The Purposes of Education. John Hattie and Steen Larsen – Jenny Connected

This book, published in 2020, will be discussed next week on the online reading network Philosophy of Education. The book records a series of conversations between John Hattie, Professor of Education and Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and Steen Nepper Larsen, an education philosopher from the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University .

John Hattie is best known for his evidence-based quantitative research on student achievement and his book Visible Learning, described as the largest ever synthesis of meta-analyzes of quantitative measures of the effect of various factors on educational outcomes.

In a review of The Purposes of Education, Steve Turnbull writes:

Hattie needs little introduction. He is the “Meta-Man”, more precisely the “Meta-Meta-Man”. His magnum opus, Visible Learning, synthesized more than 800 meta-analyzes and became a handbook for educators worldwide, undoubtedly highlighting its user-friendly ranking of teaching strategies according to their impact on learning outcomes.

If you are new to Hattie’s work there are plenty of articles out there on his concept of visible learning on the web. In short, Hattie’s Visible Learning research has summarized the results of 1,400 meta-analyzes from 80,000 studies of 300 million students to find what works best in education and comes up with 250+ influences on student performance. (Hattie’s work has been going on for many years, so the numbers for the number of analyzes etc. change depending on the reporting date).

Source of the images: (click on the images to enlarge).

See also Hattie’s Visible Learning Metax Website where he shares his methodology and data

The importance of this book, The Purposes of Education, is that Steen Larsen is (or at least was) a sharp critic of John Hattie’s work. In the last paragraph of his 2015 paper “Know thy Impact. Blind spots in John Hattie’s Evidence Credo ”, Larsen makes the stinging comment:

You don’t have to go through the big data of 240 million students to claim that well-prepared teachers are a must for teaching and learning. But this simple fact does not make deep and critical questions about John Hattie’s axioms, methods of studying learning processes, use of meta-studies, and recommendations to educational actors obsolete. The final note must be that the advantage of the John Hattie Evidence Creed is that it is so mundane, mundane, and trivial that even educational planners and economists can understand it.

Steen Larsen questions whether learning is a visible phenomenon. Who should it be visible to? For him, blindness is an inevitable part of educational vision. He mentions that Hattie’s work focuses on developing visible learning strategies for the teacher and that Hattie never actually speaks to the learners. He argues that students, teachers, and researchers are blind to one another. “The teacher and the learner do not see the world from the same perspective”. (P.6) He further argues that “learning can never be an instantaneous, simple and visible phenomenon – neither for the teacher nor for the” key figure “, ie the subject. ‘ (Larsen, 2019, p.3). The effects of learning are sometimes only realized after years. Rather than focusing on quantitative analysis and a statistical approach to student performance, Larsen suggests taking into account the notion of the German concept of education, the idea that education leads to “the edification and eloquence of the individual’s character, wisdom and judgment” could, and fertile curiosity (Larsen, 2017, p.175).

It says something for John Hattie that he was ready to meet with his fiercest critic and have these intense conversations in which they attempted to answer the following questions:

  • What are the goals of education?
  • Does education data speak for itself?
  • What is the role of the teacher?
  • Is learning a visible phenomenon?
  • Is it important to teach and learn certain subjects?
  • What role does neuroscientific research play?
  • What is the relationship between educational research and educational policy?
  • What role does the state play in education?

In this short video below (14 min), Hattie and Larsen are very good-naturedly about writing The Purposes of Education, but it becomes clear that while there are (as seen in the book) things they basically agree on They have completely different educational philosophies.

Hattie claims that his research has been misinterpreted, but whether it is or not, his statistical, quantitative approach to student performance has had a huge impact on government departments and education policymakers around the world. Today more than ever, students / learners are observed and tested. As Larsen says: “The purpose of education is much more demanding and demanding than improving visible learning processes and outcomes.” (Larsen, 2019, p.10)


David-Lang, J. (2013). Summary of Visible Learning for Teachers by John Hattie. The main idea, 1.

Steen Nepper Larsen. (2015). Know Thy Impact: Blind Spots in John Hattie’s Evidence Credo. Journal of Academic Perspectives Know, 1 (1), 1-13.

Larsen, SN (2017). What is education? – A critical essay. In AB Jørgensen, JJ Justesen, N. Bech, N. Nykrog & RB Clemmensen (Eds.), What is education? An anthology on education (pp. 157-185). Pró

Larsen, SN (2019). Blindness in Seeing: A Philosophical Critique of the Visible Learning Paradigm in Education. Educational Sciences, 9 (1), 1–12.

Carsten Henriksen (2020). A new perspective on John Hattie

Carly Boreland. (2021). The North Wind: A Critical Perspective on the Purposes of Education. Professional Learning Journal, 1–4.

Will Fastiggi Summary of Research by John Hattie

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