The ABCs of How We Learn – An inspiring book for educators

The last 26 days I made a journey through a new alphabet of learning. Daniel Schwarz, Jessica Tsang and Kristen Blair’s book for teachers and learners was my guide from “A” for Analogy to “Z” as Zzzzzz … for consolidating the memories of the day. Here a short report of my journey.

The ABCs of How we Learn. 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and Why to Use Them”, is the title of a new book published by W.W. Norton & Company in 2016. The cover of the book shows the letters “ABC” and animals playing and dancing. It reminds me of a book for kids to learn the alphabet; a book that is understandable and very pedagogical. As I flicked through the book I found at the end of each chapter references to important research papers on the topic and a one page summary. This structure und references convinced me to start reading; and I read the book within 26 days; each day a letter.

The unforgettable journey begun with “A for Analogy. – Finding the general principle”, followed by “B for Belonging – Silencing anxiety and buying” in and “C for Contrasting Cases – Discerning critical information.” Each chapter covers a brief “definition”, sections of “how it (e.g. analogy) works”, “how to use it to enhance learning”, “the outcomes of A”, a section whether people learn to teach “A” themselves or not, the risks of “A”, examples of good and bad use, references and a very helpful summary. The references within the text from one topic to another inks ideas and concept to a nice network.

Some concepts and ideas were well known, others were new for me. Very helpful is the reasoning, why a concept works. The presentation of all these mostly very interesting and enlightening empirical studies makes the book a valued source for teachers.

N for Norms

One chapter looks into N for norms. “Cultivating the rules of the game.” Norms as informal rules of social interaction enables productive learning interactions. Norms for example “help students learn what it means to do mathematics and think mathematically.” It is a teacher’s job that students feel free to try different ideas, not fearing that they might be wrong in math. Teachers can foster this norm by celebrating mistakes, highlighting “favorite mistakes”, discussing mistakes, showing the opportunity for learning and brain growth by making mistakes (see Boaler, 2016). To implement norms, teachers should make the norms explicit and enforce them, at least in the early stages.

Productive norms increase not only “the effective exchange of information and ideas”. Norms yield also psychological outcomes such as strengthen a sense of belonging (see also B) or the identity development. However, not all norms are productive for learning. Of the basis of conflicting norms between the dominant culture of the society and the norms of minority groups Schwarz et al. (2016) shows how teachers can deal with risks of norms.

Zzzz for “getting your sleep”

After 25 letters and many concepts of “how we learn” the book closes with the chapter “Z” for Zzzzz…, Consolidating the memories of the day.” This last chapter encourages the reader and the learner to sleep a regular night’s sleep and to power nap for fifteen minutes e.g. in the afternoon. Sleep during the period of slow-wave-sleep (SWS) reducing forgetting and helps pattern finding that were previously hidden.

The ABC’s of how to learn” is for me an inspiring source of ideas to develop my lessons and a guide to use the discussed concepts in a productive way. I can recommend this tool box to all teachers, students and lectures at the universities of teacher education.

Prof. Dr. Jürg H. Arpagaus, Prorektor, PH Luzern


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