Review by Amir Arezoo

Vice principal, Horizon Community College

24 May 2020, 5:00


Review: How Learning Happens by Paul Kirschner and Carl Hendrick

By Paul A. Kirschner and Carl Hendrick






4 Mar 2020

Kirschner and Hendrick cut through the misconceptions that lead to poor application of evidence in the classroom, writes Amir Arezoo

Evidence-based practice. We know all of the answers, right? Frequent and regular testing will help students remember better. Developing a growth mindset increases your chances of success in life. Being a good problem solver is domain-specific. So why does a book like How Learning Happens matter?

Well, as Kirschner and Hendrick explain, the misapplication of educational theory is unfortunately prevalent: one only has to think of Bloom’s Taxonomy and Multiple Intelligences as cases in point. Kirschner and Hendrick set out their rationale to take “the often implicit knowledge that [teachers] have about our profession and make it explicit”, with the understanding that “good teaching is an art informed by science”. Clearly then, How Learning Happens is designed to be a force for preventing teachers from falling into the trap of misconception, and incorrectly putting theory into practice as a result.

The book consists of commentaries on 28 papers that the authors consider key to understanding how we learn. The papers are grouped into six distinct fields: how the brain works; prerequisites for learning; how learning can be supported; teacher activities; learning in context; and, perhaps most interestingly, cautionary tales and the deadly sins of education.

There are some “famous” (in the realms of educational psychology at least) academics here: Sweller, Rosenshine, Wiliam and Black; and there are some not so famous, such as Rothkopf and Pintrich. There are some who are perhaps infamous, for example Dweck and Bloom. (The latter features for one of his less remembered but potentially most important papers.)

The depth of research presented here seems to slay some sacred cows

Despite being academic in principle, How Learning Happens is easy to digest. Kirschner and Hendrick don’t simply reproduce the texts verbatim. Instead, the book is written with the classroom practitioner in mind, using each paper’s abstract and key elements, linking them to wider connected research (there are copious references) and then developing the findings into concrete methods of application.

Importantly, the authors take lengths to explain caveats when putting theory into practice. For example, in the discussion of Dweck’s paper on motivation and personality, the authors set out a theory of why attempts to replicate her interventions may not have generated similarly effective results to the original research. It is through this methodology that Kirschner and Hendrick demonstrate that, while we may know the best examples of evidence-based practice, when it comes to application of that practice, there is more than a “one and done” approach needed.

Throughout the book, and whatever their stance on the research discussed or ideologies criticised, Kirschner and Hendrick write with a warmth that doesn’t detract from the academic rigour applied in their thinking. That said, the authors are not afraid to cut down persistent examples of received wisdom and popular ideologies (the assumed benefit of using ICT, discovery learning, etc) through their “Cautionary Tales” and “10 Deadly Sins of Education”.

Kirschner himself is referenced in some sections, which sceptics may claim is self-serving and driving a particular ideology. However – and this is important – said sceptics should not ignore the scope of the chosen papers, the referencing, and the reasoning behind their choice. Champions of those practices grouped under the “10 Deadly Sins” banner may point to the numbers of subscribers to their philosophies to advocate for persisting in their beliefs, but the depth of academic theory and research presented here seems to slay their sacred cows.

My key takeaway from this book is how important a teacher is. According to Kirschner and Hendrick, they are the lynchpin of learning – responsible for the right environment and incentives to learn as well as clarity of communication and rigorous activity design.

How Learning Happens is ambitious in reach, determined in argument and thorough in reasoning. The authors have produced a text that will aid teachers to appreciate and correctly use the science necessary to improve their practice. Schools looking to implement professional development on teaching and learning on an evidence-based footing would do well to use it as the foundation of any programme.

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