Through my own experience as a college instructor, I’ve learned that even on the best days, teaching can be quite challenging. One way to make teaching easier though, is to learn more about how students learn. In “How Humans Learn,” Joshua Eyler tries to do exactly that by providing insight into the science of learning. He takes a deep dive into the latest research offered by a range of fields, including anthropology, developmental psychology, evolutionary biology, and cognitive neuroscience.
The central question Eyler asks to guide his investigation is: “What is it about the fundamental way human beings learn that makes some teaching strategies successful and others fall short?” The result is a book that identifies five broad themes that are common across the human experience—and across scientific inquiry. These are: curiosity, sociality, emotion, authenticity, and failure. Eyler dedicates a chapter to each theme and offers practical takeaways for teachers.
My favorite chapter was the one about failure. It advocates for the de-stigmatization of failure, and describes it as a spectrum. Small errors, like simple miscalculations, are on one end and significant conceptual misunderstandings are on the other. Eyler goes on to explain that humans are prone to errors and, for this reason, teachers should work through them, rather than around them. In this process, students’ existing knowledge and implicit assumptions may very well be challenged; but, Eyler notes that it's precisely at this point that learning can truly begin.
Eyler’s book is chock-full of other interesting takeaways that are in many ways useful to people even outside of the teaching profession.
For example, did you know that “every fact we know, every idea we understand, and every action that we take has the form of a network of neurons in our brain?” And, these networks are not easily changed. That’s because each network is made up of several million of neurons. Networks are created through signals passed from one neuron to another through a process called “synapse.” Synaptic responses vary in terms of intensity; so, the stronger the response, the more deeply ingrained the knowledge becomes. And, once a neuronal network is established, it cannot simply be stamped out, even if it is characterized by inaccurate information. Our existing beliefs and understandings, then, whether accurate or inaccurate, are a neurological fact and educators cannot simply erase them. They can, however, find ways to build on existing networks, starting with what the student already believes, understands, and knows. In this way, teachers can weaken the synaptic connections that are characterized by flawed information by repeatedly exposing students to situations that interrupt the reinforcement of their existing network.
All in all, Eyler’s book is a challenging response to a system that often prioritizes success over development. Through a scientifically informed perspective, it teaches us that even in college, students are really driven by emotion, anxiety, and curiosity. And, for these reasons, it is important for educators themselves be curious about learning, and to find ways to show their students they care about them personally.
Reviewer Kirsten Tekavec is a graduate assistant at WPSU. She’s also a doctoral student studying teaching and learning in higher education at Penn State.