Cultural Myths: The Hidden Lives of Learners

Reading time: 9
Cultural Myths Learning


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
Read more about @TeacherToolkit

How does culture shape our understanding of both the teaching and learning process?

I’ve discovered a wonderful research paper spoken by Graham Nuthall given at The Jean Herbison Lecture, University of Canterbury, New Zealand in 2001: The cultural myths and the realities of teaching and learning.

This post is a short accessible summary for the busy teacher which largely stems from Nuthall’s book, The Hidden Lives of Learners (2007), published posthumously covers forty years of research on learning and teaching!

This book is written with classroom teachers and teachers of teachers in mind; realising time was short, Nuthall laid out his work in learned papers for fellow researchers and this brief but powerful book was shared by his family and closest friends for a much wider audience.

This research paper is 25-pages in length and takes quotes directly from Nuthall’s paper. Here are the highlights of 40 years of research, in just 9 minutes to explain “how teachers shape student learning?”

The cultural myths and the realities of teaching and learning

One of the most significant things about culture is that it becomes so much a part of ourselves that we can no longer see it for what it is – how culture shapes our understanding of both the teaching and learning process – the more familiar it is, the more it is like the air we breathe the harder it is for us to see it.

School teaching is like that … we often jokingly complain, everyone is an expert on schooling and I wish to understand just how much of what we do in schools is a matter of cultural tradition rather than evidence-based practice. And how much of what we believe about teaching is a matter of folk-lore rather than research.

A tape-recorder (1960-1968)

Nuthall persuaded a group of experienced teachers to let him bring a tape-recorder into their classrooms and hang up microphones on bits of string from their light-fittings. Analysing these first tape recordings led Nuthall to discover that, for all its apparent spontaneity, the way teachers interacted with their students followed fixed patterns and conventions.

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. Like language, teaching has its own underlying grammatical rules.

Nuthall discovered that teaching was a kind of cultural ritual.

Experience makes no difference (1968 – 1974)

During this period, Nuthall tried to discover how our understanding of the underlying patterns of teaching could be incorporated into the training of teachers. Nuthall tested the students’ learning and used tape-recorders to get an exact record of how the teachers interacted with their students.

There were no discernable differences between the experienced teachers and the beginning teachers in what they did or what their students learned … we did not understand the significance of it at the time, we had stumbled across evidence that the basic patterns of teaching are carried out in much the same way.

The experimental studies (1974 – 1980)

The research journey took two different directions that later joined up again: experimental studies of the effects of teaching on student learning and the other, to write a book for teachers on what the research had to say about how to teach. We discovered the effects on student learning of using different types of questions, different types of feed-back, and different ways of managing student participation.

But there were problems. Because of the very precise and careful way we designed the experiments, we uncovered the enormous complexity of teaching.

Research on teaching (1974 – 1980)

Nuthall reached the conclusion that only studies that involved what teachers and students did in classrooms would ever be useful, but even then, there was surprisingly little that was both consistent and relevant.

After a lot of detailed work Nuthall abandoned the book. He put the chapters he had written in a drawer and wrote an article entitled “Is classroom interaction research worth the effort involved?” Nuthall was not sure that research on teaching could ever produce reliable and useful results.

This was lowest point of Nuthall’s journey: searching for the right methods.

Studying student learning (1978 – 1984)

A way out of this wilderness came through working with another graduate student. Adrienne Alton-Lee was an experienced teacher who was concerned about how little she knew about student learning. She knew how to manage a class. She knew how to interest and engage the students in learning activities. What she did not know was why a particular student did not learn a particular concept when other students did. She designed her PhD thesis so that she could follow the learning experiences of individual students.

The major contribution that Adrienne made was her invention of what she called the “item-file”. This was a data file made up of the records, both objective and subjective, of every experience a student had that related in any way to the learning of a single concept.

The journey continues through three replications (1984 – 1990)

For the next 8 to 10 years, Nuthall’s research was spent carrying out three increasingly sophisticated replications of Adrienne’s original design. For example, video cameras in classrooms to study every kind of classroom activity.

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.

We began to realize that students live in a personal and social world of their own in the classroom. They whisper to each other and pass notes. They spread rumours about girlfriends and boyfriends, they organize their after-school social life, continue arguments that started in the playground.

They care more about how their peers evaluate their behaviour than they care about the teacher’s judgement.

Understanding the function of the standard rituals of teaching

Nuthall began to understand the function of the standard patterns or routines of teaching and why they had such control over teachers’ behaviour. 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.

I would agree – we need to pop the differentiation bubble.

Discovering how students learn from classroom experience (1990-1995)

Nuthall’s primary focus was on the 10 factors that affected student learning. For nine months of that study leave, he did nothing else but analyse that data. No patterns emerged; it seemed that unless we could get inside the minds of students, we would never understand exactly how learning occurred and considered – 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 student is doing.

Nuthall developed a way of identifying the information that students extract from their experiences, predicting what students will and will not learn and successfully predicted, with about 80 to 85% success the learning of nearly 500 concepts.

Discovering how students answer tests

Nuthall not only used very carefully developed and administered paper and pencil tests, but also extensive individual interviews with students that explored their learning experiences and their knowledge and understanding in greater depth. Despite its apparent objectivity, there is nothing more or less objective about a test than there is about an interview. There is just a different kind of relationship between the tester and the student.

Nuthall also came to understand that what a student knows and can do is a coherent body of beliefs and understandings that is not the same as an adult’s view of the world.

This led 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.

The lack of reliability – even when testing – is a very good reason why most research on teacher effectiveness and most research on student achievement (especially the large international studies such as TIMMS and PISA), because they depend on paper and pencil tests that have no personal significance for students, are never likely to produce valid results.

Identifying the role of ability (1995 – 1998)

Nuthall’s research was now objective enough to be computerised. The tally was now 1100 different concepts, learned or not learned by more students in more different classrooms. When asked, “what effect intelligence had on learning?” Nuthall had to reply “that as far as I could tell, from our data, none at all.”

What Nuthall found 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.

There was no evidence that they found the tasks easier, or had less difficulties. There was no evidence that their minds processed their experience differently. The difference was in the way they managed their involvement in classroom activities.

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 intelligence are more likely to be the product of differences in classroom experiences than the other way round.

At this point, Nuthall considers Piaget and Vygotsky.

1998 onwards

Nuthall also interviews fellow teachers about how they knew when their teaching was going well. Almost every teacher knew their teaching was going well from signs of students’ 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.

As a deputy principal of a large high school, said in his evaluation of the course: “I realized I had not really consciously thought about what effective teaching is … I had made the assumption that because I was teaching, the children were learning”.

What was immediately apparent was that teachers do not talk to students about learning or thinking. They talk about paying attention and not annoying others. When you listen to students they talk about the same things. They are constantly comparing how much have they done. How long will it take, do the headings have to be underlined, where did you find that answer, do you have to write it all out, does it have to be finished for homework?

At the time of Adrienne’s Ph.D. thesis. Nuthall switched from studying teaching to studying learning. “If we are to understand how teaching relates to learning, then we have to begin at the closest point to that learning, and that is student experience.”

Teachers follow very predictable patterns that are only indirectly related to student learning. This is because teachers are very largely cut off from information about what individual students are learning.

What sustains the rituals and their supporting myths?

Nuthall’s data shows that differences in what students learn, and differences in what they do on tests, are both created by differences in how they engage with classroom and testing activities. This is why ability tests are good predictors of results on school achievement tests, and relate to the kinds of work that students produce in class.

The teacher education systems still reflect an apprenticeship model of training in which the practices and beliefs of experienced teachers are taken as the ideal to be imitated. Beginning teachers’ preoccupation with classroom management leads them to focus on the surface features of the classrooms of experienced teachers.

More significantly, the standard routines and rituals of teaching are strongly supported by a considerable body of academic research. The point is that, in none of these examples, is there any direct reference to the learning of students.

It is also significant that Nuthall had to discover how students learn in classrooms despite a large number of textbooks on student learning. They contain theories of learning and descriptions of how to apply them to teaching, but none of the theories in the textbooks is based on research on students’ experiences in classrooms.

We seem to have created a system in which it does not really matter if students learn or fail to learn from their classroom experiences.

It does not really matter if students leave school knowing almost no history or geography or economics or political science, or if students enter tertiary study without basic arithmetic skills. What matters in the system is that numbers representing test results are recorded in the school’s information management system.

The system in which learning does not matter

Nuthall ends with a  return to a classroom on a typical school afternoon.

Someone has taken his only pen away from the class clown. Its being passed around behind his back so that every time he thinks he’s worked out where it is, he gets it wrong. Most of the class who know what’s going on can barely restrain themselves from bursting into uncontrolled giggles. The teacher thinks they are smiling in appreciation at something she has just said that she thought was really quite clever.

In a minute or two, she will gather up the test papers and send them off to get scored, some covered in doodles, some, like the class clown’s, largely blank. These scores will be entered into machines where they will be transformed in complex and sophisticated graphs and tables that politicians and newspaper editors will use to berate and praise – you know that story.

So long as we do not disentangle the myths from the reality, we will remain slaves to a system that inevitably produces failure and inequalities.


You can download the full research paper here.

Free Resources

Sign-up for Exclusive, Newsletter Resources

Enter your details below to start receiving our free newsletter offering discounted and zero-cost resources!

2 thoughts on “Cultural Myths: The Hidden Lives of Learners

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.