I’ve written a new piece for the Chartered College of Teaching journal, Impact with Dr Jim Heal (Deans for Impact)
One of the difficulties with determining what is effective in a classroom is that very often, what looks like it should work does not and vice versa. Take, for example, the notion of engagement. On the surface, this would seem like a necessary condition for learning. However, there is some evidence that it may not be a sufficient one. Graham Nuthall explores this dichotomy in his seminal book The Hidden Lives of Learners (Nuthall, 2007, p. 24):
“Our research shows that students can be busiest and most involved with material they already know. In most of the classrooms we have studied, each student already knows about 40–50% of what the teacher is teaching.”
Nuthall’s work highlights the fact that students are keen to busy themselves doing tasks that give the appearance of learning but which actually might just be disposable activities that do not engender long-lasting and durable learning. In addition, there is the fact that students’ prior knowledge about a particular domain is really the key element in terms of how their learning will progress. As Tricot and Sweller (2014, p. 9) point out, ‘when performing a cognitive task requiring domain specific knowledge, the presence or absence of this knowledge is the best predictor of performance’. Without knowing what students know or don’t know, teachers might not be putting students in a place where they are transforming their understanding of a particular concept, and what might look like learning might in fact just be keeping busy.