How Learning Happens – Kirschner & Hendrick – A Review

Sometimes you read books that change things. This book about seminal works is seminal in itself.

It might be assumed it is just no more than a summary of important psychological research for teachers organised nicely and illustrated in a sophisticated way. It would be good and worth your money if it was just that. However, it is far more. It is a springboard or launching off point for further study, deeper thought and greater reflections amongst time-poor teachers and leaders scrabbling for the time to understand what psychology has to say about their craft. Without doubt, this is a must read.

What’s in the book?

28 research papers are organised into six sections, covering a breadth of educational psychology insights for the classroom. From how the brain works, to contexts for learning, it also goes beyond this to consider ‘myths’ in education that lack an evidence base. Each work within each section has a helpful commentary, teacher implications and conclusions based on a reading of the research from the author’s perspectives.


The way that this book is set up is excellent. It can be read by the busy teacher-reader who just wants a commentary, summary and implications for teachers that they can draw upon when informing their decision making, or it can be taken much deeper. Each new piece of research includes a ‘suggested reading and links’ section, not to mention a reference list linked to the paper for more further reading. For someone like me, who does not have a Psychology degree or extensive experience with the literature but is interested in what impact it has on classroom practice, this is ideal; it means that I don’t have to go and search the bottomless pit of research journals; I can just search for those papers included in this book.

If teachers read through the whole thing from cover to cover, which I think they should, they’ll gain a breadth of understanding of the spectrum of research in educational psychology. For example, I was familiar with dual coding and the simple model of memory but I was unfamiliar with the work of Zimmerman on the learning environment and Brown et al.’s work on learning culture. This has meant that my understanding of ‘learning’ as a concept has stepped beyond the descriptions from cognitive science to embrace a wider, more inclusive understanding.

I also loved the section about lesson activities, or ‘mathamagenic activities’, as it is described. I’ve always had this hunch that there are some activities that are far better to use in lessons than others and wondered whether there is some research out there about it. Low and behold, it’s here. In this book. I’ll be looking at Rothkopf’s work in the coming weeks for sure…

What did I learn?

The main thing that this book helped me to do was to piece together the research insights into a more cohesive psychological understanding of the classroom. So far in my career, I’ve heard about Rosenshine, The Learning Scientists, Willingham and Dual Coding but I’ve always wondered how these things fit together into some sort of cohesive scheme. All these bits of research have been like building blocks that I’ve not known how to put together. I’ve needed the big picture, a map of how it might all end up in a nice tower of ideas, or a pyramid of learning.

This book helps anyone like me who has some of the psychological building blocks to piece them together more cohesively. But it doesn’t go all the way and this is my one word of warning….

I use the metaphor of building blocks that can be placed into a tower or a pyramid, rather than jigsaw pieces that have a set structure for a reason. This is not a ‘how to teach’ manual. It is a springboard into research. It would be wrong for a leader of teaching and learning to wield this 400 page volume as a weapon to beat ‘research uniformed’ teachers with who are ‘not using mathemagenic activities in lesson time’. As the authors make clear, this book provides great insights from research but they are merely suggesting how it might be applied in practice. They do not assume that ‘anyone who doesn’t do what this research says is doing is wrong’.

More than this, psychology can’t explain the classroom entirely. We have to draw on other research areas for insight, as the authors suggest. (This is where ‘communities of practice’ comes in).

Kirschner and Hendrick, in this excellent work, are shining a light on the research that’s out there and pointing teachers to it. It’s our job to put it into practice, wrestle with it, ponder it deeply and make it happen in the classroom.

That’s where teachers have to read carefully, think hard and apply it to the classroom. It’s a messy endeavour at first. I know this from experience. But the fruits of the labour are tenfold what I might have been attempting previously.

If educational psychology has something to say to schools, leaders and teachers, and I believe it does, this is certainly a great place to start.

Go find it here.


More like this:

Why I am a reader

Rosenshine’s Principles in Action

Making Every Lesson Count

Great books I read this year

Why do pupils forget what we teach them?


4 thoughts on “How Learning Happens – Kirschner & Hendrick – A Review”

  1. Sounds a book worth reading. Even more worth reading will be the testimony in a year or two of practising teachers describing in detail how they have used the insights from this science to change and improve their teaching. I may be wrong but I doubt we shall see such testimony. In 1920 teachers were excited by the ‘new’ psychology (Thorndike etc.) and again in 1950 (Skinner etc.), but they were to be disappointed. So it goes.


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