January 21, 2022

Joshua Eyler — Author of “How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching”

Dana Bernardino

How Humans Learn
1Huddle Podcast Episode #72

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Joshua Eyler, Director of Faculty Development and Director of the Thinkforward Quality Enhancement Plan at the University of Mississippi, as well as author of How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching.

On this episode of Bring It In season three, Joshua sat down with Sam and discussed the fundamental attributes of learning, the power of play and making learning fun, and empathizing with your employees.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 


Below are some of the insights Eyler shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “Anyone can be a great teacher and any student can learn effectively.”
  • “In order to learn anything, people have to be active participants in the building of that knowledge.”
  • “Learning is a constant and ongoing process.”


Sam: So I guess Josh, to kick us off, do you mind sharing how you got to where you sit today as the director of faculty development at the University of Mississippi?

Joshua: Sure, sure. It’s been kind of a winding path. I started out in college and then graduate school, studying literature and my first position as a faculty member at an institution in Georgia, but when I was there working with those students, it was just clear that the power that good teaching had to really help students transform their lives and really pursued lives that they found meaningful and purposeful. 

So, I became interested in moving beyond my own classroom and trying to scale that experience for as many students, as many faculty as possible develop strategies that are more aligned with the evidence on effective teaching practices and to kind of weave together a series of programs and services that can help faculty be better teachers and thus students be better learners.

Sam: I have your book How Humans Learn here. 

Joshua: Great! Thank you!

Sam: Why’d you write it? 

Joshua: I became a dad right around the time that I started to write the book and watching my daughter explore the world as the baby, where everything was just so urgent, learning was very present for her every moment of her life. That sparked a lot of ideas about, where does that go? What happens to that? If this is the way we are as babies, what happens as we grow older, that changes the game of learning? And that was a question that kind of, I think, drove part of the work on this book. 

Sam: So without giving the whole book away, what were the biggest takeaways you are trying to deliver to readers around what we’re doing right and what we can be doing better?

Joshua: Right. Well, you know, one thing that really is in the background with that is that I’m not a scientist and that was clear every moment of my work on this book. But what I really deeply wanted was for scientists to read it and to find what I was saying credible. They didn’t have to buy it, they could argue with it, but they needed to find it credible. And so that meant I had to teach myself a lot about these disciplines and I had to rely on friends and colleagues who are in those disciplines to teach me. So that’s kinda the first thing because all of this is rooted in the science and biology of how people learn. 

And, as I was following that research and sort of teaching and learning myself along the way, there were five areas that kept coming up to the surface of all this research, five fundamental attributes of learning, and they were curiosity, sociality, which is really just our social nature as human beings are deeply social species. We need other people, and at no point has that ever been more apparent than over the last 12 months when we have been distanced from other people and observing its effect on learning and work. So those were two, emotion was another one, and then, authenticity and failure.

And those, that last one in particular, I think we know intuitively about the learning process that we, in order to learn something effectively, try something out, we get it wrong, we get feedback on what went wrong, and then we try it again. And although we know it intuitively though, our school systems, our educational systems are set up in exactly the opposite direction so that we don’t prioritize making mistakes in order to learn from them, we actually penalize the making of mistakes. That is kind of the bedrock on which schools are built. 

And so, what I wanted to do was to try and find our way back to a process, and a method of teaching that honored our ability to make mistakes and to fail in safe environments that would then allow us to take the intellectual risks that we really learned from. And so that was kind of the endnote of the book. And I like to think that it was a hopeful look that there is a possibility to build on all of these areas, and if we just keep these kinds of premises in mind, anyone can be a great teacher and any student can learn effectively.

Sam: The failure section was my favorite. 

Joshua: Oh, good. It was certainly interesting to write about because it’s just not the way we’re taught. But there I was, finding all this scientific research and then teaching literature as well about just how important it is. 

Sam: You also bring up the sort of roots of lecturing, which I found interesting because especially in the workforce, so much of job training is done stand and deliver, and there is a test, but it’s done once and then usually not over again. So I thought that was really interesting because I feel like being afraid of failure as an instructor or a teacher or a coach is a poor trait, you need to embrace it. I think that was one of my big takeaways. You talked about our brains being designed to construct knowledge from errors. 

Joshua: Yes, definitely. Yeah. And you know, I really liked your point there about having that attribute as a teacher or a coach or trainer as well, because most of what we know about effective teaching happens only when the person at the front of the room begins to let go of some of that control and give it over to the students or the trainees, or the players.

And when the teacher does that, there are lots of ways that it can go wrong and mistakes can be made, but the more comfortable you get with that kind of context, the more people are going to learn. You have to give them, in order to learn anything, people have to be active participants in the building of that knowledge. And so, the teacher or the trainer or the coach has to let go of some of that fear of failure to help them help the students.

Sam: I want to have your opinion on this because I feel that even with the word learning, I’d love to get your opinion on what the true meaning of that word is because even in a capacity where you might be teaching a new lesson or company might be ‘training a new hire to perform a task,’ there’s this perspective that learning has to happen in a certain order in a certain way, and even on failure, a lot of companies that might do on the job training where they encourage failure and will say things like, ‘well, you got to learn it before you do it.’ But doesn’t learning happen, isn’t it constant? I don’t know. I want to get your opinion on this because the way the word learning gets thrown around could be confusing.

Joshua: Yeah. I know I’m with you on that. Learning is a constant and ongoing process and it’s also a messy process. It doesn’t look the same for every person. There isn’t a recipe that you can follow and that the end outcomes learning from the oven, you know what I mean? It’s very different in what it looks like for people. And you’ll see that unfold over time, and it’s kind of two steps forward, one step back, and you keep making that progress.

But in no way does it kind of test at the end of a unit or a module, a) talk about the potential of someone as a learner or b) capture what they really have the potential to learn about that subject. And the other point that I thought you made there that was really important is, well, it is true that you can memorize and learn some material and then be asked to apply it to a situation. The more authentic kind of learning happens in those environments where students are doing as they’re learning. And the reason for that is that our brains are really good at figuring out what is an authentic learning environment and what is inauthentic. And authentic in this case simply means, am I doing the thing that I’m learning about? Am I applying the material that I’m learning about? Am I in a real situation? And that is an iterative process, but it is the way that we truly build learning, or the way that learning happens. 

And you know, as to the definition, depending on where you look, you get a completely different definition of learning. The only thing that I think scientists agree on is that, when learning actually happens, our brains physically change, that there are new neuron networks built. It looks different. You never are, again, the same person that you were biologically after you learned something. It’s kind of a fabulous thing. It’s just fascinating to me. 

Sam: I wish we had a, I don’t want to say certificate because sometimes that might not mean much, but a formal training for any leader or manager in how learning, and your book is great, it kind of comes right down the middle for here, but I feel like required training should be to understand how does, like you just mentioned, the messy process unfold, because it really makes you rethink when you coach and mentor and try to instruct. I have a four-year-old daughter, same thing, it makes me think about play, which you talked about. 

Joshua: Yes, definitely, plays an important part of the way children learn, but it’s also, because of that, built into our fabric of how we continue to learn throughout our lives. And so environments, it doesn’t just have to be a classroom, it can be any training or coaching context, any one of those environments that privileges play and creates learning opportunities that are also games tap into a really important part of the way human beings have always learned. And so, I think that we sort of don’t pay enough attention to that particular attribute, that if it can be fun, if it can be made into a game, if there’s some playful competition there, we’re more likely to focus our attention and focus our energy on learning what we need to know to perform at our best in that game.

Sam: Yeah, our team got an email the other day from an angry HR person who made the comment, ‘training shouldn’t be fun, it’s serious.’ And it was a restaurant by the way, we’re not even talking about more serious training or situations, this isn’t for the air force, for example, it’s staff training for a restaurant. And I don’t know what to say back to that. 

Joshua: Oh, I wonder what the employees think about that, actually! 

Sam:I want some takeaways for folks, I want to maybe paint a picture. Say I’m a new director of training for a company, Josh, and I’m going through what many are right now, restarting. Our workforce or standing opening up or stores that may have closed or, maybe in some cases, building the manuals from scratch. Any recommendations you have for me?

Joshua: Yeah, a couple. The one thing that we are finding in educational settings that I think probably can apply is that everyone, every single employee at every company and organization has been through a really hard traumatic experience. And so I think letting people talk about that experience and what they may have learned about what it is to work in your field during that time can be a really productive way to lead into the training. ‘Okay. Here’s been our experience. What have we learned? What worked, what didn’t work?’ And let’s use that. Let’s use our real experiences to shape a training program going forward. One that honors the experiences that we’ve all had. So I think that’s something that can really help. 

Another thing though, is that, because we’ve been distanced from folks, even though we talked on zoom, it’s just different. We registered very differently. And so that might be something to respond to when setting up a new training program that really builds more collaboration into the program. Team-based learning, like we were just talking about, ways to make it more fun. I think that is something that probably should be at the forefront, especially if you’re building again or about to start. This is a moment that doesn’t come around very often, and it’s a moment to wipe the slate clean and to build something that benefits from the knowledge that we’ve gained over this time.

Sam: Empathy, being able to look at the world from the perspective of the people you’re coaching or training is really, really important. Sometimes we forget the student or the learner in the pursuit of just delivery feels like at times. 

Joshua: Yes. Yes. But, you know, I see it all the time and I understand that people are just trying to hit their goals, get through the semester, that sort of thing. But, if we don’t think about the people who we’re working with and talking to and teaching or training, then we lose sight of the purpose for the work that we’re doing, that it is not simply to spout content and to check the box that you did this particular session. It is to, in fact, make sure that whoever we’re working with has learned the material, and we can only do that I think if we start with being empathetic for the people who are across the way from us.

Sam: On the learning material point, it raises a question around measurement. How do you measure an effective successful teacher from one that isn’t the same way maybe an effective trainer coach from one who isn’t? What are the areas, or are there any specific metrics you can look to?

Joshua: You know, that’s a really open question right now in the educational world. What is an effective way to show the impact? And I think there are a couple of areas that we can look at, and one that is seeing the results after the training or after the workshop or after the class.

So if the students who I’ve worked with then go on to utilize what they learned in my class, in their other classes, then that’s an effective measurement of my strength as a teacher. And the same could be true for any training setting. The issue with that is that’s the long game of measurement, right? We’re talking about looking at it over a very long time. 

More immediate term, though, I think that what we’ve discovered is that there’s no one single measurement that you can really point to. So student evaluations come up all the time, but they also are fraught with bias and other issues, depending on the questions that are used. So looking at it from multiple angles, you get the student feedback, you have individual reflection on your own teaching, and then you have peer observation. So the combination of those approaches is our best bet right now for being able to show how someone’s actually doing in the classroom.

And then if I had to just to point to one thing that I know of that is out there that people use, that I think is productive in terms of measurement or effective, looking at it, so if we know what works and we have science-based evidence-based information on what works in a particular classroom setting or educational context, then a specific measurement that we can use is if we sit and watch what happens in that educational setting, we should be able to note the things that are happening, right? And so if we see those attributes that we know are rooted in the evidence, then that is an effective measurement, right? We don’t have to actually assess the learners at that point, because what we see is already rooted in the best evidence we have of how people learn.

But if we don’t see those things, then we have another good measurement of the developmental needs for that particular teacher or trainer. 

Sam: Sure. Josh, great stuff. Like I said, we highly recommend your book, we mail it to everybody we can. Last question for you, what’s the next book?

Joshua: Oh, actually I’m writing one right now on grades and kind of a bird’s eye view from kindergarten up through grad school of the issues that grades and evaluations, the obstacles that they can set up for kids.

Sam: Very good. Well, I look forward to picking that one up next. 

Joshua: All right. Great. Thanks a lot. 

Topics Discussed: Coaching, Teaching, Games, Leadership, Endurance, Failure, Future of Work

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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