The Purposes of Education. John Hattie and Steen Larsen

This book, published in 2020, will be discussed by the online Philosophy of Education Reading Network next week. The book records a series of conversations that took place 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 Educational Philosopher from the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University.

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

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

Hattie needs little introduction. He’s the “meta-man”, or to be more accurate, the “meta-meta-man”. His magnum opus, Visible Learning, synthesised more than 800 meta-analyses and became a handbook for educators worldwide, drawn no doubt to its user-friendly ranking of teaching strategies by their impact on learning outcomes.

If you do happen to be new to Hattie’s work, then there are plenty of articles about his concept of visible learning on the web. In a nutshell Hattie’s Visible Learning research synthesises findings from 1,400 meta-analyses of 80,000 studies involving 300 million students, into what works best in education, and comes up with 250+ influences on student achievement. (Hattie’s work has been ongoing over many years so the figures relating to number of analyses etc. change according to the date of reporting).

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

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

The significance of this book, The Purposes of Education, is that Steen Larsen is (or at least has been) a fierce critic of John Hattie’s work.  In the final paragraph of his 2015 paper ‘Know thy Impact. Blind Spots in John Hattie’s Evidence Credo’, Larsen makes the stinging comment:

One does not have to run (through) the big data of 240 million students to proclaim that well-prepared teachers are a sine qua non for teaching and learning. But this simple fact does not make deep and critical questions to John Hattie’s axioms, ways of investigating learning processes, use of meta-studies, and recommendations to educational stakeholders, superfluous. The concluding remark must be that the advantage of John Hattie’s evidence credo is that it is so banal, 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 for? For him blindness is an inevitable part of educational seeing. He mentions that Hattie’s work is focussed on developing visible learning strategies for the teacher and that Hattie never actually talks to the learners. He argues that students, teachers and researchers are blind to each other’s rationales. ‘The teacher and the learner do not see the world in the same perspective’. (p.6)  He further argues that ‘learning can never be an instant, simple and visible phenomenon—neither for the teacher nor for the ‘key figure’, i.e., the learning subject.’ (Larsen , 2019, p.3). The effects of learning are sometimes not realised for years to come. Instead of focussing on quantitative analysis and a statistical approach to student achievement, Larsen suggests that we consider the notion of the German concept of Bildung, the idea that education might lead to ‘the edification and the eloquent formation of the individual’s character, wisdom, judgment, and fertile curiosity (Larsen, 2017, p.175).

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

  • What are the purposes of education?
  • Does educational data speak for itself?
  • What is the role of the teacher?
  • Is learning a visible phenomenon?
  • Is it important to teach and learn specific subjects?
  • What is the role of neuroscience research?
  • What is the relationship between educational research and educational politics?
  • What is the role of the state in education?

In this short video below (14 mins) Hattie and Larsen talk about the writing of The Purposes of Education in a very good natured way, but it becomes clear that, whilst (as seen in the book) there are things they agree on, fundamentally they have completely different philosophies of education.

Hattie claims that his research has been misinterpreted, but whether or not this is the case, his statistical, quantitative approach to student achievement has been very influential on government departments and policy makers for education around the world. Students/learners are now observed and tested more than ever before. Surely as Larsen says, ‘The purpose of education is much more demanding and challenging than enhancing visible learning processes and results.’ (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, S. N. (2017). What is education? – A critical essay. In A. B. Jørgensen, J. J. Justesen, N. Bech, N. Nykrog, & R. B. Clemmensen (Eds.), What is education? An anthology on education (pp. 157-185). Próblēma.

Larsen, S. N. (2019). Blindness in seeing: A philosophical critique of the visible learning paradigm in education. Education 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. Journal of Professional Learning, 1–4.

Will Fastiggi Summary of John Hattie’s Research