Renowned Education Researchers on “I Love Learning”

John Hattie and Kyle Hattie's picture

The following is an excerpt from 10 Steps to Develop Great Learners by Professor John Hattie and Educator Kyle Hattie.

10 Steps to Develop Great Learners by Professor John Hattie and Educator Kyle Hattie.

The Brain is Developing from Conception to Cremation

Meet Jean Piaget. As a youngster, he was fascinated with natural history. In his early teens, he wrote a paper on mollusks, went on to finish his PhD, and then worked with Alfred Binet and Théodore Simon,  the original developers of the first intelligence tests. Piaget became more interested in the errors that children made when completing the tests, and studied (among many others) his own three children and how they explained their (wrong) answers. The study of ‘error’ has a long history and we will return to it in the next mind frame. His observations about his children led him to develop the four-stage model of mental development that still has much value today for understanding how your child’s thinking develops.

Recall from earlier the study where he showed children how to pour a beacon of water into a wide squat glass, and into a narrow tall glass. The amount of water did not change, but children up to about 4 to 5 years would swear the tall glass had more water. Only after their brains develop to a certain point could they appreciate that it was the same amount of water. He conducted many of these studies showing how children reasoned differently, and he proposed four major stages that children grow through. Of course, he had his critics, and today he is mostly taught in child development as a historical figure. For our purposes, however, we introduce some of Piaget’s findings to help you see as a parent the different world views that your child can have, and to learn to stand in their shoes to understand their reasoning.

Recall that Piaget’s four stages relate to how the child thinks and reasons differently as they grow.

Since Piaget’s work, other researchers have shown that the progression is not this simple; children can be across more than one stage, and there can be cultural differences. Some theorists have added sub-stages and other details to Piaget’s model, but the four stages remain a useful conceptual framework for understanding how a child’s thinking develops.

About 40–60% of adults never reach or stay in the formal operational stage, and children, as they grow older, can revert to previous stages. For example, ask many adults about astronomy, politics, and biology, and you will often hear concrete operational thinking. Entry into higher stages can be speeded up by appropriate schooling.

Trying to reason with a child mainly operating in the concrete stage is almost futile, and not encouraging a child in the concrete operational stage to think aloud about consequences and ‘what ifs’ is a missed opportunity. It is convenient (and adults still do it) to say, ‘I did not know’, ‘I didn’t see it’, ‘how could I have predicted that’, and revert to the lower stages to avoid criticism and responsibility. Your role as parent is to first recognize the nature of thinking and reasoning your child is doing now, and advance them gently, gently into the next level of thinking: Gentle persuasion, relentlessly pursued.

Piaget would have been excited to have today’s modern technology to see inside the brain and follow the massive changes in the brain as a child grows. The brain at birth is but the starting base for later growth. The environment can dramatically shape the building, the realization of full potential, and the way we use the brain we have been given.

The Role of Play in Learning

There is everything right about play, but play can be overrated. One of the core beliefs in our society relates to the value of play. When you finish reading this section, your faith in play will be maintained, but you may question some of the overblown claims, especially when it comes to developing the core learning skills we are talking about in this book.

Play has major benefits for social and emotional development and learning turn-taking and social etiquette, but it has a poor record for learning about learning. Antoine Lillard and colleagues completed a major review of pretend play and struggled to find evidence to support the claim that play helps develop problem solving. They found it may have a small role in developing executive functioning and social skills, but certainly does not drive development. Wow, this shook us to the core. They showed how children choose the level of play relative to their intelligence and they do not become more intelligent from then engaging in this play. What is needed is increased challenge.

A common claim is that play is crucial to development. It allows the child to explore their environment, create fantasy worlds, separate actions from reality, be an indicator of development, and much more. But if play is this important, should we not then expect to see a correlation with learning attributes we value, such as developing a theory of mind (i.e., way of viewing the world), increased use of language, and greater achievement on tasks?

There is no convincing evidence that play develops children’s ‘theory of mind’, and there is little support that pretend play improves or is even crucial to the development of self-regulation. Lillard and colleagues concluded: ‘The literature reviewed here does not support the view that pretend play is crucial for children’s cognitive development’ (p. 13).
But there is an alternative: Involve the child in more ‘playful learning’. Compared with free play programs, more structured classrooms with carefully designed, challenging, hands-on activities that confer learning appear to help children’s development the most. It does not matter who initiates the learning – what matters is the number and challenge of learning opportunities. Just as important is the amount and range of language in the play. John Church from the University of Canterbury often said that if choosing between a play center or keeping the child in your home, listen to where there is most language and place your child there. It is the same with play: it can be a powerful way to teach the language of learning. That is, to help your child learn about learning, to learn various strategies of learning, to know what to do when they do not know what to do (e.g., seek help), and to monitor their progress to success in the activity.

What is learning? The message from computer games

Our children have grown up in the era of computer games, and many of us as adults have indulged in playing these games. John became a master at Space Invaders, graduated to Game Boys, and later Angry Birds. John introduced Kyle to sudoku and we played most days together until Kyle systematically could beat his dad (Kyle could recall all the unused numbers in his head and John had to write them down, which took precious extra minutes). We know many kids today spend eons of time playing Fortnite and many other online games. The media often screams about the adverse effects and blames societal evils on war games, and many have proclaimed the end of civilization from such games.

So why do games have such a fascination, and what can we learn from them about what it means to learn? 

In terms of potential adverse effects from gaming, Christopher Ferguson synthesized 101 studies about the effects of playing video games and found virtually zero effects on increased aggression (r = .06), reduced prosocial behavior (r = .04), reduced academic performance (r = −.01), depressive symptoms (r = .04), and attention deficit symptoms (r = .03). We need to be wary of thinking about video games as either good or bad, or violent or prosocial, and so having good or bad effects on players. We have a lot to learn about learning from understanding how video games can be so attractive to young people.

Concluding Comments

If you show you love learning, it is more likely your child will, too. This means thinking aloud about how we go about thinking and solving problems and dilemmas, showing appropriate emotions to learning (emoting about mistakes and successes), how to work with others, and believe that when working with others they can come up with better answers than doing it alone, and teaching the skills of executive functioning: not be distracted, shift between tasks, and monitor and update. We can do this with fun, with passion, and with curiosity. Learning can be playful, but some play may not lead to learning.


Professor John Hattie is a renowned researcher in education. His research interests include performance indicators, models of measurement and evaluation of teaching and learning. John Hattie became known to a wider public with the publication of his two books, Visible Learning and Visible Learning for Teachers, the result of 15 years of research. The books are a synthesis of more than 800 meta-studies covering more than 80 million students.  The Visible Learning series has sold more than 1.5 million copies, and has been translated into 29 different languages. TES once called John “possibly the world’s most influential education academic.” He is also the co-author of 10 Steps to Develop Great Learners, available April 8, 2022. He has been Director of the Melbourne Educational Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia, since March 2011. Before, he was Project Director of asTTle and Professor of Education at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. He holds a PhD from the University of Toronto, Canada. You can find a full CV of Professor John Hattie (PDF) at the website of the University of Auckland. 

Kyle Hattie is a Year 6 Teacher working in a Primary School in the Northern Suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. Over his 10-year career, he has taught at many year levels, from Prep to Year 6 in both Australia and New Zealand. Kyle has held various leadership titles and has a passion for understanding how students become learners. Kyle Hattie is the co-author of 10 Steps to Develop Great Learners, available April 8, 2022.