Understanding How Learning Happens


​I’ve long followed Paul Kirschner’s work. He’s an educational psychologist at the Open University of the Netherlands and recognized expert in instructional design.

Kirschner has authored a number of provocative studies, including a study about Facebook users and their learning habits. “Results show that Facebook®users reported having lower GPAs and spent fewer hours per week studying than nonusers,” the research concluded. ​

Carl Hendrick

Together with Carl Hendrick, another education researcher, they wrote How Learning Happens: Seminal Works in Educational Psychology and What They Mean in Practice. A book about how to learn efficiently, enjoyable and effectively, it was well liked by the learning community.

I recently had a chance to email some questions to Paul and Carl. Their answers are below.

What’s new about this book? Why did you write it?

Paul: What’s new, is that possibly for the first time there’s an anthology of many, if not most, of the major articles and book chapters that shaped the educational and learning sciences. But this isn’t the only thing.

The book is a hybrid between the original articles and chapters and what was actually done by the researchers. It’s written in a way that first-year education and psychology students, teachers-in-training, and in-service teachers can read and understand. It also explains what the research means and how it can be used in teaching.

Finally, it’s loaded with references to original research as well as links – via QR codes – to suggested extra readings, blogs, videos, podcasts and so forth. What it isn’t is a ‘how to’ book organised around what to do in the classroom, but rather is organised around the following topics: How the brain works, and what this means for learning and teaching, Prerequisites for learning, How learning can be supported, Teacher activities, and Learning in context.

As to why we wrote it, the answer is simple. We have both experienced the fact that many teachers, teachers-in-training, and even psychology and education undergraduates miss the foundation that they need to understand and reflect upon not the ‘how’s’, but rather the ‘why’s’ of what good teaching is. We wanted to write a book that would provide this foundation.

Many teachers, teachers-in-training, and even psychology and education undergraduates miss the foundation that they need to understand and reflect upon not the ‘how’s’, but rather the ‘why’s’ of what good teaching is.

Why is tutoring the “holy grail” and what does that mean for education more broadly? After all, it would be hard to scale education if every child required tutoring.

Carl: This is the exact conundrum Benjamin Bloom posed in his seminal paper “The 2 sigma problem,”  Essentially, he noted that the average tutored student’s performance is above 98% of pupils in a conventional class – about two standard deviations, or 2 sigma. The holy grail is to be able to deliver the same kind of outcomes from one-to-one tutoring with a whole class of 30 students. Interestingly, when learning in a normal class is compared to tutoring, it is noted that approximately 20% of the students do equally as well as the tutored students. In other words, these students would not do any better than if they had been individually tutored. Obviously, the corollary of this is that 80% of students in a regular classroom do not do as well as students who have been tutored. In many ways, attempting to close this gap is the main quest of all education policy and something that has yet to be solved.

Bloom notes that there are things you can do something about and things you can’t, and that you should focus on the things you can and maximize their potential. He suggests a variety of things that are useful such as the use of clear instructional methods and advanced organizers, but the two very powerful levers are mastery learning in school implemented in tandem with a supportive environment at home, specifically increasing parental engagement and communication with teachers. The idea is that these two strategies work synergistically to affect an overall outcome that is greater than their individual parts. I think the significance of this paper is that it encourages educators to consider the ways in which different interventions interact and work together as opposed to thinking of them as isolated variables.

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The book brims with tips. But what’s one tip that either teachers–or learners–should put into practice but don’t?

Paul: I think I have two things that can answer your question.

First is: Don’t just do, but think about and understand what you’re doing. It’s more important to know and understand why and when and in what situations things may work or not work than just being taught what to do. You want teachers and researchers to be reflective practitioners; to think about (1) what and why they’re going to do something, (2) why what they’ve done worked out in a certain way, and (3) how they can or should do it the next time to be more effective and/or efficient.

Second is that learning is a result of processing that which you encounter. The goal of good learning and instruction is to optimise this information processing. This involves, among other things, (1) knowing how to prepare learners for learning (e.g., prior knowledge, feed-forward), (2) knowing how to facilitate that process (e.g., via dual coding, scaffolding, mathemagenic behaviours, cognitive load theory, employing study strategies such as spaced practice, retrieval practice, and/or variability of practice), (3) knowing how to follow-up the learning experience (e.g., feedback, feed-forward, assessment for learning), and (4) creating a proper context for learning (e.g., situated cognition, social learning, cognitive apprenticeship).

And a bonus third, related to the second is a quote from Ernst Rothkopf: “You can lead a horse to water, but the only water that reaches his stomach is what he drinks.” Create learning situations that get your students to drink!

Carl: I always go back to the question of what do I wish I had known in the first few years of my teaching career? What do I wish I could go back and tell myself? I wish I had been able to see through the various fads and gimmicks that our profession seems to be so in thrall with. This is covered in the final chapter of the book which addresses what we call the ‘ten deadly sins of education’ such as learning styles or the notion that knowledge is no longer important because of Google.

Although I am most interested in the emergence of learning science, I have a lot of time for Eisner’s idea that teaching is an art or a kind of craft. I think the best songwriters strip a song down to its essential parts or as Dylan referred to it, ‘three chords and the truth’. Once you get away from fancy sound effects or superficial production, you are left with a chord progression, a melody and lyrics and if they aren’t saying something truthful, then it’s unlikely to have any impact. Teaching is a lot like this – when you strip away all the gimmicks, you come down to two simple questions: What knowledge do I want them to know? And how can I create the conditions in which they will remember it?

Create learning situations that get your students to drink.

How has writing the book changed your own practice?

Paul: It hasn’t really changed mine as I always required my students and PhDs to go back to the roots to understand what they’re doing. If they started talking about prompts via computers, I sent them to Ernst Rothkopf and his work on mathemagenic behaviours and adjunct questions. If they began talking about multimedia, I had them read and discuss Allan Paivio and his dual coding theory. And so forth. Our book has only made that easier!

Carl: The original title for this book was Newton’s famous analogy for cumulative learning; ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ and the more evidence and research I read, the more I feel I need to know a lot more. Just when you climb one peak, you stand up and look around and see that there are many more mountains to climb stretching off into the horizon. This is the illusory nature of knowledge – the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. So in one sense, writing this book gave me a sense of humility, but it also provided a roadmap of sorts to help me begin to scale some of those far-off peaks.

-Ulrich Boser

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