From Research to Practice: How People Learn

June 13, 2018 • Volume #4: On Leadership

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Lydia Burgos had always considered herself a well-prepared educator. But NISL’s Executive Development Program (EDP) was a revelation for her. For the first time, she learned about research on student learning.

“I had a master’s and an administrator’s credential,” said Burgos, the elementary principal at Chula Vista Learning Community Charter School. “I had never read anything about research on how people learn. I learned [teaching] strategies—not how the brain works …. I was shocked, and upset with myself and the credential program.”

Through NISL’s EDP, Burgos delved into the landmark National Research Council study, How People Learn, which describes three major findings from cognitive science (see main story). These findings show that students learn by building on what they already know or their preconceptions about the world; that students develop deeper learning by applying a deep knowledge base to solve complex problems; and that students need to take control of their own learning, through a process known as metacognition. She also saw a video that shows that even Harvard graduates can be tripped up by misconceptions about science concepts.

All that she learned resonated with her, she said. “Once I thought about it, it made perfect sense,” she said. “I can’t say I was surprised. If you think about how you learned, it made sense.”

She rushed back to her school to share the research with her faculty. Together, they read the chapter in How People Learn on deeper learning. And she joined her teachers as they took part in the Teaching for Effective Learning series, another offering of NISL that is aligned both to the research on learning and the system-redesign efforts at the heart of the EDP. She could now work with her staff to incorporate the findings into classroom work.

“I make it a point to be in planning sessions with teachers,” she said. “I always ask a lot of questions: Do you think they have misunderstandings? Do you know what students know? Can you develop metacognition?”

The EDP helped Burgos create the structures to allow her and her staff to incorporate the research from How People Learn in her school. One area where the research is making a difference, she said, is in students’ collaborative work. Although the school had engaged students in collaborative tasks, she and her staff realized from the research that the tasks did not engage students in deep learning.

“Based on what I learned from TEL,” she said, “I realize that a lot of what we considered collaborative work is independent work we are asking students to do collaboratively. Now we look at a task and come up with tasks that force students to work together. They need each other to complete the task.”

And this is paying off: student discussions delve deeper into the content, Burgos said, and the work they are doing is stronger. And, she said, she expects her staff to continue to probe the research on student learning to transform instruction in other ways in the coming years. “This is our first year of diving into this,” Burgos said.