Review of “How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching” by Joshua R. Eyler

How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching  | West Virginia University Press

In How Humans Learn, Joshua R. Eyler sets out to work through five ostensibly basic aspects of learning—curiosity, sociality, emotion, authenticity, and failure.  If you are determined to read the book, I recommend heading straight for the end of each of the five main sections and taking a modified backward approach.  Read the key takeaways on the last couple of pages, then flip back a little further to read the story of someone’s teaching, which is the best part of each section.  If you like, you can flip back even further to previous portions of each section that focus on the implementation of research.  You’ll find a mixed bag of some interesting thoughts about techniques and encouragements for good teaching.

I must confess here that my sequential reading of the book intentionally ended before the Emotion section (there are five main sections of which Emotion is the third).  Fortunately, I had accessed the audiobook for free on Hoopla so I didn’t have an obligation to the CfT to complete a purchased book or even to write a review. However, once I mentioned my strong response, CfT co-directors Mark Hopwood and Emily Puckette encouraged me to write the review anyway. 

The over-encompassing title of the book (How Humans Learn? In 300 pages?) foreshadows a central problem with its approach, and once I put my finger on the issue, my willingness to read further faltered.  The trouble concerned the entire frame of the discourse.  Eyler establishes early that he will take a “fundamental” approach, meaning that he will take the position that everyone learns the same way.  Specifically, he argues from the standpoint of evolutionary psychology that as we are all humans, consideration of any group differences in how we learn is not a central issue, but rather something to add on after getting the essentials down.

On hearing this plan, my estimation of the book fell sharply.  I will be honest and say that I’ve never thought much of evolutionary psychology since reading feminist critiques years ago.  Just this last year, my misgivings were further confirmed when I discovered that the philosopher Subrena Smith had systematically proven that the field itself has no factual foundation.  Very simply put, Smith argues that evolutionary psychology makes claims that specific behaviors are shaped by evolution, rather than by, say, culture or lifetime learning, but she concludes that there is no evidence to support these claims, and due to the constraints of historical inquiry, there never can be.  For me, Smith’s decisive work casts doubt on theories like Eyler’s.

The core problem with Eyler’s book, however, is not merely theoretical. It is pragmatic, and it is serious.   His perspective leads him to envision the college classroom as an environment in which one can observe the innate basics of learning in action, perhaps noting some cultural influences as an afterthought.  To me viewing the college classroom this way is like arguing that croissants are made with a lot of flour and a dab of butter.  Contrary to Eyler’s take, most modern researchers and thinkers view the college classroom as primarily a complex cultural/historical product, developed within some cultures and more suited to those cultures than others.  Solely focusing on presumed fundamentals and setting culture aside simply dooms the analysis of the classroom to oversimplification at best, and at worst, to essentialization of the dominant culture.

Despite what I considered to be the fatal flaw of universalism inherent in Eyler’s approach, I pressed on for a couple of chapters to see if the social science and the practical content managed to escape the gravity of his approach.  The outline of the book takes each aspect in turn, first by laying out foundational research, then by offering the relevance of those studies to the classroom, and finally, by sharing stories of great teaching that reflect the research.  I found that Eyler doesn’t satisfy with these efforts either.  In the Curiosity chapter, for example, we have quite a slog of distantly relevant research to wade through, including inter-species comparisons of brain mass and neoteny, before we finally get to a discussion of a few studies that relate specifically to curiosity in undergraduates.  If all this “basic” research were connected clearly and directly to the college classroom, it might be enlightening, but instead, most of it is used for blanket permission to make assumptions about the importance of curiosity to college learning.  When we finally arrive at specific connections to the classroom, the “basics” don’t seem to support or enlighten the more specific findings.  You first learn, for instance, that human offspring have longer periods of parenting compared to other mammals.  But this idea and others are only used to support an across-the-board premise that students need curiosity to learn.  I found no useful connections between the information about human evolution with the later revelation, for example, that professors who intimidate students inhibit their curiosity.

I can offer potential readers that the third piece of the book’s structure, the stories of teaching, are actually a success in their own right.  Although many of the master teacher stories are presented with more hero worship than I think is healthy for instructors seeking to improve, they do relate thought-provoking and novel approaches to perennial problems. 

Al Bardi, Department of Psychology

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