Understanding How We Learn – Yana Weinstein, Megan Sumeracki and Oliver Caviglioli – A Review

What goes on in the mind when learning?

This is one of the perennial educational questions that has bamboozled philosophers and psychologists for generations.

Although I don’t think that cognitive science is even partly able to answer it, I think it is a field of research that educators ought to have some knowledge of, since it is beginning to confirm some of the wisdom of educational thinkers of old.

That’s why I read this book, written by two researchers dedicated to sharing their findings with teachers around the world through their excellent Learning Scientists blog. What makes this book even better, though, is the way in which it presents the information, which is all down to Oliver Caviglioli and his thoughtful visuals.

The first section of this book outlines the nature of evidence based education and how it’s not all that simple to translate it in practice: it is often dependent on what we think ‘good’ evidence, what our biases might be and what our values are as educators. I like that they started here. It draws out the fact that we need to engage in evidence carefully as teachers and leaders before we make decisions. We most certainly shouldn’t be trying to find evidence that simply backs up what we already think, neither should we see all research as equally valuable – some is less applicable to our situations, contexts and classrooms and we need to grapple with this. Otherwise we use research poorly, pupils suffer and bad decisions should be made.

I think this section is particularly pertinent to some of the educational discourse going on right now in this country. We need to make sure as a profession we engage critically with the research, blogs and media out there that we consume. It must be a lens into the classroom not the lens. The empirical research gathered by scientists does not fully explain the classroom, we need to look at the variety of available evidence and be thoughtful about them.

The next section, for me, was the most helpful. Three core concepts of the larger phenomena ‘learning’ are analysed in detail, with insights from a breadth of cognitive scientists. What I particularly like about the way Weinstein and Sumeracki write is their humble tone. They are clearly committed to finding truth in education and making sense of how pupils can learn best. They are not out with an agenda to push a scheme, curriculum or philosophy (apart from their own beliefs and values which they state). This makes the book clear to teachers who don’t now much about the field and just want to understand some of the research out there on this topic.

I really liked the chapter on attention. This confirms some of the reading that I’ve done by John Milton Gregory in his seven laws of teaching. What’s clear is that what he wrote over one hundred years ago about attention is being supported in another field of study. Gregory wrote that:

“The learner must attend with interest to the fact or truth to be learned.” (The Seven Laws of Teaching, Canon Press, 37)

Weinstein and Sumeracki confirm much the same thing when they write that

“Attention is notoriously hard to define, but is essential for learning to occur. Our attentional resources are limited and must bed irected towards the mosmt important information.” (p.50)

They go on to discuss the nature of memory and how these three core concepts make up an understanding of learning.

The final two sections of the book are committed to strategies and tips that can be used by teachers, parents and students. These are widely available online as infographics and short blog posts and even on their learning scientists blog.

Regardless, I think it’s worth reading this book to have a fuller understanding of the research.

You can buy it here.

More reviews like this

How Learning Happens – Kirschner, Hendrick and Caviglioli

Rosenshine’s Principles in Action – Sherrington and Caviglioli

Responsive Teaching – Fletcher-Wood


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