Beginning of Visible Learning

Beginning of Visible Learning


On August 2 1999, John Hattie gave his Inaugural Lecture as Professor of Education at the University of Auckland.

About 2 minutes into his speech, Hattie said this:
“We know that students in lectures learn most in the first 8 minutes, only recall three things at most after one hour, and that if the content does not shake their prior beliefs they file away the fascinating facts in the deepest recesses of their brain, if at all.”

This alone typifies the importance of Hattie’s work for me. I will demonstrate why I focus on this through a deconstruction of the above statements.

“We know that students in lectures learn most in the first 8 minutes”

Hang on a minute. I don’t know anything about this at all! I know that first impressions count, and I know that people tend to remember the beginning and end of lists but struggle to recall those in the middle. But after nearly 10 years of teaching, no one has ever sat me down and said “We need to capitalise on the first 8 minutes of each and every lesson because that is where pupils learn most.” So the thing is that people know some things but probably don’t spend enough time sharing their knowledge with their colleagues. As an independent thinker, at no stage have I looked for “when is the greatest impact in my lessons?” I’ve taught nearly 10,000 lessons and at no stage have I looked at where the greatest learning occurs in my lessons. Why is that?


“…only recall three things at most after one hour…”


So what does that mean for a lesson of, say, 50 minutes? Are we still getting 3 things or are we needing to get to the full hour to recall 3 things? There’s more I need to know about this but I can imagine that on average there is truth in this statement. But my next question is: How do I check my own classes to see if they conform to this statement? How do I improve on this standard measure?


“…and that if the content does not shake their prior beliefs they file away the fascinating facts in the deepest recesses of their brain, if at al.”


Certainly this seems to hold true with my experience as a teacher. It’s the reason why I would always want to find out what the pupils actually knew before they embarked on learning. It also explains why pupils find that they remember unintentionally teacher-taught misconceptions far more than some obvious facts. The pupil will have been surprised to be told that something they thought was correct was in fact incorrect. The pupil would have to spend time trying to fit the surprising learning into their brain, using valuable cognitive resources to achieve it. Time spent grappling with learning repays itself by becoming more fixed in the brain than something that is heard but not processed.


Teaching seems to be easy to some people. You tell them what you’re going to tell them, then you tell them, then you tell them what you told them. The thing is that this soon becomes the normal process, so the pupils become immune to it like a super-bug overexposed to antibiotics. This means that some teachers try to innovate. I remember a teacher in the 1980s (when I was a pupil) would aim to enhance pupils’ learning by doing the following: In his history lesson, whenever he wanted the pupils to remember a fact (date, location, or character) he would turn the lights off and repeat it twice. Perhaps this was based on some type of educational research, or maybe this was done to him by his teachers. Or it came about due to the power cuts in the 1970s and had accidental consequences. I remember the darkness but not the knowledge. However can’t possibly need any more innovations in education.


I do know that most ex-pupils will readily recall when a dog came into their school grounds (you’re nodding aren’t you!) so perhaps we should just stick the facts to be learned onto a sign that is dragged around the school by one of a variety of animals.


Back to the initial statement. For me the following can be drawn out:


1 – Why don’t I know the facts about 'learning within the first 8 minutes'?

2 – Why have I never measured where the best learning occurs in my lessons, and then try to take advantage of it?

3 – How did I know to cause cognitive demand to bring about more permanent learning?

My honest answers are as follows:


1 – There is so much knowledge out there about learning that looking for research that is uncontested is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

2 – Even though I am a very reflective practitioner I have been too busy involved in the “day job” of teaching to then become involved in research. I look at the end of my teaching cycles (may be weekly, termly or yearly) but never on a smaller scale than that.

3 – I learned through a memory course that I took in the 1980s that things are best remembered if they are over-processed in the mind using exaggerated links to prior knowledge. I assumed that it would work the same way for other people. I tried to emulate this in every lesson. Those pupils that just want to be told what to know start with a mixture of resistance and scepticism but they soon see the power of this method.


What John Hattie has attempted to do with Visible Learning is to bring together all the research that has been done in the last 15-20 years with respect to student achievement. It’s a bit like the comparison websites that exist on the internet today. He has compared all the different innovations with each other and placed them on a common scale. But just like the websites, you have to look at the detail of each “product” to ensure that it is applicable to your situation. It’s no good looking at, say, the insurance premium and purchasing based on the lowest price. You will be more discerning unless you wish to be surprised by the small print later. Caveat Emptor!
This is the first in a series of 6 blogs about Visible Learning.