Re-reading Nuthall’s Hidden Lives of Learners. Insights from a classic.

“If we are to understand how teaching relates to learning, we have to begin at the closest point to that learning; and that is students’ experience.”  Nuthall. 2001. 


Lots of people have written reviews of Graham Nuthall’s Hidden Lives of Learners  published posthumously in 2007.  It’s often cited as a must-read by conference speakers, including by me.  In fact, in my regular evidence-base pre-amble on an INSET day,  I nearly always run through the key findings from Hidden Lives because it’s so insightful and powerful as a reference-point for all the subsequent discussions.


Possibly the best account I’ve found of Nuthall and his work is this 2019 blog  Graham Nuthall: Educational research at its best,  for ResearchEd by   Jan describes Nuthall’s research methods in some detail.   Hidden Lives is fascinating for the research processes it describes as well as for the findings and conclusions.  The forensic approach, using recordings of student dialogues, pre and post-testing and extensive observation, yields the most powerful insights into how learning arises from the complex real world of a classroom.

It’s not a long book (160 pages) so really my main recommendation is to buy it and read it.   Here I’m going to signpost some of the key themes that he explores that I have found relevant to my work in teacher development.

The message about teacher observation and prescription. 

Nuthall makes you feel foolish for ever being deluded enough to think you could walk into a lesson and ‘see learning’ – or judge teacher quality based on  the teacher’s actions.   He has a fear of ‘teaching recipes’ and the idea that “research will be used by educational authorities  to tell teachers what they should be doing, regardless  of their needs or the circumstances in which they are teaching.”  A well-founded fear given how readily leaders seem to impose checklists!  He discusses how teaching is about sensitivity and adaptation – and how the book is about understanding learning, rather than how to teach.

But, importantly, his suggestions are far from being a free-for-all. By understanding learning, teachers are likely to better know what adaptations to make for their learners. “You can do it by a kind of blind trial and error, but it would be much better if you knew what kinds of adaptations were needed, and why.’

Can we tell a good teacher by observing?  No “We simply cannot tell by looking”.   But there are some underlying principles to consider when considering what effective teaching might entail: (p36).   On p38 he suggests an ideal learning activity, taking his premises into account,  would have the following characteristics:

  • It focuses on the solution of major question or problem significant in the discipline and in the lives and culture of the students
  • It engages students continuously  in intellectual work appropriate in the discipline
  • It provides teachers with opportunities to monitor individual students’ evolving understandings
  • It allows students, with experience, to manage their own learning, so they internalise the procedures so they become part of their natural way of thinking.

This encourages me to continue to develop my thinking about observation and feedback focusing on student learning and the challenges they face, rather than observable teacher performance.

p103/4:  It is assumed that learning is the more or less automatic result of engaging in classroom activities. If students do what the teacher expects of them, follow the instructions carefully, complete all the aspects of the tasks, then the students will learn what the teacher expects.  …..However our research shows that almost none of this is true. 

The difference between ‘hidden learning’ and ‘observable activity’ is referenced repeatedly and extensively – with major implications for teachers and observers.

How Learning Happens

It’s hard to summarise, but the same messages come up repeatedly throughout the book, particularly after the forensic examination of dialogues in Chapter 5.  Here’s my attempt to capture some of the key ideas:

  • Learning happens when students make sense of ideas in relation to what they already know.  Students have a wide range of prior knowledge which cannot be seen or entirely knowable; this variability leads to significant variation in what students can  and do learn from a common classroom experience or curriculum input. (About a third of what students might learn from a lesson is unique to them!)
  • Students engage in lesson activities in a range of ways: sometimes this is dictated by peer dynamics but it also includes unseen elements as students generate mental activities and experiences of their own, some of which are helpful – eg metacognitive self-talk; some of which are unhelpful – eg falling back on misconceptions based on previous experiences and influences or limited knowledge. (The numerous dialogues recorded in the book are joy to read and reflect on)
  • The main solutions to all of this are :
    •  to keep the curriculum frame wide – through big questions;  a kind of conceptual umbrella that allows variable routes through
    • to monitor student learning closely at the individual level.

All of this chimes beautifully with other ideas:  Willingham’s ‘memory is the residue of thought’; William’s ideas about responsive teaching and formative assessment; Rosenshine’s emphasis on checking for understanding.

Nuthall says:  there’s a need for constant monitoring of students’ understandings as the ways they understand and interact with information depends on their prior knowledge and understandings.

This is so important.  Learning is built around each individual student’s success in developing their existing knowledge through the process of engaging in activities that weave in the new ideas.   Nuthall suggests that teachers are creative but, given the nature of learning, need to direct their creativity differently taking account of:

  • differences in background knowledge, understandings and misunderstandings students bring to any task
  • the continuing power of peer relationships to shape students’ engagement with activities and how they evaluate their own involvement
  • the need to constantly monitor what students are learning or are not learning and to respond accordingly.

The three-times rule.

Nuthall’s team tried to establish a way of predicting whether a student would or would not learn something from the way they experience learning.   They concluded that: Provided a student is able to piece together in working memory, the equivalent of three complete definitions or descriptions of a concept, that new concept will be constructed as part of the student’s long term memory.

Students need time to process new concepts; not simple repetition but opportunities to come at material in different ways.

Impressively, once the team had identified this rule of three phenomenon, it had 85% predictive power in both directions: ie predicting that students would learn something or would not learn it, depending on their experiences in various lessons.

Again, echoing Willingham’s ‘memory is the residue of thought’, Nuthall notes that, when looking at what students remember, 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. 

Ethnicity, Intelligence and other variables:

Nuthall references scenarios in the US and in NZ where certain ethnic groups underachieve in certain school contexts.  Chapter 6 explores the mechanisms for this in detail.  In various places he also references the issue of ‘intelligence’ as a potential factor in predicting learning.  His conclusion is that the variability in learning is explained most securely in terms of the different sets of experiences students have during learning and in the past. These can be affected by some aspects of peer culture and classroom dynamics that lead to students engaging in activities (private or public) that misdirect or even impede learning.  If students are not learning the required concepts, it will be because their classroom experiences allow scope for these impediments to dominate over those that might support more successful learning.  This is essentially a challenge to teachers to take note of this dynamic and to do something about it because there is no inherent reason for a child not to learn given the right experiences.   Again, task design and monitoring come to the fore as important elements of teaching.

Summary Chapter 7 by Wilkinson and Anderson

In order to wrap up Nuthall’s ideas after his death, Wilkinson and Anderson have written the final chapter in the book.  It’s worth reading in itself as it distils the book’s ideas very succinctly.  There are six main sub-headings:

1. Learning is highly individual:  different background knowledge + different experience of an activity –> different learning.

2. Learning involves a progressive change in what a student knows or can do:

  • A student has to make sense of new experiences by relating them to already known concepts and evaluating them
  • They have to hold the new experiences in working memory and integrate with related successive experiences.
  • The processes take time and happen in parallel with for multiple other concepts
  • Conclusion: a combination of experiences is needed to produce student learning.


3. Learning involves extracting information from and making sense of experiences.  However it’s not certain this happens – e.g. when students don’t have the required background knowledge to make sense of experiences

4. Learning  frequently comes from self selected or self generated experiences. There is huge variation in the tasks students self-select – eg talking to peers, adding a diagram, reading or writing something.

5. Curriculum and experiences are inextricably linked.  Students learn what they do. “Much more than curriculum content occupies the minds of students  and connects to what and how they learn. ‘

6. Learning is multilayered: What creates learning is a sequence of mental processes; links between classroom activities and mental processes are reciprocal; some links are created by the teacher’s design, management and assessment of learning – but some are created by the student’s active in-the-head attempts to understand these experiences.

The complexity of the diagram mirrors the multi-layered nature of what goes on in a learning process.

Their concluding section is : What does this mean for teaching? which has these six sub-sections:

  1. Design learning activities with student’s memories in mind
  2. Engage students in activities that enable them to revisit concepts
  3. Monitor individual students’ evolving understanding of concepts
  4. Focus on ‘big questions’
  5. Capitalise on peer culture to foster learning
  6. Over time, encourage students to manage their own learning activities

Weaving this together overlaps with multiple other lines of thinking. As I see it these include:

Curriculum Design:  a spiral curriculum, with some broad big picture questions allowing details to be encountered multiple times, acknowledging the different rates, paths and directions that individual students will take on the way to acquiring deep understanding.  We don’t learn things one by one; we learn multiple things in parallel at different rates.  Our curriculum planning must anticipate and accommodate that.  And if prior knowledge gaps are found – they too need to become part of the curriculum.

Classroom management:  providing structure to student talk so that it is purposeful, focused and monitored, minimising scope for drift or the dominance of the negative side of peer interactions.  Creating a ‘community of learning’ is the goal – but this requires structures that are taught, modelled and reinforced.  It can’t be assumed that collaborative processes support learning – and it pays to recognise the influence of informal chatter that surrounds the moments of focus; it’s all playing a role.

Monitoring and Self-Regulation:  Nuthall’s work directs us very firmly towards embedding formative assessment, using questioning and micro-assessment to establish how the learning is going, checking for understanding;  towards instructional teaching that is highly interactive and responsive.  At the same time, given how much input students have into choosing activities that support their learning (mental and public), we need to train them into the habits of effective self-checking, self-monitoring and self-regulation.  This lends weight to the idea that regular retrieval and review activities should not only check the knowledge in hand but should serve as rehearsals for activities students can do by themselves to check their own knowledge and understanding.

I’ve already written more than I intended… really, you’d do well just to read the book – or re-read it.  It’s a true classic.


  1. Thanks Tom, some amazing insights into that murky world of learning.
    The idea that by better understanding learning helps us to become better teachers seems so powerful & yet so obvious at the same time.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved reading this. I think the idea of a curriculum that is spiraled in a good thought. I would be curious, with the time allotted in a school year, how we could have whole curriculum that is spiraled however. In the classroom that I am in, we spiral curriculum in our warm-up each week. Students, after learning a topic, will be given multiple opportunities to see and learn content by completing the warm-up every week.


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