Book Review: How Learning Happens

Sep 5, 2020 by


Seminal Works in Educational Psychology and What They Mean in Practice

Paul A. Kirschner and Carl Hendrick. Illustrated by Oliver Caviglioli.

2020. Routledge. ISBN number: 978-0-429-06152-3 (ebk.)

Review conducted by John Senior

To get straight to the point, this is an excellent book, written by two leading experts Paul A. Kirschner the Emeritus Professor of Educational Psychology at the Open University of the Netherlands as well as Guest Professor at the Thomas More University of Applied Science in Belgium and Carl Hendrick who teaches at Wellington College,

The authors have worked extremely hard to make the book both informed, accurate and extremely easy to read. In this book we are introduced to some of seminal researchers and thinkers informing good teaching practice. The chapters are divided into six sections whereby 28 key works on learning and teaching covering the period 1960 to 2013 are presented with a great deal of thoughtfulness as to how the works have and can be used to inform and develop teaching practice. In addition to being practical, professionally researched, informative and stimulating the book has two additional merits. It is fun to read and very pickuppable. These last features tend to be absent in many worthy publications and therefore are most welcome

Each chapter follows the same structure; presenting an explanation of why the work was chosen and why it is considered so important or ground-breaking. The ‘Why you should read this article’ section really does work to contextualise and be transparent as to the benefits to the reader of reading the article discussed. It is a mark of confidence in the material chosen and an assurance as to why it is considered useful for the practitioner reader.

In presenting the abstract the necessary pre read is achieved so that the reader can move to appreciating the work’s implications for both education in the particular and the general – the conclusion and implications of the research or educational practice. In particular the ‘How to use the work in your teaching’ section is useful and thoughtfully constructed by writers who clearly know what they are talking about and additionally are clearly passionate about research feeding into the teaching offer. Each chapter offers tips and tricks for teachers (Takeaways) and the related relevant references used for the chapter are followed by “Suggested readings and links” with QR codes that lead you to other, often popular articles or websites.

The book offers, the authors write, a ‘roadmap’ of the most important discoveries in how learning happens and is an enjoyable read in itself.

Clearly divided into six sections, the book covers:

  • How the brain works and what this means for learning and teaching
  • Prerequisites for learning
  • How learning can be supported
  • Teacher activities
  • Learning in context
  • Cautionary tales and the ten deadly sins of education.

In the first section chapters on how our brains work is described and what that means for learning and teaching. This is followed by sections on the prerequisites for learning, how learning can be supported, teacher activities, and learning in context. The illustrations by Oliver Caviglioli help considerably in immediately communicating what each section and chapter is concerned with.


How does our brain work?

1. A novice is not a little expert

2. Take a load off me

3. How deep is your processing?

4. An evolutionary view of learning

5. One picture and one thousand words

Subsequent Chapters follow on to enrich the work as a whole with creative approaches to what is the heart of each Chapter.


Prerequisites for learning

6. What you know determines what you learn

7. Why independent learning is not a good way to become an independent learner

8. Beliefs about intelligence can affect intelligence

9. … thinking makes it so

10. How you think about achievement is more important than the achievement itself

11. Where are we going and how do we get there?


Which learning activities support learning

12. Why scaffolding is not as easy as it looks

13. The holy grail: whole class teaching and one-to-one tutoring

14. Problem-solving: how to find a needle in a haystack

15. Activities that give birth to learning


The teacher

16. Zooming out to zoom in

17. Why discovery learning is a bad way to discover things/why inquiry learning isn’t

18. Direct instruction

19. Assessment for, not of learning

20. Feed up, feedback, feed forward

21. Learning techniques that really work


Learning in context

22. Why context is everything

23. The culture of learning

24. Making things visible

25. It takes a community to save $100 million


Cautionary tales

26. Did you hear the one about the kinaesthetic learner?

27. When teaching kills learning

28. The medium is NOT the message

29 The ten deadly sins in education

The last word should go to the authors of this very welcome book.

‘Like most things, good teaching is ultimately an art that is informed by science – both anticipates the future and acknowledges the past. Any serious exploration of how learning happens will encompass those early frontiersmen like Albert Bandura and Herbert Simon as much as it will attend to the work of latter-day pioneers such as John Hattie and Dylan Wiliam.

The young singer-songwriter who has a strong knowledge of contemporary music but knows little of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen is ultimately compromised because they don’t really understand what has been achieved, who their heroes’ heroes were/are or the boundaries of the terrain they are trying to map. It is our hope that this book will provide a roadmap at least, of the most important discoveries in how learning happens and a set of provocations you can use to make sense of them in your own world.’

This book is essential reading for teachers wanting to improve and develop an in depth understanding of informed research influencing educational thinking. It is also book with a broader reach in that it would be usefully read and referred to by students in the fields of education, educational psychology and unusually I would suggest the general reader interested in being informed as to the what and why of modern educational practice.

John Senior

Great Britain

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