Review by Robbie Burns

Assistant vice principal, Bede Academy (Emmanuel Schools Foundation)

11 Sep 2022, 5:00

Book

The Review: How Teaching Happens by Paul Kirschner and others

By Paul A. Kirschner, Carl Hendrick and Jim Heal (illustrated by Oliver Caviglioli)

Publisher

Routledge

ISBN 10

1032132086

Published

23 Jun 2022

Whether we realise it or not, our teaching and our work in the classroom stems from our ideas. This being the case, we need to be far more self-conscious of our bias, our mental models and our beliefs about our personal pedagogies.

So if any reading can truly help us to develop as critical practitioners, it ought to be a text that gathers together the seminal ideas that have shaped our profession. Through it, we might hope to develop clear ideas of their original forms rather than depending on representations handed down to us and distorted in the process.

In How Teaching Happens, Kirschner, Hendrick and Heal have provided us with a touchstone book for this exact purpose – a chance to learn about the ideas that have shaped educational policy and practice in the cold light of day, rather than as footnotes in a policy agenda, initiative or development plan.

It’s a complex undertaking full of complex ideas and rich in references and resources. But don’t let that put you off. The structure and Oliver Caviglioli’s influence on illustrations and design mean the book achieves much-needed balance with lucid explanations and simplicity of layout.

As a result, ideas I’d seen time and again and thought I knew were revealed in a completely new light. I realised more than once that I had never really understood them the way they were meant to be understood.

Take, for example, the chapter on learning objectives and the work of Mager. Debates still rage about their need and use in lessons. Should they be posted on the first slide of every PowerPoint? Should they be written down by students? Kirschner and Hendrick cut through this debate with pithy wit and without rhetoric to highlight the most important issue at stake: If you don’t know where you’re going you might end of someplace else. The question is not whether or not to have objectives in lessons, but how explicitly the teacher will outline it and how focused they will be on ensuring all their students achieve that goal. All other considerations are simply red herrings. Examples of this sort of dissection abound throughout the book.

Of course, there is always a danger with a book about ideas that the authors will embellish it with their own. And I confess, I wanted know more about how the authors chose the ideas to look at and ensured their own biases towards particular schools of thought didn’t affect their output.. But on the whole it’s clear they are not partisan commentators. Far from it. The tone throughout is one of plain speaking about the conclusions they believe the research points to.

More than this, How Teaching Happens is filled with humour. Kirschner’s example of teaching his granddaughter about traffic lights through explicit instruction and the integration of The Liston Effect to introduce the book are both funny and fascinating additions, taking the book beyond being about school-based education and into the realm of universal lessons for living.

If I have one criticism, it is the absence of a section engaging with the philosophical aspects of education – the purpose or telos of teaching. We have a tendency today to skip over questions like these and straight to thinking about effectiveness and student learning gains, and it’s a great shame. There were scholars I would have liked to have seen included, particularly on teacher development, not least Mary Kennedy and Pam Grossman. Philosophical or ethical considerations on the nature of teaching, including scholars such as Gert Biesta, David Carr, Paul Hirst and Richard Peters, might also have made a valuable additions to such a section.

All the same, summarising all of the important ideas that have influenced our profession is a tall order indeed, and the book represents a valiant effort at it. It’s a must-read for everyone in the profession. (Even if they’ll have to look elsewhere for greater depth.)

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One comment

  1. Thanks for this great review. If I may just react to your criticism on the absence of a section engaging with the philosophical aspects of education. You are correct. But the reason is seminal: The book is about seminal research articles of chapters/books based on research and not on the philosophy of and in education. We’ll leave that to others.