How Learning Happens: a GLOWING review

Most education books I purchase are worth the price, but every now and then a priceless book pops up. Some books are just so good you know they are going to stand the test of time. Daisy Christodoulou’s 7 Myths About Education is a great example. That book was right on the money. I still reread and refer to it. Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion is another one. I am constantly flicking through it years after initially picking it up. These books are rare gems.

How Learning Happens by Paul Kirschner and Carl Hendrick is one of those priceless books. It’s a compilation of 28 seminal works in educational psychology grouped by topic.
1) How Does Our Brain Work?
2) Prerequisites For Learning
3) Which Learning Activities Support Learning?
4) The Teacher
5) Learning in Context
6) Cautionary Tales

How Learning Happens : Paul A. Kirschner : 9780367184575

Each chapter focuses on one research article chosen for its impact on educational research and usefulness in a classroom context. Providing the link between research and practice is the book’s main selling point. Research articles don’t cater for teachers, so it is often difficult to understand how the work can be applied in a classroom context. Plus, where do you even find these articles? Which ones are worth your time? The authors fill that gap. They provide discussion, suggestions and examples of how some of the most important works could be implemented in the classroom in a digestible way (the chapters are ~10 pages or less).

Teachers will already be familiar with some of the more popular works in the book. For example, I had already read Sweller’s Cognitive Load During Problem Solving and Kirchner, Sweller and Clark’s Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work. I know the content well enough to apply it in my teaching. While reading the chapters on these articles, my background knowledge helped me understand the authors’ intent in relating the research to classroom practice. I often found myself nodding along thinking, ‘yep, they’re exactly right.’ The cool thing is that, even though I am very familiar with these papers, it’s likely I’ll use How Learning Happens as my first point of reference when I need a refresher. That’s how well the book summarises the work.

There were papers I was not familiar though, and reading about them in this book helped me understand some of the things I already do intuitively in the classroom. For example, the third chapter is titled How Deep Is Your Processing? and summarises Craik and Lockhart’s work on levels of processing. The article’s main idea is that the level at which information is processed (shallow to deep) affects how well the information is remembered.

I knew little about this research. Of course, like most teachers, I had an intuitive understanding of the topic. I knew that getting students to think about what they are learning in the context of what they already know is good teaching, and that having them elaborate on the information works well for memory retention. However, if I asked myself, hypothetically, would I be able to explain why this is the case to a 5-year-old?, I would have said no. That indicated a gap in my professional knowledge. Reading about the work on levels of processing provided the clarity I needed to understand the rationale behind contextualising information and allowing time for elaboration. And we know, incidentally from other papers in this book, that knowledge helps experts solve problems. That’s why this book is such a gem: it provides enough clarity to strengthen my background knowledge, which will help me solve the very complex problem of how can I best help my students understand and remember this tomorrow, next week and next month?

Levels of processing provided one of many uhuh moments. I could ramble on gushing about how much I enjoyed this book, but I’ll spare you that. Just know that I often found myself feverishly writing down notes in Notion and googling for extra information and context after that mad rush of excitement learning new things and making connections often provides. I know quite a bit about education now, so it is pretty rare to find an edu-book that does that to me. I think it’s a priceless read.

I recommend this book to all teachers, new and old. New teachers will benefit by being introduced to many important topics they know little about, and more experienced teachers will benefit from the extra layer of clarity the book provides to what they already explicitly or intuitively understand about teaching.

Pick it up, read it thoroughly, and place it on the shelf ready for when you inevitably refer back to it.



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