‘These are the Jonas Salks, the Louis Pasteurs, the Marie Curies of education’

How learning happens: Seminal works in educational psychology and what they mean in practice by Professor Paul A. Kirschner and Dr Carl Hendrick, published by Routledge, is out now. Annie Brookman-Byrne asked Paul about the book.

Within the book, there are 28 chapters, each describing a single article and its implications for education. Why did you choose that approach rather than explaining each area of research with reference to numerous papers? Given the replication crisis, do you think there’s any danger in that approach?
The reason is very simple. We thought that there were more than enough ‘how to’ books on the market, so we wanted to bring people – teachers, teachers in training, students in educational or cognitive psychology – to the giants of the field. It has a completely different purpose than typical self-help books, although there is a ‘how to’ component. So for example, it gives you tips as to how to use dual coding theory in the classroom. But primary was getting people to understand what the giants in the field said so that they can stand on the shoulders of those giants.

As for the second question, we’ve chosen things that have been replicated. So it’s not your typical modern day niche study. They’re more fundamental. They’ve been used and replicated so many times that we don’t have any qualms about it.

One criticism that’s often levelled at those linking psychology research to the classroom is that teachers know it all already from spending time in the classroom.
They often do it all already, but they don’t necessarily know it all. What we’re trying to do is explain why it might work, and in what type of situations it does or doesn’t work. Teachers might not know that questioning is not only an assessment strategy but also a retrieval strategy. We’re not teaching them tricks; we’re trying to explain the theory behind what they’re doing so that they can understand and use it better. Then when it works, they can be reflective practitioners and think about why it worked and how to make it better. And when it doesn’t work, from a theoretical perspective they think about why it hasn’t worked, and what they could do to make it work.

Many students are currently learning from home due to the coronavirus pandemic. Is there evidence around how learning happens outside the context of school, and can the principles in your book be applied to distance learning?
Oh yes, definitely. Things like what Ausubel says about prior knowledge being the most important thing for new learning. That means before you start your lessons, send two or three questions the evening before, to refresh their memory about what you’re going to be talking about. Prior knowledge has then been activated so that you can start with all of the children on the same page.

Rothkopf talked about mathemagenic behaviours – behaviours that give birth to learning. So you could send children a two minute podcast beforehand, so that they can put their frame of mind into: ‘How can I make use of what’s coming in the context of that two minute podcast?’ Rothkopf said that by giving the right types of activities, you can have people learn to study and read and think in a certain way.

And actually, these types of things are more important in a distance situation than in a face-to-face situation. If you don’t do this in the face-to-face situation, then you see that blank stare on their face, and you understand that you were maybe too abstract. Now, you can’t do that anymore, so you have to take the precautions beforehand. It’s more important to apply good learning theories in a distance situation as you don’t have all of the feedback mechanisms and opportunities to modify what you’re doing. If you don’t do it properly, you lose your students and they don’t learn.

You suggest that schools should consider a research lead. How would you envisage such a role working and do you know if many schools have these already?
There are more and more schools in England making use of research leads. In Dutch schools (I live in the Netherlands), it’s definitely not the case that they’re widespread. Yes, there should be a research lead, but I think we should train all teachers to be research leads. They should all understand the theory behind what they’re doing, and constantly think about it and work with it.

I think a book like ours has a role in CPD. When I talk to schools I say to them, what you could do is start with one chapter, and over two weeks, one or two people read the chapter very closely, try to read the original article, and then spend 10 to 15 minutes giving a presentation about it. Then spend 10 or 15 minutes discussing it with each other, and spend the final half hour thinking how and when to implement this in school. If you do that, then in one year’s time you’ve read all the chapters, discussed them, and thought about how you can use them. And then all of the teachers have done an incredible amount of CPD – they’ve all become research leads.

Do you think that, realistically, many teachers have time for that?
I think that the principals, school heads and department heads need to create the time and space to do this.

Finally, how do you see this field developing in the future?
I can think of two things. These are 28 giants upon whose shoulders you can stand. These are the Jonas Salks, the Louis Pasteurs, the Marie Curies of education. And just as we could never think of having a doctor become a doctor without learning cell theory, anatomy, pathology, it’s strange that we can still think of teachers teaching without having that basic knowledge in educational and cognitive psychology. So I hope that teacher educators say, it’s time to not only teach tricks, but teach the theory behind instructional techniques.

And in educational psychology, I hope that it will bring us further and further away from these ideas that children learn by themselves, or playing is the best way of learning, that discovery learning is great, or all I have to do is motivate children and they will learn – all these things that we describe in the 29th chapter as the 10 deadly sins. I hope that the field is given an impetus to do better, more theoretically based empirical research, that will actually make a difference. 

How learning happens: Seminal works in educational psychology and what they mean in practice by Professor Paul A. Kirschner and Dr Carl Hendrick, published by Routledge, is out now. 

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