Book review: How Learning Happens

Paul Kirschner and Carl Hendrick's book highlights key education research - but offers no quick-fixes for teachers

Megan Dixon

Book review: How Learning Happens

How Learning Happens: Seminal works in educational psychology and what they mean in practice
 

Author: Paul A Kirschner and Carl Hendrick
Publisher: Routledge
Details: 328pp, £19.99
ISBN: 978-0367184575

The importance of replication in psychology is something that might not have been talked about enough in education circles.

In contrast with much research in education, psychological research aims to identify effects that hold true in every context.

Over the past 10 years, groups of psychologists have attempted to replicate seminal studies, assuming that if the effects hold true, the replications will lead to the same outcomes.

Interestingly, this has not consistently been the case, and many original studies have not proved to be replicable.

This does not mean the original studies were in some way flawed, but it might suggest that the participants were not representative of the general population – somehow bias has crept in. What this means is that single studies are fascinating but cannot be considered universal truths.

One of the ways we can overcome the limitations that might be presented by a single study is to combine multiple studies into a systematic review or meta-analysis (which is principally what the Education Endowment Foundation does).

Alternatively, we can conduct replications of the studies, in many different sites and contexts – something that the Many Lab, ManyBabies and ManyClasses collaborations of researchers across the world seek to do. Finally, we can develop interventions attempting to develop the effect by intervening in some way.

The aim of all these approaches is to try, in every way possible, to eliminate the biases that we, as absolutely normal error-prone, completely unreliable human beings, are prone to.

Why, you might ask, does this have any relevance to a review of a book by Carl Hendricks and Paul Kirshner entitled How Learning Happens?

Key research for teachers

The book is an overview of 28 papers and pieces of research they consider to be of seminal importance for teachers.

Illustrations are presented by Oliver Caviglioli, in his distinct style, and there are lots of references and further links for teachers to explore, plus a wealth of supporting information accompanying each interpretation.

It is a book crammed full of single studies that the authors like and think are important. I would consider myself to be a geeky research hound and agree – I think they are interesting, too.

What’s not to like about Carol Dweck’s growth mindset theory – it’s fascinating. The same with Albert Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy or the principles behind dual-coding and cognitive load theory.

It is wonderful to see the inclusion of Étienne Wenger and Jean Lave’s sociological and anthropological theories of communities of practice highlighted as a strategy for supporting teacher engagement with research.

These are all areas of study and findings that have been widely discussed for many years.

Complex topics

But, from the perspective of a class teacher, or a headteacher who is looking to support staff to raise the outcomes of learners, geeky reading is not always possible or welcome.

What is wanted is for serious conceptual explanations to be translated into tangible practical ideas, with suggestions for helping teachers to adapt to new habits in the classroom. Above all, this has to come with a pretty large dose of certainty that the change will make learning better than before, and this is where the challenge lies.

Let’s take John Sweller’s cognitive load theory. There has been a huge amount written about it and its application to the classroom. Much of this work has been done with small samples (not very many participants) of undergraduate students (not children in classrooms), looking at tightly defined issues in maths and science (not RE, history, geography or even reading and writing).

The findings, in this context, are clear – carefully defined approaches considering the application of the principles of cognitive load theory appear to benefit learning.

Reality versus theory

However, this does not tell us a huge amount about how this might look in Year 3, on a wet Wednesday afternoon when Mrs Blogs is trying to teach the Tudors.

It certainly doesn’t tell us if applying this theory to her teaching will mean that Harry, Alisha, Mia and Josh will learn the knowledge they need to recall about the Tudors more effectively.

Do we know that these principles apply to every learning context or situation? We don’t.

The translation of theoretically framed studies into standardised classroom practice is fraught with challenges. Many attempts to translate Dweck’s findings into practice have not been successful.

This is not to say that Dweck is somehow wrong, but more that it is more complex, nuanced and contextual. Assessment for learning, or formative assessment, has been widely practised and implemented in schools across the UK but it has not always lived up to its initial promise when scaled up wider.

School students do not live in a vacuum – they are constantly buffeted by the tides of the cultural and social contexts in which they are learning, not to mention emotions and hormones.

In-depth reading

Teachers do not live in a vacuum; we learn, read and understand from our cultural, social, educational and philosophical experiences. Learning is complex and challenging.

In these increasingly evidence-informed days, we are encouraged to be familiar with the research literature and reflect on the finding from within our own frames of reference. This book provides an interesting glimpse into some of the studies that have been influential in the thinking of the authors.

For the research geek, it is a thought-provoking read. It will be adored by many and I hope it introduces some to the complexity of psychology and the study of cognition.

Or if you loved other books by Carl Hendricks and Paul Kirschner, you will definitely enjoy this publication from two of the Research Ed glitterati.

But it is not a fast track to instant impact in the classroom – simply imbibing these studies will not make you a more effective practitioner. It is simply more complex than that.

Megan Dixon is headteacher (acting) at Sandbach Primary Academy, and director of English and co-director at Aspirer Research School. She tweets @DamsonEd

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