my classroom. Here are some highlights of the book accompanied by my thoughts.

During a video in one class, two students whisper and pass notes. The researcher writes down the following:

“Reads note from Abbie passed by Leigh. Scratches head and writes on note. Passes note to Abbie. Glances at video and looks at Abbie. Leans down to pick something up off floor … Receives note from Abbie. Watches video and puts note aside … Sighs, rubs eyes, and glances at video. Takes Abbie’s note, rubs eyes, glances at video while fiddling with Abbie’s note … Writes on the note and passes note to Abbie. Looks across at Leigh and Abbie. Watches video …”

What an incredibly revealing observation of one student’s experience! It comes as no surprise that this student did not learn the information. What’s particularly interesting is how the student’s experience with the video affected her experiences during a class discussion, a group discussion, and a report. Nuthall stresses that students need to be exposed to information at least three times in order to remember and learn it, and this student missed out on those opportunities. I know that an accumulation of missed learning opportunities – whether due to absence, distraction, or any other reason – results in worse outcomes, but it seems that even a single missed opportunity can diminish future experiences and lead to worse outcomes. This heightens the importance of engaging students with each lesson, but also of revisiting material frequently to ensure students receive enough exposure to the content.

In a separate class, the teacher explains how compasses work. Nuthall notes that “Pam decides for herself that she already knows how a compass works,” leading her to “[pay] little attention to the teacher’s demonstrations of how magnets work.” This struck a chord with me because of how often students persist in using inefficient or otherwise inappropriate methods on a problem that they’re convinced they know how to solve. For example, students might continue using a table to graph functions rather than developing an understanding of how the terms in the equation affect the function’s graph. I’ve certainly heard the refrain of “Can’t I just do it this way?” many times, and while I sympathize with students’ desire to use a method they’re comfortable with, this sort of thinking can act as a barrier to developing a deeper understanding of the material.

Nuthall comments that “students’ minds are very busy making sense of multiple sets of concepts simultaneously during the course of a normal day’s work in a classroom.” This seems obvious, but it’s nonetheless a powerful message. I know I sometimes lose track of this insight and let the momentum of the class carry us past the point of meaningful learning. Maybe this isn’t a problem, but it does serve as a reminder that learning takes time. The “success rate,” Nuthall remarks, for incorporating concepts into long-term memory is “not especially high.” This, of course, makes it important to expose students to the material multiple times.

And to finish, here are a three quotes that I found meaningful:

  • “When we look at what students remember of their classroom experiences, we find the curriculum content wrapped up in the nature of the experience, which means that how students experience an activity is as much a part of what they learn as is the intended curriculum content.”
  • “Because of these individual differences in prior knowledge, as well as differences in the way students engage with 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.”
  • “Embedding information in different activities not only makes the information more memorable, but also enables students to revisit the concepts and ideas.”

Altogether, The Hidden Lives of Learners is a fascinating book. I’d love to read similar research that investigates student learning on an individual level. As much as I’ve tried to get inside the minds of my students, it’s painfully obvious that there is so much more going on than I can possibly know about. I’m not quite sure what I’ll take away from this book, but I do know that I need to work on providing students with more opportunities for meaningful interactions with the content and with each other.

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