Search the site

News categories

News archives

RSS feeds

Best Teaching Part 2: Graham Nuthall, What goes on in the classroom and how do children learn?

Much of the public debate about education reform as it concerns schooling focuses on the demographics of the school, ways to reward good teachers, providing choice of school for parents and assertions about the value of competition between schools. Meanwhile others demand more attention to the academic qualifications of teachers: do they have good enough content knowledge. Teachers and most principals and education researchers know very well that what really makes a difference is what goes on in the classroom and how the student is engaged. Some politicians unfortunately are still demanding more didactic teaching.

Effective teaching involves substantial attention to the student and that means understanding what it is that goes on in the classroom, the student’s interactions with the teacher as well as with other students and the influence of previous perceptions and understandings (including parents and previous teachers). This is something that has been studied by Graham Nuthall in New Zealand using video observation and microphones recording the conversations of the students. (He described his studies in several papers including ‘Relating Classroom Teaching to Student Learning: A Critical Analysis of Why Research Has Failed to Bridge the Theory-Practice Gap’, Harvard Educational Review 74 (3), 273-306, 2004). This led Nuthall to question many of the conclusions which other researchers have reached as to what constitutes effective teaching: much of that is reputational analysis, documenting the practices of teachers who have come to be regarded by other teachers as effective. Studies of the kind which Nuthall and colleagues conducted are amongst the most important in all these essays: recognising the truth of his comments is essential.


Much argument has centered on the relative contribution of the school, the class and the teacher to students’ education achievement. Two distinguished researchers observed in 1991, “An irony in the history of quantitative studies of schooling has been the failure of researchers’ analytic models to reflect adequately the social organization of life in classrooms and schools. The experiences that children share within school settings and the effects of these experiences on their development might be seen as the basic material of educational research; yet until recently, few studies have explicitly taken account of the effects of particular classrooms and schools in which students and teachers share membership.”

S.W. Raudenbush & J.D. Willms, J.D. (editors), p. ix in Schools, classrooms and pupils: International studies of schooling from a multilevel perspective (New York: Academic Press, 1991), quoted by Kenneth J. Rowe, ‘The Importance of Teacher Quality as a Key Determinant of Students’ Experiences and Outcomes of Schooling’, ACER Research Conference 2003, p 5.


The research by Graham Nuthall and Adrienne Alton-Lee from 1980s through 2005 (described in ‘Predicting learning from student experience of teaching: A theory of student knowledge acquisition in classrooms’, American Educational Research Journal, 30, 799-840, 1993) involved “systematic observation and audio and video-recording of teachers and students in the classroom. The conclusion from this research (‘The Way Students Learn: Acquiring Knowledge from an Integrated Science and Social Studies’, The Elementary School Journal 99 (4), pp. 303-341, 1999) was that “classroom learning could only be understood as a dynamic change process, in which each concept or belief had a life story of its own as it evolved in the mind of each student. Factors that affected the way a student first encountered a new concept were different from the factors that affected the subsequent elaboration and long-term storage of that concept.”

What each student learns is unique to them. The nature of the interaction with content and its effects are shaped by the student’s prior knowledge which means that student knowledge is constantly changing through personal and social cognitive processing arising from the need to manage experiences. …New knowledge depends on inferring missing connections and identifying implicit information. As Nuthall and Alton Lee say, students engage “in a process of inference and deduction in which both semantic and episodic recollections and related knowledge are used to justify a specific answer.”

Practicing making connections, identifying implications and noting differences leads to internalisation of the habit. The more time a student spends interacting with relevant content, the better is the learning. (Nobel prizewinner for physiology or medicine in 2001 Eric Kandel drew this conclusion from his studies of learning in marine snails, Aplysia californica.) The breadth of a topic is important in determining what is learned. “Narratives provide powerful structures for the organisation of curriculum content in memory … Interactive activities in which students work together in groups in ways that enhance their mutual dependence on each other’s knowledge and skills may be another effective means of facilitating knowledge acquisition [because] sharing ideas during the process of integrating new knowledge makes accessible the background knowledge of all of the participants. . Prior knowledge may be “ambiguous, incomplete, fragmentary and complex” as Nuthall says.

Nuthall and Alton-Lee’s analysis of students’ classroom research and what is known about learning and memory processes led them to construct a model of learning comprising several principles. Each time topic-relevant  information or experience is encountered a representation of it is stored in working memory for a limited time and through semantic integration it becomes connected with other semantically-related experiences or if it does not it is lost from working memory. Once a sufficient number of semantically related representations become integrated into a single structure in working memory, the specific knowledge construct becomes established in long-term memory.

Nuthall makes this most important statement in his paper on the way students learn: “… teaching is an art that requires, for its most effective expression, a solid basis of understanding of the learning process.” So much for the frequently made assertion that the problem with teachers is their poor content knowledge. Content is not unimportant, it just isn’t sufficient. Nuthall’s statement achieves support from other findings about the value of cooperation between teachers!

Nuthall’s research provides as good evidence for the constructivist theory of education as any. (It is as well to recall her that notions of children developing an understanding of meaning-making based on prior understandings and the influence of experience is generally traced to Jean Piaget and John Dewey; the literature on constructivist education theory is vast, especially in the science education area; unfortunately some of it is still addressing validity of the theory, rather like research in geology still exploring whether Alfred Wegener’s theory of tectonic plates is valid.) Summarising the results of over 30 years’ exploration of children’s learning in classrooms he says, “Students interpret classroom activities in relation to their own goals, interests, and background knowledge, and they extract the information that is relevant to them… It is this ongoing process of making sense of and managing their participation in classroom activities that changes their knowledge, skills, and motivation, and creates the link between classroom activities and learning.”


Jim (to Leigh): Um, well, what they did was they went to Antarctica and then they studied this big mountain, which had heaps of lava in it.

Nathan: Yeah, if it had lava in it, it should be a volcano shouldn’t it?

Jim: Yeah.

Nathan: Rock hard lava. Here it goes. I’ve got some lava in my hand.

Jim: I’m going to give you a scoop of lava … (to Nathan, fooling around). Heaps and heaps and heaps and heaps of attempts to get into the inner core or inner

Nathan: They didn’t make heaps (inaudible)

Jim: Inner, inner whatever.

Nathan: He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Jim: Exactly. You hit it right on the forehead.

Meanwhile, Jane talked to Jan and Leigh and focused on producing the summary.

Jane (talking to Jan and Leigh): Well, it’s how Kathy got the experience to go to Mount Erebus.

Leigh (writing): Into the inner crater of

Jane: Mount Erebus.

Leigh (writing): Mount Erebus.

Graham Nuthall, ‘The Way students learn…’, Elementary School Journal 99 (4), 1999


Nuthall, citing research by Professor Joel R. Levin at the University of Arizona and others, notes the “compelling evidence” of the continuing gap between research on effective teaching and the practice of teaching. That research is seen often by teachers as too theoretical, too general to relate directly to the “practical realities of classroom life”. On the other hand, researchers believe that research “should shape practice directly”; they regard the conclusions from well-designed studies as proof that “teachers should use the method in their classrooms”. If the two are to come together in a mutually fruitful relationship, Nuthall says, then “educators must critically examine how research can contribute directly to the problems of teaching. As Aristotle first suggested (and others have continued to assert), research methods should be suited to the problems they are intended to solve.”

Influence only works by gaining the attention of those to be influenced – in other words, the management of influence is the management of attention. Teachers are convinced that they develop their skills through recalling their own schooling experiences and through watching other teachers. Student behaviour and motivation, managing activities and resources within the limited time available are often the main concern of teachers. In our awareness of what students do in the learning process we start to understand what it is all about. Writer Zadie Smith captures some of it in a few words.


In the old age black was not counted fair,’ continued Francis Stone in the catatonic drone with which students read Elizabethan verse. ‘Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name.’

Irie put her right hand on her stomach, sucked in and tried to catch Millat’s eye. But Millat was busy showing pretty Nikki Tyler how he could manipulate his tongue into a narrow role, a flute. Nikki Tyler was showing him how the lobes of her ears were attached to the side of her head rather than loose. Flirtatious remnants of this morning’s science lesson: inherited characteristics. Part One

Zadie Smith, White Teeth (Penguin, London, 2000)


In life the immediate often takes precedence over the important. More knowledge has little impact on day to day practice unless it becomes part of one’s own experience. Nearly everyone has that experience. Nuthall reminds us, “Teachers often feel that learning outcomes are unpredictable, mysterious and uncontrollable. It is not surprising to learn that teachers find studies most valuable when the studies give them a deeper understanding of this fundamental relationship.”

Nuthall concludes that the main reason why the practice of teaching remains largely uninformed by research-based knowledge is because researchers haven’t clearly demonstrated how and why research can contribute more to practice than teachers’ trial and error, reflection and investigation of their own practice, they haven’t clarified what, in the area of practical teaching problems, research should address and they haven’t demonstrated a relationship between teaching and learning to teachers’ satisfaction.

When reading the important observations by Nuthall (and others) it is important to keep in mind that research is important but better communication of its meaning is necessary if teaching is to benefit.

Nuthall criticises four common lines of research into what constitutes effective teaching. Case studies of “best practice” provide a rich source of information about teachers commonly believed to be effective teachers. But they confuse best teachers and best teaching because the studies focus on those reputed to be a good teacher. An observer in a classroom cannot identify those behaviours which have a positive effect on student learning without knowing in advance what to look for.  Studies which correlate the behaviour of teachers with measures of student learning are more reliable but the relative significance of each of the teacher’s behaviours is not usually identified, the semantic and social context of the behaviours is not examined and so on.

Similar criticisms can be made of “design experiments” in which high quality teaching programs are used to test learning theories: complex packages which produce results in one context are translatable to other contexts only with great difficulties.

Research involving teachers experimenting with and gathering information about their own classroom performance is useful, according to Nuthall, but again inconclusive unless the teacher knows what to look for to identify what is effective learning by the student. “Teachers tend to look for and see only those factors that the common culture of teaching sees as significant.” Nuthall advocates research which independently identifies what students learn, involves systematic continuous observation and interviews, analyses connections between classroom activities and student experiences and learning, recognises the difficulties of generalisation and aggregation and connects explanatory theory to relevant evidence.

The exploration of “best teaching” is explored further.