Hattie & Yates: Visible Learning & the Science of How We Learn

This brief review of John Hattie and Gregory Yates’ Visible Learning & the Science of How we Learn (#HattieVLSL) is written from the multiple perspectives of a science teacher, IB MYP Coordinator and MA student. I have read both Visible Learning and Visible Learning for Teachers, and regularly refer to the learning impacts in my professional discussions and reflections. While reading the book, I started the #HattieVLSL hashtag to try to summarise my learning in 140 characters and to get more people to join in the conversation – more of this below. 

EDIT: March 2017

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Read the Australian Society for Evidence Based Teaching‘s 2015 critique of Hattie’s work

This review was written right after the release of VLSL, in late 2013. Since then, the ideas of ‘know they impact‘ and measurement of learning impacts have really taken off in education, particularly in international schools. Critics of Hattie (largely focused on mathematics or methodology) are also easy to find, though the Australian Society for Evidence Based Teaching concludes that “statistical errors do not change any of the findings” and that “Visible Learning remains the most significant summary of educational research ever compiled.“. We do need to be mindful that what works in some contexts might not work in others, and that the visible learning impacts could be used as a set of signposts for further investigation in our own contexts, rather than a list of ‘must do’ strategies for all classes.

The rest of this blog post has remained untouched since 2013. 


Summary Review (the tl;dr version)

Visible Learning and the Science of How we Learn (#HattieVLSL) is an engaging and accessible guide that connects the impacts of Hattie’s meta-analyses with discussion of current understandings in the field of how we learn. It reduces the ‘jargon of learning theory’ to the implications in terms of learning and teaching (without overly dumbing down), and aims to facilitate clarity through relegating researchers’ names to the references (and focusing on the findings in each of the 31 chapters). This aids swift reading; it would be useful for the novice teacher as a general overview of teaching and learning at the start of their studies in education. On the other hand, the academically-minded will be sifting through the references and hitting the internet for supplementation and more susbstantial explanation.

It is a practical volume and can be dipped into and revisited as needed, though as a ‘how-to’ guide for high-impact practices, Visible Learning for Teachers (VLT) is more immediately actionable. It would serve well as a companion to VLT and should be of particular interest to teachers who want to dig deeper into the issues or to leaders who want to think more carefully before making decisions that affect teaching and learning.

#HattieVLSL is highly quotable and provides many provocations for further thought and ideas that might challenge a teacher’s thinking or way of doing things. It is concise with short, well-structured chapters, each ending with  an In Perspective summary, some study guide questions that could structure discussion (or a teacher learning community) and some annotated references to pursue. Discussion of ‘Fast Thinking & Slow Thinking’ is fascinating.

Although very strong, at times it feels like the examples used (Gladwell’s Blink, Khan Academy) are aiming for a more populist market and might open the book to criticism. Where we have bought copies of VLT for all teachers as a catalyst for teacher learning communities, this volume might better serve those who are interested in the theoretical basis for learning, perhaps as their own reading group or learning community.

I recommend the book to anyone who is already a fan of Hattie’s work, or who has an inherent interest in connecting learning theory and studies with the learning impacts, or visible effects in the classroom. I have learned a lot through reading this volume, have been inspired to learn more and will likely be boring others by talking about it for a good while.

More detail and some tweets after the divide… 

A Review from Three Perspectives

Nine overarching principles run through #HattieVLSL, which are connected to learning theory and learning impacts over three main sections:

  1. Learning within classrooms, focusing on the connection between the learning impacts and the practical elements of teaching and learning. A strong connection to VLT, and I really appreciated the discussion on our roles as the adults in the room.
  2. Learning foundations, dealing with the cognitive processes underlying construction of knowledge and learning theories. It also addresses some trendy but dubious ideas in education, such as learning styles, multitasking and ‘is the internet making us stupid?’ discussions.
  3. Know thyself, exploring confidence and self-knowledge.

I read the book in order, though at times followed directions in the text to jump-ahead (for example connecting chapter 2 on knowledge & teaching to chapter 12, expertise in classroom teaching). The first part of the book was a generally swift read and more concrete in connecting to practices. Part two was a good reminder of learning theories, though took some looking-up. Part three was a departure from my regular professional reading and I immediately put the notion of System I (fast thinking) and System II (slow thinking), based on Kahnemman‘s work,  to work in my class in terms of discussing how we can cope with the large volume of content needed for IB Biology.

From the Teacher’s Perspective

I teach IB Biology and MYP Physics & Environmental Science and Chemistry (though currently am push-in support in a Grade 8 general Science class). I use learning impacts explicitly in class, and base decisions about feedback and change on what might lead to a stronger effect on student learning. I discuss these ideas with students. 

Although this is an accessible and generally practical volume, I felt that 2011’s Visible Learning for Teachers can be used more like a toolbox for strategies. However, it does force thought about the how and why we do certain practices and inspires more questions that will affect my planning and decision-making. I can imagine a novice teacher appreciating this book as a first assigned reading as it gives a concise and readable overview of learning and teaching. From here, they could dip into the academics of the learning theories and the VLT volume for practical ideas. The experienced teacher would benefit from the reminder of basic (and perhaps more up-to-date) principles of learning, and will likely find something new that can be applied to their teaching or to the way they create a classroom culture of respect and learning. The flow from classroom learning, through how we learn to the nature of self, confidence and fast/slow thinking makes a lot of sense. At what points in our science courses are learning for automaticity going to be of a big advantage, freeing up cognitive resources; which skills can be solidified in order to save the mind for higher-order inquiry?

From the MYP Coordinator’s Curriculum Leadership Perspective

My role as MYPCo currently centres on connecting planners with practices: helping teachers/groups with development, planning Wednesday faculty PD and preparing support resources for curriculum. This year as part of school-wide, differentiated faculty PD, all teachers were given copies of Visible Learning and are at the start of the process of building Teacher Learning Communities (TLC’s) around areas of high-impact that will help us reach our professional and student-learning goals. My presentation at the 2013 IBAP Regional Conference “MYP: Mind the Gap – Tensions in Transitions from MYP to DP” used Learning Impacts to guide discussion about practices across these two IB programmes. 

This is going to be very useful in terms of going deeper into discussions with teachers regarding practices and our Teacher Learning Communities using VLT as a catalyst. As we try to more effectively connect articulation with action in the curriculum, some of the notes here will be of use on framing conversations about planning for effective student learning. The summaries and study guide questions could be put to good use in professional conversations or in head of department PD meetings. As an inquiry-based curriculum framework, there is always debate with teachers – especially at the MYP4-5 age range – about the role of content knowledge and skills. The discussion of fast and slow learning and of teaching basic content and skills to automaticity will be appreciated by many. It is our role to help students develop a strong disciplinary knowledge and to then build upon this with challenging and engaging inquiry, evaluation, analysis and synthesis; we need to allow students to automatize the basic so that they can put their cognitive resources to good use at genuine higher-order thinking. The notion of Cognitive Task Analysis will be very useful in upcoming discussions of assessment as we enter Next Chapter, specifically with regard to the quality of assessed tasks, their connection to clearly-stated learning objectives and the role of task-specific clarification and guidance.

From the MA Student’s Perspective

I am studying for the Univerity of Bath’s MA in International Education. My current unit, Understanding Learners and Learning, gets deep into learning theory, with the end product being a 5,000-word critical essay. 

I found this a stimulating read and a good balance to the dense jargon-and-reference nature of most of my reading. It is clearly structured in a way that is meant to be operable for the everyday teacher, and so as an academic volume it requires that the reader digs deeper into the primary sources – it generated more trips into online university library than I was expecting. I can imagine that it will ignite some discussion of theories and evidence, as it already has with #HattieVLSL. I would recommend it as a starting-point for the Understanding Learners and Learning unit, with the caveat that students must follow up on the points made and think critically about the ideas presented. I appreciate the Visible Learning work as a way to connect data-driven learning impacts with the theories of learning, and hope that more academic study is able to build on this ‘teacher-facing’ or problem-solving approach to research. I will admit that “Type I and Type II learning” is an element that I have not thought about in recent years; this is now a real area of interest in my reading. As a result of reading #HattieVLSL, I have some more ideas for the assignment, and will think about each over the coming weeks:

  • Connecting understanding of self-efficacy with the genuine autonomy in learning through the approaches to learning.
  • Discussing the nature of expertise and experience in causing effective learning.
  • Finding the balance: where to fast/slow learning ‘fit’ at the higher age-levels of an inquiry-focused curriculum framework like the MYP?
  • How do elements of effective teaching and learning manifest in the international dimension of the school? Where and why would descriptors be needed for my web chart?
  • MYP Mind the Gap: Tension in Transition from MYP to DP. Building on my IBAP Conference presentation by exploring the connections between MYP and DP, and the practices that make for effective ‘preparation’, using the lenses of Hattie’s learning impacts and the theories behind why they ‘work’.
  • Cognitive Science or Neurobollocks? Teasing the truth from the trash in learning science.


Although overall I would recommend the book (and love the original Visible Learning meta-analyses), a few issues made me pause for thought. At times the choice of examples comes across as an attempt to hit a more populist market by drawing on zeitgeist names and ideas. I wish more academics were as clear as Hattie, but examples such as these detract from what is otherwise a powerful volume. Gladwell’s Blink is referenced early on, while Gladwell himself is recently criticised for glossing-over science for the sake of a good story. Similarly, the use of Khan Academy as an example for helping students learn through reducing cognitive load (itself a valid idea), yet Khan’s videos are criticised by expert teachers (such as Frank Noschese) for their frequent misconceptions – and as Hattie recognises – misconceptions as prior knowledge have a powerful negative effect as interference. Some other issues that were not immediately apparent to me were raised using #HattieVLSL on twitter, and have been archived below.


I would definitely recommend this book to other educators and am looking forward to continuing the discussion at our school. My professional learning and appreciation of the issues in the book was enhanced by read-tweeting (tweading?) summaries with as I went along and engaging in some interesting discussions with others along the way.


#HattieVLSL Tweets: Quotes & Comments

As I was reading the book I started to note-take using tweets and the #HattieVLSL hashtag. I invited anyone to join in and have archived (and will continue to archive) the tweets on this Storify: Hattie & Yates, Visible Learning & the Science of How We Learn. A few of these tweets are posted below.

I used this slide in class as we discussed what elements of the assessment statements should be automatized in order to make 'room' for deeper learning.
I used this slide in class as we discussed what elements of the assessment statements should be automatized in order to make ‘room’ for deeper learning.


4 responses to “Hattie & Yates: Visible Learning & the Science of How We Learn”

  1. Stephen Avatar

    Reblogged this on i-Biology and commented:

    This is my review of John Hattie’s new book, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. If you’re interested, head over to my personal blog to read more.

  2. Give a Student a Fish… | i-Biology | Reflections Avatar

    […] short post, again related to Understanding Learners and Learning, Visible Learning and MYP: Mind the Gap, revolves around my (admittedly flawed) memory of an old aid advert, a bit […]

  3. MYP Mind the Gap: Tensions in Transition from MYP to DP | Ripples & Reflections Avatar

    […] has really taken hold in schools, as well as attracted some critics. Please read here for a review of Hattie’s more recent Visible Learning and the Science of How we Learn, as well as links to some critiques of the […]

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