How We Learn: the surprising truth about when, where, why and how it happens

It’s impossible not to notice the increasing volume of books, blogs and articles on how we learn and the implications for teaching and curriculum design.

This book by New York journalist Benedict Carey, published last year, is engaging, well researched and has significant implications to how we should teach (lesson to lesson) and how we should plan (curriculum design).

The book refers a great deal to Carey’s own experiences at college and university. He also uses stories from spelling bees and school life to good effect.

Pulling together his experiences alongside the work of pretty much every cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist worth their salt over the past century or two, he creates a valuable field of understanding for the uninitiated.

The intriguing chapter titles were enough to keep me awake. “You Snooze, You Win”, “The Upside of Distraction”, “Quitting Before You’re Ahead” and “The Hidden Value of Ignorance”.

The informal style helps guide us through the ideas he is about to back up with scientific research. Then comes the proof, much of which is pretty well known – Ebbinghaus, Björk, Roediger, et al. Finally, a neat summary, a few provoking thoughts, and questions to call you into action at the end of each chapter.

The book is pretty relentless about the connection between memorisation and learning. In itself, it is fascinating to see how much power forgetting has on long-term retrieval, the advantages of spacing out learning, even the value of testing yourself on a topic before you’ve even learnt anything about it.

As I read the book, I kept asking myself whether this is all that learning is? I am fully aware of the importance of memorisation – without it we cannot make connections between what we know and what we have found out.

The book takes us through several key experiments that look at the ability to remember made-up words and number patterns, but memorising things does not mean that we have necessarily learnt things, does it?

As an art teacher, this does grate a little. We learn a great deal through real life experiences, explorations and experiments. We also learn through practice and spending valuable time doing things that we feel are valuable.

He does touch on this in chapters such as “All mixed up”, where he talks about the importance of “incubation” when dealing with problem-solving. This I could certainly relate to as an artist.

Perhaps with the extensive return to terminal exams, a lot of this book will be of significant benefit for those who are unaware of much of this research. If you want students to remember lots of stuff, and you have the capacity to put his findings into your own curriculum design, then all power to you. There is plenty within this book to help you create a curriculum where interested students couldn’t help but learn.

Don’t expect this to be a step-by-step guide on how to learn effectively. It’s quite a messy, meandering book – and all the better for it, in my opinion. As you read, new connections are made with old and it is possible that you will see major implications for your curriculum and pedagogy.

The book’s six-page appendix (“eleven essential questions”) has concise advice on the book’s key findings. It is here that you will find a distillation of what you really need to take from it. Great if you don’t have time to read the whole thing, though I recommend you do.