Steve Turnbull finds himself immersed in a conversation between two great minds that are more alike than would first appear

What are the purposes of education? How do we know what works best in teaching? And what is the relationship between research and policy? This book bravely sets out to explore these complex and interlinked questions through a “wide-ranging” conversation between two scholars from very different backgrounds: John Hattie and Steen Nepper Larsen.

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.

So did Hattie find the Holy Grail of education? Far from it, according to Larsen, a Danish associate professor in education science. In his 2019 paper, Blindness in seeing: a philosophical critique of the visible learning paradigm in education, he dismisses quantitative educational research as “utilitarian calculations” and argues that learning does not equate to “an accumulation of form-similar knowledge bricks”.

Many academics would be cautious about responding to such a strong critique in writing, let alone engaging in face-to-face conversation. However, to his credit, Hattie agreed to exactly that.

Many would be cautious about responding to such a strong critique

But how well does the resulting book answer the considerable questions it poses? Well, it certainly illuminates them: if you’re something of a philosophy and pedagogy nerd like me, you’re in for a highly stimulating read. I found it fascinating to be immersed in a conversation between two minds with such contrasting perspectives. Reading on though, I was increasingly struck by how much common ground the statistician and the philosopher share.

The discussion keeps returning to the German concept of “Bildung”, which Larsen reinterprets as a combination of (traditional) character-building and (modern) critical citizenship, earning approval from Hattie. Second, they have a similar position on top-down policy-making, so-called 21st-century skills, and deep vs surface learning. Third, they are both sympathetic towards Gert Biesta’s influential critique of “learnification” – the increasing emphasis on the student as consumer of learning/constructor of knowledge and teacher as facilitator. Finally, sharing a left-liberal political outlook, they are in broad agreement on the progressive purposes of education.

The book is certainly challenging, partly due to the back and forth conversational format that can feel repetitive and sketchy at times, and partly to the complexity of the content, which covers everything from Popper’s concept of falsification to PISA results. However, it is well structured, helped by the graphic organiser cartoons at the start of each chapter.

In addition, Larsen’s nuanced approach teases out the underlying assumptions and contradictions in Hattie’s argument, and the apparent flaws in his research. However, he struggles to convince his conversation partner that making learning increasingly “visible” to measure “impact” more effectively is a false quest.

To be fair to Hattie, though, he makes a strong case that his research has been widely misinterpreted. He claims he never meant to provide tools for teaching, rather a framework for further research.

Likewise, Larsen soldiers on, arguing for the “decentring” of student thinking to foreground the relationship between knowledge and power in general, and the problematic nature of scientific research and policy discourse in particular. However, the story Hattie shares about Tiger Woods nearly losing a golf tournament because he was too “centred” suggests he’s lost the thread.

It is perhaps a bit picky to be critical about the numerous typos in a book that offers so much food for thought, so I’ll assume these are down to transcription. But I’m less inclined to be charitable over the pervasive use of “mankind” when, to my mind, everyone in academia should now be using gender-neutral alternatives.

These quibbles and the above-mentioned issue of coherence aside, this book offers a mind-stretching breadth of content, a refreshingly respectful approach to debate, and an insightful analysis of the perennial “purposes” question.