Book review: How Learning Happens by Paul Kirschner & Carl Hendrick

Posted on 15-03-2020

It’s clear that education needs to become more research-based. Too many fads and myths hold sway, and too little is known about large bodies of solid research evidence that have powerful practical implications.

Still, just expecting teachers to become more research informed is a big ask. Education research is a huge field, and teachers are not full-time academics. Into this gap steps ‘How Learning Happens’ by Paul Kirschner and Carl Hendrick. They’ve selected 28 key education research papers. For each one they’ve reproduced the abstract, explained why it’s important, and drawn out the educational implications. It’s a superb collection of research and will be an incredibly valuable resource for anyone doing initial teacher training or further educational study.

Here are two of the papers in particular that I found thought-provoking. Chapter 13 reviews a famous 1984 paper by Benjamin Bloom (he of taxonomy fame) about the power of one-to-one tuition. Bloom showed that one-to-one tuition led to big gains in student achievement, and as a result this paper is often cited by those in education technology as a sign of what can happen when you personalise learning (eg see Mark Zuckerberg citing it approvingly here). However, the more interesting question is why: what is it that teachers do in one-to-one tuition that is so much more effective than in whole-class tuition – and is there any way to reproduce some of the benefits of one-to-one with larger classes? When you dig into this research, you realise its implications are very different from those commonly suggested by tech companies.

Chapter 21 looks at a very practical 2013 paper by Dunlosky et al on the best ways to study and revise. They find that rereading and highlighting text are two very popular revision tactics, but that they are quite ineffective. By contrast, practice testing and distributed practice are less popular, but are much more effective. Kirschner and Hendrick draw out the implications of this research for teachers.

“It’s not enough to teach your students the techniques and then tell them to use them. You need to use them yourself. You need to give them assignments in such a way that they are spacing their practice. You need to plan your exams in such a way that there’s enough time for the kids to space their practice. And here’s a sticky point: you need to co-ordinate this with your fellow teachers (at least if you are a secondary school teacher) since students can’t spread their learning moments if there are a series of exams in different subjects planned close to each other.”

As ever with a lot of this research, there are immediate ways you can apply it in your own classroom – but you will also rapidly see that to get the full benefits, you need structural change. These two chapters are representative of the others in the book in that they get you to think hard about what learning is and how it can be improved.

Oh, and one other great thing about it: it mentions research by people other than Piaget and Vygotsky!