Our hidden learners

Thirteen years ago, Graham Nuthall published his seminal research ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners‘. It’s a wonderful read that takes us into the heart of what actually happens in the classroom. A key idea to be learned from this research was that we cannot tell, just by being in the room with students, what they are learning:

“The first thing that became apparent from this very detailed data was how little teachers knew about what was going on in their classrooms. We found that even live observers keeping continuous written records of the behaviours of individual students missed up to 40% of what was recorded on the students’ individual microphones.”

And how this concept has been crystallized for us in recent weeks! — except, instead of the ‘hidden lives’ being at the back of the room, our learners are literally elsewhere. Their learning lives are hidden, and in some cases, our learners have become invisible. Teachers have talked about a loss of efficacy and referred to how we know far more when students are with us in school. It has exposed how much we rely on face-to-face contact, but I also think it has brought into question some of the assumptions upon which we also rely, and which Nuthall attempted to unpack, such as

  • If learners are present in the room, they are ready to learn
  • If we have talked with them and given clear instructions, they can get started on the learning
  • If they have smiled and said they are doing the work, or that they understand, then what I am doing as a teacher is working.

Pushing passed assumptions

After twelve days of remote learning, either side of the holiday, we asked all our students for feedback on how we were going so far. Our Kāhui Ako has also been pooling stories from whānau to ensure we keep them central to our planning. As Nuthall says of learning design,

“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.”

We were hearing anecdotal feedback via individual teachers but were keen to establish a full picture. Over 500 students across Years 9-13 shared their thoughts over 48 hours. Their stories were heartfelt and articulate, sometimes funny, often positive. The clarity around them knowing what they needed and what was working was obvious.

Our kura has a strong history of using digital tech and it is pretty much part of the wallpaper here, but we still have issues related to inequity and there are always teachers who feel more confident than others using the tools. Students told us how much they enjoyed:

  • Being able to see the bigger picture at the start of a week
  • Rewindable learning
  • Multiple formats – videos, Google Meets etc.
  • A coherent way to locate relevant information (Google Classroom)
  • Flexible ways to self-manage and the tools to help them do this with success
  • Connections with those teachers and peers with whom they have positive relationships

All of these ideas reflect the three lives of Nuthall’s learners, and also reflect Universal Design for Learning, a framework that can guide us to help students access learning so they become increasingly independent.

Make it accessible and flexible

For me, an exciting door that is opening is around the way we evolve learning design and make learning accessible. Not being able to ‘see’ our learners easily has forced us to innovate in ways that support metacognition, self-management, and individual engagement. This is no less important in face-to-face learning; it’s grounded in the key competencies. There is much thinking going on across Aotearoa/New Zealand about how we might change the way we work at the moment (and I will collate a few favourites in my next post), but I suspect that that door of change won’t stay open for long as we grapple with returning to normal. As we plan changes, it is vital we listen for our students’ stories and start from there.

If there is one door that I would love to stay open, it is this — that the experience of being at a distance has brought us closer to the aspects of learning design that our students tell us are vital for progress.

As we head towards the challenge of Level 2, and talk of embracing change as a result, we must start with the learners’ stories, and consider how they provide the starting point for our next innovation.


3 thoughts on “Our hidden learners

  1. Thanks so much. Great to read and positive post going forward. Feedback is key and essential in any authentic learning situation.


  2. Awesome read Karen. It’s precisely these ideas that are guiding us at ASHS …use the experience to shape the future.


  3. Thank you for making these often unconscious assumptions conscious, particularly the second and third ones on the list below. This recent period of time has given us valuable insights, and I worry that in our rush to get “back to normal” we will forget those lessons. Even though the “normal” we had before wasn’t working 😦

    ‘If learners are present in the room, they are ready to learn
    If we have talked with them and given clear instructions, they can get started on the learning
    If they have smiled and said they are doing the work, or that they understand, then what I am doing as a teacher is working’.


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