Book Review-The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use Them

I’m always trying to find ways to better teach and train. I, just like you, have seen plenty of bad training courses, where you want to stab pencils in your ears and gouge out your eyes just to stop the pain of listening and seeing the training session. While not every teaching engenders this response, far too many of them do. My goal is that no one will ever feel that way in my teaching. I desire to create an experience that’s aligned with how adults learn and is based on everything we know about learning through research.

Getting back to the fundamentals is important. When I saw The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use Them it felt like I could get back to the fundamentals and review what I knew about learning.

Levels of Learning

If you’ve read this blog for a while you may have seen my review of Efficiency in Learning, which I felt was a powerful book about the process of learning design. It was primarily focused on the detailed level of what strategies to use to minimize cognitive load. In this way, it was focused on the instruction component of the learning process. I believe that these tools are as essential as learning your multiplication tables. It teaches the fundamentals you need to know no matter what strategies you use.

The ABCs of How We Learn looks at the problem from a much higher level. Instead of the fundamental skills of managing cognitive load, The ABCs of How We Learn is more focused on which tool to pull out of the toolbox when teaching. When the question is whether you use an analogy or a worked example, The ABCs of How We Learn has the answer. When you’re looking for what are the barriers outside the training which may prevent learning, The ABCs of How We Learn has the answers.

This is a still different dimension of looking at learning from Bloom’s Taxonomy. Instead of looking at the kind of thinking that is desired after the training, the view is from the perspective of how to ensure that the training stays with the student long after the training is over. It’s a dirty little secret in the training industry that, without reinforcement, 80% of the training a student receives will be gone within two weeks. Not even in baseball would a 20% success rate be acceptable – but in most training situations it is.

Discover the Truth

We’re All Adults Here, Right?

Most of my training work is with adults. While I support programs that educate children and teens, this isn’t the primary focus of my work. One of the questions that I ask when looking at materials is whether the target is for teaching adults or teaching children. Adults learn differently (see The Adult Learner). There are programs that work well for teaching children – but their child focus makes them not effective at teaching adults. (See “G” is for Growing: Thirty Years of Research on Children and Sesame Street.)

I was pleasantly surprised to see that most of the approaches and techniques described apply whether we’re talking about adult or child learners. Certainly, things like reward take on different context when working with adults compared to children. (Though food seems to be a universal motivator: children are more interested in candy, and adults are more interested in donuts.)

Admittedly, most of the research cited was with children; however, this is to be expected, since most of the educational research being done in the world is done for children rather than adults.

Spelling Learning

The order of the approaches was established by the alphabetic reference. They’re delivered in a strictly alphabetical sequence; however, what struck me is that some of the approaches precede teaching, and some of them are necessary after training. For instance, analogy is a tool used during the teaching. Belonging is used prior to training. Contrasting cases is another teaching approach and deliberate practice is a post-instruction item. Elaboration is something that is done as a part of education process. Feedback is what’s done to help the practice work effectively.

To see how the 26 approaches might look separated into categories of pre-, during, and post-learning, I’ve arranged the approaches in the following table. Note that the “pre” items are mostly setting the conditions for learning either in the environment directly or in the student’s perspective on learning. (See Mindset for more about how a perspective can impact outcomes.)

Pre During Post
  • B – Belonging
  • N – Norms
  • O – Observation
  • X – eXcitement
  • Y – Yes I Can
  • A – Analogy
  • C – Contrasting Cases
  • E – Elaboration
  • H – Hands On
  • J – Just-in-Time Telling
  • L – Listening and Sharing
  • Q – Question Driven
  • S – Self-Explanation
  • T – Teaching
  • V – Visualization
  • W – Worked Examples
  • D – Deliberate Practice
  • F – Feedback
  • G – Generation
  • I – Imaginative Play
  • K – Knowledge
  • M – Making
  • P – Participation
  • R – Reward
  • U – Undoing
  • Z – Zzzzz… (Sleep)

Obviously, ordering the items in this way destroys the neat ordering of the alphabet. However, it allows you to think about learning in a way that’s more connected to the way that students learn. The above table could be further refined by ordering the approaches within these three buckets. For instance, contrasting cases are particularly effective when paired with worked examples.

The Alphabet Song

Despite the relatively short length of this review, The ABCs of How We Learn is a great book to help improve your teaching. Each of the approaches is covered in a bite-sized chunk that you can easily read in a few minutes. That means in less than a month you can get through it. If you’re an educator – formally or informally – it’s worth learning The ABCs of How We Learn.

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