Graham Nuthall, The Most Important Education Researcher We Never Heard Of


We discovered Graham Nuthall while reviewing academic publications about teaching and learning.  His extensive body of research provides direct support for the proposition that the freedom students enjoy at Sudbury creates an ideal teaching/learning environment.  Nuthall courageously followed the evidence he uncovered to the startling conclusion that what we do in school is largely a cultural ritual based on myths rather than research.

Nuthall was Professor Emeritus in Education at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand when he died in 2004 and had spent over 40 years researching learning and teaching in the classroom.  He is credited with leading the longest running and most detailed studies of learning and teaching it the classroom that have ever been carried out.  Nuthall wired classrooms for sound, installed video cameras, sat in on lessons and interviewed hundreds of students and teachers.  He put his boots on the ground to find out what really goes on in the classroom.  We have never encountered another researcher with more intimate and detailed information about learning and teaching in the classroom.

And what conclusions did he make after a lifetime of research?  That the standard model of teaching/learning is a matter of folk-lore and cultural rituals rather than evidence based practices.  Nuthall discovered that teachers are largely unaware of what their students are learning and base their practice on the cultural ideal of a busy active classroom.  However, Nuthall found no evidence of a direct link between teaching and learning.  The evidence showed that differences in student learning were the result of individual student motivation and to what extent the individual student shared the values and culture of the teacher/tester/school.

And where did these conclusions put Nuthall within the academic education community?  In short, alone and ignored.  Here he is in his own words:

The appropriate image might be standing on an isolated hill, distant from the standard ways of doing research, distant from the standard ways of understanding teaching and learning, doubting the value of the accumulating bodies of published research on teaching effectiveness, academic ability, and achievement.  But all the while, motivated by a series of discoveries that seemed to be getting me closer to a real understanding of how classroom teaching relates to learning.

Nuthall’s research upsets the entire education applecart but his name was unknown to us until we stumbled across an article he published in 2002 entitled The Cultural Myths and the Realities of Teaching and Learning.  In it he takes the reader on a journey tracing the discoveries he made about learning and teaching over the course of his career.  One that leads him to conclude that our education system operates on cultural myths and falsehoods.

Early in his career Nuthall discovered that teacher-student interactions followed fixed patterns and conventions despite its seeming spontaneity: “Even when a teacher was being very sensitive to the individual needs and interests of her or his students, the interaction took place within predictable structures and rules of social interaction.”  Although he did not think so at the time, Nuthall had begun to gather evidence that teaching was a cultural ritual.

Nuthall hoped to use his understanding of these underlying patterns of teaching to help train new teachers.  He used tape-recorders to get an exact record of how teachers interacted with their students and then related these interactions to what the students learned.  Nuthall studied how different kinds of teacher questions and feedback affected student learning.  He discovered that there was no discernible differences between experienced teachers and novice teachers in what they did or what their students learned.

In addition to discovering that teacher experience had no impact on student learning Nuthall gathered more evidence that teaching followed basic patterns.  Patterns carried out by experienced and novice teachers alike.  That the underlying patterns of teaching appeared to be independent of training and experience.

Nuthall turned his attention to the underlying patterns themselves.  He crafted very precise and careful experiments to test the effects on student learning of different types of teacher questions, feedback, and ways of managing student participation.  What he discovered, unsurprisingly, is that teaching is an enormously complex process not easily studied due to the hundreds of variables involved.  He realized that the end result of these experiments would be “an enormous list of experimentally validated do’s and don’ts” that would turn teachers into robots.  This seemed harmful to teacher and student alike.

During this time Nuthall also undertook a thorough review of the published scientific literature for “studies that would throw light on the way teaching shaped student learning.”  He wanted to write a book for teachers on what the research said about how to teach.  What he found, or rather didn’t find, depressed him.

Nuthall found plenty of research on teaching methods that showed statistically significant effects on student learning.  But the findings were varied, contradictory, and never replicated.  In other words, he could not find any scientifically sound teaching methods that could be relied upon to produce similar results.  He even reviewed the original data of many of these studies and found nothing.  He put away his book and took up painting.

This, according to Nuthall, was the nadir of his journey.  He failed to find reliable evidence-backed teaching methods and his published research came under professional attack.  During this time Nuthall developed a critical insight that guided the rest of his career.  Nuthall reasoned that because teaching/learning is such a personal and individual process valid research must include the subjective and personal elements of what goes on between the teachers and their students.  But this raised a huge problem:  How can one include subjective and personal elements in research and still produce results that are reliable and replicable, the gold standard of academic research?  Tabling that question Nuthall pressed forward with renewed vigor to make some of his most significant findings.

Using individual microphones, video cameras, and live observations, Nuthall and his team gathered enormous amounts of detailed data on individual students.  What he discovered was what anyone who has ever been in school already knows.  That students live in a personal and social world of their own.

This lead to one of Professor Nuthall’s greatest insights concerning the common teaching patterns he discovered earlier in his career:

I now began to understand the function of the standard patterns or routines of teaching, and why they had such control over teachers’ behavior.  In order to manage a class of 25 to 35 students, all of whom have different knowledge, skills, interests and motivations, teachers have to focus on the performance of the class as a whole.  It is impossible to focus on the individual learning of any one student for more than very brief periods.

Within these standard patterns of whole-class management, students learn how to manage and carry out their own private and social agendas.  They learn how and when the teacher will notice them and how to give the appearance of active involvement.  They get upset and anxious if they notice that a teacher is keeping more than a passing eye on them.

One way to understand this is to think of the class as an orchestra following a musical score.  So long as everyone knows their parts, the whole works together effectively.  The coherent sound of the whole orchestra makes it extraordinarily difficult to separate out the sounds of the individual instruments.  If teaching is like conducting an orchestra, then it must be primarily about group management and must follow predictable patterns, so that both teacher and students know how to interact with each other.

Nuthall spent months analyzing the data but could not discern any pattern between teaching and learning.  He thought if he had more data, more variables, more detail, then patterns would emerge.  But they never did.  So finally he turned his attention to the experience of one student code-named John:

As I followed the detail of his experiences, the things he saw, heard, read, said, wrote and joked about, the obvious started to dawn on me.  Learning is usually a progressive change in what we know or can do.  What creates or shapes learning is a sequence of events or experiences, each one building on the effects of the previous one.  An event at one point in the sequence will have a different effect from the effect the same event would have had if it had occurred at another point in the sequence.  None of the methods of data analysis that I or anyone had used in this kind of research allowed for this possibility.

It also dawned on me that what is important about a student’s experiences is the information that she or he can extract from those experiences.  It is less important what that student is doing, or what resources the student is using, or what are any of the other contextual aspects of the experience.  What matters is the sense the student is making of the experience.

In hindsight, this seems very obvious, but it shows how caught up you can get in the culture of the research community.  In the desire to focus on general variables of theoretical significance that are relevant across many different contexts, we have been blind to the significance of the particular.

In other words, learning is unique to each individual.

When Nuthall compared the experiences of different students engaged in the same activities he discovered was “that a large proportion of each student’s significant learning experiences were either self-selected or self-generated, even in quite traditional classrooms.”

The more able students talked more amongst themselves about relevant content.  They asked more questions and persisted with problems for a longer time.  They seemed to be more interested, more persistent, and less likely to be distracted.  There was no evidence that they found the tasks easier, or had fewer difficulties.  There was no evidence that their minds processed the experience differently.  The difference was in the way they managed their involvement in classroom activities, and in the advantage they gained from having more relevant background knowledge.

 . . .

So those students whose backgrounds provide them with the cultural knowledge and skills to use the classroom and its activities for their own purposes, learn more than those who dutifully do what they are told but do not want, or know how, to create their own opportunities.  Differences in ability are more likely to be the product of differences in classroom experiences than the other way around.

At the same time Nuthall discovered the significance of self-motivation he made a significant finding about testing.  He discovered that testing is like interviewing in the sense that it depends on the relationship between the tester and student.  According to Nuthall: “Knowledge is more like a continuous landscape rather than a set of discrete countable objects.  It cannot be sensibly represented by numbers.  This lead to the conclusion that the scores that students get on standard paper and pencil tests are primarily the result of the students’ motivations and cultural background, and only secondarily about what the student knows or can do.”

Nuthall’s observations revealed that tests have little personal significance for a significant number of students.  He found that many lack motivation to take the test and/or do not share the same cultural values that places such importance on testing.  As a result, they blow them off.  This means the tests we rely so heavily on consistently produce invalid results.

Interested in learning how teachers believed they were effectively teaching their students Nuthall asked them to describe when they knew that their teaching was going well.  This research produced the same results over and over again.  Teachers consistently said they knew their teaching was going well based on the appearance of student engagement.

It was the look in the students’ eyes, the questions they asked, the fact that they didn’t stop talking about the topic or problem when they left the classroom.  In short, by the feel and sounds of interest and focused busyness.  In most teachers’ minds, the criteria for successful learning were the same as the criteria for successful management.

However, Nuthall discovered that teachers conflate teaching with learning.  Just because a student is busy does not mean they are learning.  According to Nuthall: “The focus of teachers thinking when they are planning and carrying out their role in the classroom is keeping students busily engaged in activities that produce some tangible product that may or may not reflect, in some indirect and unobservable way, student learning.”

This focus on the cultural ideal of a busy active classroom results in similar patterns and routines.  But Nuthall found no evidence that this busyness resulted in learning.  Rather it resulted in a beautifully finished product that all of us have come to expect as evidence of learning.

By focusing on the student experience to understand the learning and teaching process Nuthall ventured into uncharted territory and discovered that “teachers are very largely cut off from information about what individual students are learning.”  Teachers rely on routines and rituals commonly believed to be good for students but not supported research.

[S]o long as these routines and rituals are recognized by the profession and the society at large as the right way to run classrooms, and students have learned to expect and play the reciprocal roles that these rituals require, then teachers do not have to pay more than passing attention to what is going on in the students’ minds.

But Nuthall’s research shows that what is going on with each individual student is the most important factor in the learning process.  In other words, the routines and rituals of the classroom systematically overlook the most important factors in learning.

As a result, Nuthall says we have created a system in which it really does not matter whether students learn.  What matters is the number representing the test results that factor so heavily in almost every aspect of education.  Nobody knows how these numbers relate to what students actually know or can do.  Yet they are increasingly relied upon as evidence of student learning and as a guide for better teaching.

In the twilight of his life Nuthall appealed to what he saw as the failure of the educational research community to face up to the reality of the problems that confronted them.  That by ignoring the reality of the individual teaching/learning experience they would continue to focus on finding evidence to prop up cultural rituals instead of evidence that would lead to insights into the teaching/learning process itself.  According to Nuthall: “The major problem we have to deal with is disentangling the patterns that are culturally determined and hence within our control, and the patterns that are biologically controlled, and mostly beyond our control.”

And with that statement Nuthall seemingly reveals himself to be in alignment with a mindset that believes the learning process can be controlled.  Thinking that says if only we had enough data and the right model our control we be better, more effective and more efficient.  Nuthall’s feeling that he was moving ever closer to unlocking the secret of how teaching relates to learning could also be read as the lament of a man wistfully realizing the impossibility of his task but refusing to abandon it.  Realizing that the individual and subjective nature of the teaching/learning process means it will never successfully be reduced to scientifically validated generalizations.  Without admitting it, Nuthall essentially concedes the game by setting an impossible standard for education research:

At the present time we need research that focuses on the realities of student experience and the learning that results from that experience.  That does not just mean “giving students a voice.”  It means developing a precise and accurate, if you like, scientific or replicable, account of the realities of their experiences.  In my view, the truth lies in the detail.  Every generalization we make, every conclusion we draw, must be true of every individual.  That is what ethically responsible research in education must be like.

Like Sisyphus rolling his boulder up a hill for eternity Nuthall seemed to take satisfaction in orienting his research around a proper understanding of the individual nature of the teaching/learning process even if it rendered his ultimate goal futile.  He seemed like a man who would rather search out unknowable truths than spend his time gathering evidence to support myths and rituals.  And he seemed to pay a professional price for this as many truth seekers often do.  But this is reason enough to consider his work and the homage it pays to the supreme importance we play in our own learning.

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