Connoisseurs of learning

In their new book on ‘the science of how we learn’, John Hattie and Gregory Yates (2013) devote an entire chapter to the personality of teachers. Through both common sense anecdote and research they identify that the way a teacher’s personality is perceived by their students has a big impact on how those students learn.

They cite a number of ways in which students perceive teachers, and how this has been proven to affect their outcomes. Most interesting is an Israeli study which found that students who were shown 10 second films of a teacher and asked to judge them produced very similar ratings of the effectiveness of that teacher to those given by their own students; those who had spent significant time learning with them. The implicit conclusion is that in this study the students were largely judging the teacher’s effectiveness on aspects such as their body languages, mannerisms, and presentational style. The fact that students judge this when shown 10 second clips is hardly surprising as under such circumstances that is all they have to go on. The fact that the findings correlated suggests that even after significant time with the teacher that is still how students were judging them.

For teachers this is all important stuff, and Hattie and Yates make many salient points as to how teachers should be aware of the effect their personality has on their learners. I agree, and as teachers we should attend to anything that is shown to make a significant impact on learning…. but what about the students, what insights could this perspective give them?

The research cited in the chapter in question suggests that learners devote a significant amount of attention to teacher personality and style of delivery rather than content, and I can’t help thinking that this is a devotion of attention to the wrong thing. It certainly helps to be working within someone whose personal style you rate, but at the end of the day what you are there for is the learning not the person.

My colleague Peter Yeomans wrote a piece recently giving advice to new undergraduates on how to approach their studies. Part of this was to advise that those who do really well are those who walk out of lectures and seminars thinking about and discussing the content and ideas explored rather than those who walk out critiquing the style of the lecturer.

To focus your evaluations on the style of the teacher might come naturally, but does not paint the student as an independent learner who is in control of the process, but instead as a dependent who can only learn something from the lecturers whose personal style they rate. I have no data for this (yet…), but it seems to me that those who concentrate on the content and the learning irrespective of the style in which is is delivered are the ones who are going to synthesise the ideas more effectively, the ones who are likely to keep thinking and developing these ideas outside of teaching sessions, and the ones who are going to take the responsibility to find out more and continue to self study. These are the traits of the most skilled and most effective undergraduates.

As a student of course we would all like to have the most engaging teachers all of the time. Universities should be working to develop people’s teaching styles and seek out the best teachers for sure. However, from the point of view of a student concentrating on becoming a connoisseur of your teachers isn’t the most likely way to lead to success. Focusing your efforts on becoming a connoisseur of the learning is, no matter how it is presented to you.

There are clear limits to this argument. Universities are different places to schools, teachers of all age groups (including in H.E.) would do well to absorb and heed Hattie and Yate’s advice, and all of us involved in teaching have a responsibility to work toward making the learning experience the most effective that it can be. Encouraging students to take this attitude does not diminish the responsibility of those teaching to develop and provide the most effective learning they can for their students.

However, as an adult learner I think it is important to consider your mindset; are you expending your effort becoming a connoisseur of your teachers or are you a connoisseur of the learning?



Hattie, J. and Yates, G. (2013) Visible Learning And The Science Of How We Learn. Routledge.

Yeomans, P. (213) ‘Don’t grow a wishbone where you should have a backbone‘, The Grinch Mainfesto, 15th September 2013.

[Note that Amazon links contain my affiliate ID which gives me a small fee if you purchase the book.]
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5 thoughts on “Connoisseurs of learning”

  1. Speaking to a parent recently they said the reason their child was not doing well in specific subjects was solely the teachers’ responsibility. Some children are quick to dislike someone and they stop trying because they don’t have resilience and positive attitude. How do we balance teaching students that in the real world there will be people they don’t like who they have to work with, and taking responsibility for their lack of enthusiasm for a subject?

  2. As one of the writers noted above, I am very interested in Frances’ comment. If a parent does play that game, it is likely one type of hostility. There is a poor outcome — someone has to be blamed. Its natural for people to avert responsibility by attributing negatives onto someone (anyone) in the firing line. Often there are many false prssumptions. To our awareness, students do not actually need to ‘like’ their teachers, and research from the 1970s told us that affective traits in teachers do not really relate particularly well to student learning. Students do rate teachers on how well they teach, as well as how well they feel they are being treated as individuals. Its natural professional behaviour, which is not really ‘personality’ at all. Teachers present a professional manner, which then enables positive relationships with individuals to develop and cascade. But so many students do present with aversive traits which tests one’s professionalism. We need to develop a thick skin. Cheers, Greg Yates in Adelaide.

    1. Thanks both Frances and Greg for your interesting comments. I’ve just been running seminars with some of my students about parental involvement and engagement and think that brings a whole other slant on this. I think we also have to bring to this the difference between being liked and being respected. These can come together but when they exist desperately it is often for very different reasons. I can think of some teachers when I was a pupil who we liked having for lessons but didn’t respect, some who we respected and learned from but didn’t particularly like, some who had both and some who had neither. It’s worth unpicking, I think, what leads to such scenarios and how we want to develop those things as teachers. As Greg alludes to, I’m not sure being liked should be our prime concern, although it can have positive influence sometimes particularly with some disadvantaged students.

  3. Interesting comments, especially in view of studies from the 1980s, Brophy and Evertson. They found that classroom management began as soon as students entered the teacher’s room, day one. Things such as setting ground rules for interacting, speaking, moving around, etc, differentiated the effective from less effective teacher. What is striking was how soon this was evident. But relationships tend to be like that: You begin by presenting a clear “personality” which for us means our positive and benign professional persona. In so doing we are communicating expectation that our students will also treat us, and others, with the respect we give to them. Once the ground is established, the rest can follow. At my wife’s school just today she had 2 teachers, first year out, made the mistake of befriending students, and are paying a price. Its very hard for them to reinstate their professional respect. The teacher-student friendship is different from peer-to peer, and when we mix them up, we are in trouble. Greg Yates.

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