As another season of lesson observation ends I re -ponder the $64 million question what does effective learning look like? I am drawn once again to the words of Professor Coe – ‘learning happens when people have to think hard’ [1] but can learning be seen in the classroom?

A Thinking Man

Flicker photo credit – nitsckie

Graham Nutall’s “The Hidden Lives of Learners”  provides some initial food for thought with the section, “the problem is that teachers can be very sensitive to what their students are doing and feeling, but their focus is, as it must be, on managing the behavior and motivation of their students. Changing what students think and believe requires more than just involvement and motivation. Being sensitive to student learning requires something more”[2]

Nutall’s research “discovered that a student needed to encounter, on at least three different occasions, the complete set of information she or he needed to understand a concept. If the information was incomplete, or not experienced on three different occasions, then the student did not learn the concept.” [3] However, the three times rules “ does not mean simple repetition……What it does seem to mean is that students’ minds need time to process new information. It also means that the simple brilliant explanation is not, in itself enough”[4]

David Didou [5]suggests that Learning is invisible and that as teachers “we need to separate learning from performance. Performance is what we can see and measure but it’s the tip of the iceberg. Learning takes place inside students’ heads and lurks beneath the visible surface of a lesson. Often what appears to be learning is really just mimicry.” However, even if learning is not quite as easy to spot in busy as we would like, there is evidence (beyond outcome measures) that supports the view that learning is happening.   Whether we believe learning is visible or invisible teachers we still need to plan for learning to happen.

After discussion with Liz Samuel we think that learning might be more effective when,

  • Students are working on content and/or skills that build on current achievement levels and the learning activity is challenging but accessible. Planning challenging activity means that students need to sustain concentration on the task in hand and think very hard to succeed.
  • Existing knowledge and skills are being recalled and rehearsed in new contexts to create more complex schema and/or overlearning.
  • Students are making links to existing learning and question and evaluate as they learn
  • Student have a scaffold or model to support their learning and can try an alternative learning strategies when struggling to succeed.   Students take some responsibility for their own progress.
  • Relationships allow students to question to clarify and develop their understanding.
  • Students value their work, recognise their progress and have an awareness of their development needs.
  • Students are moving toward independence of thought and creativity.

What do you think?


[2] Nuthall, Graham (2007). The Hidden Lives of Learners. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research Press (page 25)

[3] Nuthall, Graham (2007). The Hidden Lives of Learners. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research Press (Page 63)

[4] Nuthall, Graham (2007). The Hidden Lives of Learners. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research Press (Page 81)

[5] accessed on 20 May 2015