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Address at the launch of The Hidden Lives of Learners, by Graham Nuthall

Rt Hon Helen Clark, Prime Minister
Abstract: 

It’s a great pleasure for me to launch The Hidden Lives of Learners, a book which distils and clearly expresses the fruits of Professor Graham Nuthall’s outstanding academic career.

Over half a century Graham Nuthall pioneered research into how students learn, how teachers teach, and what happens between a student and a teacher.

Graham realised how little we knew about what characterises good teaching and good learning. He looked at learning from students’ perspectives. He believed that education should be student-focused, personalised and student driven.

Journal issue: 

Address at the launch of The Hidden Lives of Learners, by Graham Nuthall

Rt Hon Helen Clark, Prime Minister

It’s a great pleasure for me to launch The Hidden Lives of Learners, a book which distils and clearly expresses the fruits of Professor Graham Nuthall’s outstanding academic career.

Over half a century Graham Nuthall pioneered research into how students learn, how teachers teach, and what happens between a student and a teacher.

Graham realised how little we knew about what characterises good teaching and good learning. He looked at learning from students’ perspectives. He believed that education should be student-focused, personalised and student driven.

The very first sentence of the acknowledgements in this book contains thanks for the help and patience of the many students and teachers who accepted Graham’s research team in their classrooms.

The presence of microphones, video recorders, and observers would certainly have presented a challenge to some classrooms. But the result is a goldmine of information about how children and young people learn, and about what really affects and influences their learning processes.

We all owe thanks to the classrooms which took part in the Project on Learning from 1997 to 2004, as well as to those who participated in the many other research projects of Graham’s career of some 40 years.

This book, The Hidden Lives of Learners, was developed from analysis of the Project on Learning data. Jill Nuthall has described it as the book Graham was always going to write, once he got the latest academic article out of the way.

It is thanks to Jill, and to Graham’s colleagues in New Zealand and abroad that the book has been published. Their taste has been to fill in the gaps and shepherd what Jill has described as the “bare bones book” of 2004 to publication.

Speaking at the launch of the Graham Nuthall Classroom Research Trust in 2004, Graham described the nature of his discovery that what teachers thought was going on in their classrooms was often quite different from what was actually happening for individual pupils.

He said this new perspective felt like the equivalent of the physicists’ view of physical reality: what you see is not actually what is there.

Graham stated that the teachers he observed during his research were highly skilled professionals who did very effective work in the classroom. The goal of his research was to give teachers a deeper understanding of what was going on for the children and young people in their classes, rather than just produce another research project into teaching methods.

I would like at this stage to acknowledge another of New Zealand’s leading educators, Dr Adrienne Alton-Lee, Chief Education Advisor at the Ministry of Education.

In the introduction to the book, Graham writes that Adrienne’s research in the late 1970s provided the stimulus for his shift from teacher-focused to student-focused research. Both Graham and Adrienne moved into that area well ahead of many other researchers.

The education system most of us have come through is rather different to the one today’s young people need for the 21st century.

We can conceive of the teacher’s old role as being to impart knowledge, in a few isolated subjects, to students. The student’s role was to act as a sponge, soaking up the information and squeezing it out when required.

Teachers taught, and students learned, or so we thought or hoped. Some students did well at this; many did not. Their success at this exercise did not necessarily correlate with their academic capability, or with their success in learning or in life.

Professor Nuthall realised that the way we taught did not necessarily get the outcomes we needed. Today we are working to build an education system which personalises learning; which puts, as Professor Nuthall did, the student at the centre of learning.

Personalising learning is about effecting a profound shift in educational attitudes and approaches. This is happening in New Zealand and elsewhere.

Personalising learning shifts the focus from the institution or the system to the students, placing their learning in the context of their identity, experiences, and interactions with peers, teacher, and family.

Graham Nuthall’s research shows that practical and meaningful results can come from focusing on how people learn, and not just on how they are taught.

Broadly speaking, this book concludes that learning is multilayered, progressive, highly individual, and frequently self-generated. This has strong implications for how we view teaching and assessment.

I offer my thanks to all those who have been involved in the gestation, completion, and publication of The Hidden Lives of Learners. They include the New Zealand Council for Educational Research; Graham Nuthall’s colleagues at the University of Canterbury; the Graham Nuthall Classroom Research Trust; Graham’s wide network of colleagues in the international research and education community; and especially Graham’s wife Jill and his family.

Greta Morine-Dershimer, Emeritus Professor at the University of Virginia, is one of the many people who have worked to see this book reach publication. She states that The Hidden Lives of Learners is a generous gift from Graham Nuthall to teachers everywhere.

Graham was a generous man—with his time, his ideas, and his knowledge. It is a tribute to him that The Hidden Lives of Learners will be widely read and appreciated by all those who care about the quality of education in the 21st century.

Reference

Nuthall, G. (2007). The hidden lives of learners. Wellington: NZCER Press.