What happens when cognitive science meets visible learning?


So the ‘holy grail’ of evidence-based education meets the scientific research into the ‘universal roots’ of effective teaching and learning. John Hattie has synthesised 900 meta-analyses of classroom practices over 18 years; Greg Yates has been researching the cognitive psychology of learning since 1979: the authors combine five decades of expertise in education.

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‘Holy grail’ or ‘universal roots’ for teaching?

John Hattie’s lens on the evidence in Visible Learning focuses on guidance, practice and feedback:

‘Visible teaching and learning is where the teacher and student both seek to ascertain whether and to what degree the challenging learning goal is attained, when there is deliberate practice aimed at the attaining mastery of the goal, when there is feedback given and sought.’


Greg Yates’ lens on the evidence from cognitive psychology focuses on prior knowledge, teacher expertise and student self-control:

‘Findings from the research areas of teacher effectiveness, teacher expertise, and curriculum knowledge strongly support userfriendly explicit methods of classroom teaching.’

Broadly, the lens of cognitive science focuses on knowledge, memory and practice; as Kirschner, Clark and Sweller point out: ‘if nothing has been changed in the long-term memory, nothing has been learned.’

Two lenses of education research come together in this book. So what does it contribute?



A cognitive theory of learning

Hattie and Yates suggest that a cognitive theory of how the mind learns can yield insight into effective teaching:

“An impressive body of scientific research published within the past decade has uncovered many previously unrecognised aspects to successful learning: knowledge acquisition, memory retention, mental storage and overload.”

“This is a theory that generates many useful and practical ideas about instruction that are consistent with the wisdom and experiences of many senior teachers.”

Given that no one summary will ever be comprehensive, I’ve selected four questions that I think the book addresses, and some quotations that I think answer them best.

1. Why is knowledge so important for learning?

2. Why is memory so important in learning?

3. Why is practice so important in learning?

4. What does this mean for teaching?



1. Why is knowledge so important for learning?

‘Prior knowledge plays a vital role in learning.’

‘We are attuned to knowledge gaps. We seek out and pay attention to things we already know in an effort to increase our knowledge base, provided that the knowledge gap is seen to be bridgeable in the short term’.

‘Paradoxically, having some prior knowledge provides impetus for wanting to acquire even more knowledge.’

‘When we build our knowledge, we invest effort most strongly when foundations are already laid down. But we show disinclination to start construction when there is nothing to build on’.

‘The paradox is that mastery of low-level knowledge reduces the need to keep activating high level problem solving processes when coping with more routine demands.’


2. Why is memory so important in learning?

“Our minds are severely limited by cognitive load, which limits learning.”

“Novice learners reach a point of working memory overload very quickly.”

“Thinking depends directly on our ability to access information held in our long term memory.”

So “we rely on memory, rather than thinking.”


3. Why is practice so important in learning?

“Effort is required for mastery.”

“Simply spending more time on an activity will not result in skill improvement unless there is a deliberate effort made to improve performance, and the critical components are guidance, instruction and feedback.”

 “We will exert strong efforts once confident that we can succeed in the short term.”

Overlearning or teaching for automaticity is important, because we can only place so much load on our cognitive skills, so we need much overlearning and explicit teaching before we can move on to more complex tasks.”

“When automaticity is lacking there is reduced capacity to think and comprehend.

“Willpower (the self-control to delay gratification) is key for learning.”


4. What does this mean for teaching?

My reading of it is that Hattie and Yates attempt a kind of super-synthesis between cognitive and affective domains. Concise instruction, deliberate practice and clear feedback are vital for building long-term memory; but relationships, trust, empathy, passion, engagement and questioning are equally vital.

Instruction, practice and feedback are vital

 ‘Learners benefit enormously from examples, directed instruction and feedback’.

‘Depth of subject knowledge is of immense value when giving feedback to students and in evaluating the quality of their work … curriculum knowledge helps you to identify what is needed for a student to improve’.

‘On feedback, students want to know how to improve and what to do next. It is powerful when teachers and students know what success looks like: showing students worked examples at various levels of success and a discussion of how they are different. The purpose is to reduce the gap between current and desired states of knowing.’

“There is surprisingly little instruction taking place about how to remember… Teachers who explicitly emphasise mnemonics display measurable learning advantages’ for their students.

‘Clear and usable techniques for memorisation can and should be actively taught in classrooms… memorisation and understanding go hand in hand. Examples include pegwords, stories, loci, acrostics, acronyms, letter cues, and word associations.’

Relationships, trust and empathy are vital, too

“Teacher-student relationships have enduring effects… positive student-teacher relationships can buffer effects associated with poor home background factors.”

“Students strongly value teachers they can trust to help them when they are struggling with complex ideas… Students want to be taught by a responsible adult who advances a constructive focus on learning, and who directly helps them improve though feedback and concise explanations.”

“Increasing time spent with individual teachers promotes teacher-student relationships. A few minutes spent regularly listening to individual students can make a major difference to their lives.”



Debra Kidd has produced a more extensive and balanced summary than mine here.

Debra finds the limited space given to discovery learning troubling. Yates (2007) gives it more space here: ‘the notion that discovery learning produces more meaningful learning than direct instruction is a fundamental misconception.’

From a different angle, Harry Web has produced a strong critique of the ‘significant flaws’ of Hattie and Yates book here: though its ‘cognitive science is a strength,’ there is still ‘a propensity for the obscure and faddish’ – Harry uses as an example the authors’ recommendation of the ‘paidea model’.

Both Debra and Harry recognise that their own blogpost, like mine, is just one perspective:

I think it’s inevitable that our attention is drawn to that which resonates or jars which is one of the reasons Joe Kirby said he’d blog too. We thought we’d see different things. I did try very hard to be as balanced as I could though,’ Debra says. I have focused mainly on the areas of most interest to me, Harry says. This is not supposed to be a review of reviews, but I think Debra’s is a more balanced summary, whilst Harry’s is more incisive critique. To be fair, Debra has also tried harder to be balanced than I have.


My own perspective on this book is that it is stronger on education theory than it is on teaching practice. In the short term, teachers will find it hard to pick up and apply quickly to the classroom; but for the long run, its foundation of ideas is strong. The analogy of ‘deep roots’ is more apt than the analogy of the ‘holy grail.’ If it contributes to increasing teachers’ awareness of the powerful insights from cognitive science, that can only be a good thing. But perhaps that’s just my confirmation bias speaking, and I’ve blundered into the very pitfall I pointed out just last week. For this reason, I might blog about this book again another time from a different angle: going against the grain of my own ideas, and seeking out alternative insights.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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20 Responses to What happens when cognitive science meets visible learning?

  1. manyanaed says:

    I wish I was as clever as Joe! This is a super summary… but is that true? I believe most of this already so am I guilty of knowing-it-already blindness? Don’t think so. Thanks Joe.

  2. bt0558 says:

    For me the bringing together of the cognitive and affective domains to include issues of motivation and attitude etc into the “learning effectiveness” equation.

    Thanks for a thought provoking review.

  3. Haven’t read this yet but now feel I really must. Thanks Joe.

  4. stevemouldey says:

    If looking for the ideas that can be applied to the classroom, can I suggest trying the newer version written specifically for teachers: Visible Learning for Teachers

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  6. I’ve not read it myself, but from your summary it seems to show “progress in 20 minutes” as lunacy. If we are to over learn and really ensure it enters the long term memory, moving on to the next piece of progress after 20 minutes will ensure nothing remains in their memory once they leave the classroom.

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  8. Reblogged this on paddington teaching and learning and commented:
    John Hattie and Gregory Yates have a new book out – the Visiblke learning approach informed by Cognitive Science – lots to reflect on here.

  9. david jones says:

    Thanks Joe-I have to admit I keep falling asleep reading the later chapters! Is it age or is it as they say I can only concentrate for a limited time! I actually felt that a couple of things teachers have been reacting against e.g. cutting teacher talk and 20 mins progress weren’t supported by their theories, although not perhaps for the reasons currently argued I know some feel the notion of not talking too much [consistently reinforced by Ofsted] has gone a tad OTT when sometimes you need to explain new skills and learning -[encouraging great teacher talk is another issue!] but the evidence of losing concentration and interest from the learner’s point of view seems to be a more valid and a justifiable reason for shutting up quickly! Simlarly with the 20 minute progress backlash-isn’t he saying bit of learning-review, bit of learning-review rather than longer learning. I know Ofsted get stick over their short visits to lessons but when you are teaching your own kids how to swim or ride a bike, don’t we automatically do a short burst of learning, think about it and then go again [unless they have broken their neck or drowned!]
    I think the more valid argument against Ofsted and the culture they have caused in some schools is that the nonsense isn’t so much the 20 minute lesson but the obsession and power 1 graded lesson has. We need to see and celebrate the individual teacher’s contribution to learning and teaching across the school, their support of each other and use observations properly for developmental purposes. It’s a disgrace that unannounced lesson obs still exist!

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