How People Learn: An Education Revolution Two Decades Delayed

June 13, 2018 • Volume #4: On Leadership

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By Ann Borthwick

This spring, the National Research Council is scheduled to release the report of its How People Learn II panel. The original How People Learn report[1], published in 1999, was a landmark report that chronicled and explained the way our understanding of learning changed during the twentieth century — from an understanding dominated by behaviorist theories of learning to an understanding built on cognitive psychology; a change significant enough to have earned the title “cognitive revolution.”

The impetus for How People Learn was concern among scholars of the new science of learning that the advances taking place in knowledge about learning were not informing educational practice. The NRC’s original panel was made up of luminaries in the fields of cognitive psychology, cognitive science, developmental psychology, and social psychology, who had made major contributions to theoretical work and empirical studies in their fields. One contemporary review of the original report observed that “this publication alone could drive decisions of reformers for the next decade in the most productive ways.”[i][2]

But here we are, nearly two decades after the publication of the original How People Learn report, and its contents remain unfamiliar to many, if not most educators. That claim is based on the responses of hundreds of school leaders taking part in NISL’s Executive Development Program (EDP) and, more recently, teachers involved in NISL’s Teaching for Effective Learning (TEL) Series that serves as a companion to the EDP. In both the EDP and TEL, we ask participants to read How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (2000)[3], the expanded version of the reportas a foundation for their study of learning and its implications for teaching. With only a handful of exceptions, these school leaders and teachers assert that they have never encountered the report or its findings before.

This lack of familiarity is not for want of opportunity to access the report. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School is in wide circulation. The online edition, alone, has been downloaded more than 130,000 times and, 18 years on, the report continues to appear on the landing page of the National Academies Press website. A great many people have come in contact with How People Learn, but its contents have yet to have the deep impact they warrant on how learning proceeds on a daily basis in our schools.

While the research underlying the report has, over the two decades since its publication, informed work around new standards and even some professional development, teachers and school leaders have not been supported in a way to fully understand the research. As described below, this absence of deep understanding of the research and its application has undermined the landmark report’s influence on students, schools and classrooms.

Why does this matter?

At the heart of the cognitive revolution was a profound shift in understanding of the learner from passive recipient of knowledge to active sense-maker. In general school education parlance, this shift has gained a very simplistic interpretation—as a shift from a teacher-centered approach to a student-centered one in which teacher-centered is the “old way” and, by definition, “bad” and learner-centered is the current way and “good.” For many people, the term teacher-centered evokes a classroom with students seated in rows and the teacher out front, while learner-centered conjures images of students seated in groups as the teacher moves from table to table. Educators readily identify this shift from the old way to the current approach. But the shift in thinking that How People Learn explained was not about classroom arrangements or even about students having opportunities to talk and work together with their peers rather than just listen to the teacher. The shift was much more fundamental than that and highly relevant to virtually every decision a teacher makes in planning and teaching.

How People Learn’s Key Findings:

#1: Learners’ preconceptions are the starting place for their further learning

How People Learn presented three key findings of research on the science of learning around which there was widespread agreement among scholars. The first of these findings spoke directly to the idea of learners as sense-makers.

“Learners come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught, or they may learn them for the purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom.” (HPL, p.14)

In other words, children’s memories are not empty vessels waiting to be filled by what they learn at school. Young children are driven sense-makers. They are constantly asking questions that begin with “Why?” Anyone who has children or has spent a lot of time with children knows this. And so, they come to formal learning having already explained the world. And this is true for all children, including children we sometimes speak of as having “no background knowledge.”

Having explanations for how the world works doesn’t necessarily mean that the explanations are correct. Their preconceptions about many things are likely to be naïve and incomplete, and quite possibly inaccurate. What the cognitive revolution revealed, though, was that these explanations cannot be overlooked or dismissed. They are the starting place for children’s further learning. Teaching then should be designed to help learners build on what they already know, to develop more complete and accurate ideas, rather than ignore their existing knowledge or tell them what they know is wrong. The failure to attend to this finding helps explain why students’ misconceptions can persist in spite of repeated lessons on a topic or idea.

#2: Deep foundations of knowledge for deeper learning

The second key finding focused on what is now commonly referred to as deeper learning and connects with the perennial debate about basic skills versus problem solving.

“To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must (a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.” (HPL, p.16)

This finding emerged from studies that compared novice performance with that of experts in specific disciplines, which found that what distinguished experts from novices was not superior problem-solving ability but rather their deep and richly-structured knowledge base that allowed them to quickly retrieve relevant information and ideas and use them to recognize patterns, connect ideas, and apply their knowledge in unfamiliar situations. Thus, factual knowledge is vitally important. But that knowledge only becomes valuable when it is organized into conceptual frameworks that allow learners to build connections among their store of factual knowledge and ideas, and to make their knowledge usable — able to be retrieved quickly and accurately and applied appropriately to make sense of new situations and tasks. This finding has implications for what standards should focus on, how a course of study is constructed, how a topic is approached, the kinds of activities students should engage in to help them learn and how they should be asked to demonstrate what they know and can do. In other words, it is vitally important to the effectiveness of every part of an aligned instructional system.

#3: A metacognitive approach to teaching and learning

The third key finding focused on the importance of helping learners to take control of their learning processes.

“A ‘metacognitive’ approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them.” (HPL, p. 18)

This finding is the one that many educators, familiar with the notion of ‘thinking about your thinking,’ recognize most readily. A metacognitive approach focuses students’ attention on their learning process to help them become better able to control and direct their efforts to learn rather than remaining entirely dependent on the teacher. Learning is an active process of mental construction and sense making. The learner is at the center of the learning enterprise and is the primary actor — interacting with the curriculum material and assisted in the process by the teacher. This gives special importance to the efficacy of metacognitive approaches to learning. The learner is ultimately the primary driver of his or her learning. The greater the insight learners have into their learning goals the greater their capacity to monitor their progress in achieving them. Moreover, metacognition has discipline-specific characteristics. For example, the thinking process of a historian analyzing and corroborating sources is different from that of a scientist analyzing and comparing results from an experiment. So, metacognitive approaches needed to be developed in each area of the curriculum.

These findings take us far beyond seating arrangements in interpreting what it means for teaching to be student centered. Student-centered teaching has to be designed to help students surface their preconceptions and take what they currently know as the starting point for further learning. Student-centered teaching involves engineering learning tasks and activities to continually connect students’ development of factual knowledge with their development of conceptual understanding. It also involves carefully crafting opportunities for students to use what they know to construct arguments and solve problems in new situations.

Student-centered teaching means designing curriculum that has students revisit concepts and ideas multiple times as they develop in ways that allow them to build on what they already know to achieve progressively deeper understanding. Further, it means giving students specific feedback on their work so that they have the information they need to take the next steps in their learning. And student-centered teaching means guiding students in the practice of discipline-specific thinking about their process of learning, reflecting on what helps them move forward and how they get stuck, and figuring out how they can get themselves unstuck, so that they can build the skills and confidence to become independent, self-directed, lifelong learners.

Student-centered teaching may seem like a tall order. But every one of these specifications makes sense in terms of what we know about learning. Moreover, what we know about learning tells us that each contributes to effective learning in important ways. As Jim Pellegrino[ii][4] points out, the key findings of How People Learn form a coherent, research-based model around which the quest to align curriculum, instruction and assessment becomes achievable.

Why has the new science of learning not made its way into classrooms?

It is not that the new science of learning has been ignored or rejected. Take a look at the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for example. If one studies the CCSS with the How People Learn findings in mind one can find their ideas about learning echoed in the standards — the way mathematical concepts are introduced and revisited, for example, and the nature of the Mathematical Practices that model metacognition in the discipline of mathematics. The links are clearer still in the NGSS, in their focus on deep exploration on important science concepts that provide an organizing structure for building new knowledge over time. If you understand How People Learn findings you can recognize and use them to help make sense of the design and intent of the standards. But if the ideas are not familiar, they can easily be overlooked or misunderstood.

We also have no shortage of teaching strategies that are marketed as “Best Practices” and the like. And many of these strategies do reflect one or more of the key findings outlined above. But, this is only evident if you already know the key findings well. Without that knowledge, teachers may, and do, miss important aspects of the strategy — the parts that are crucial to its effectiveness — or tweak it in ways that diminish its power to support effective learning. It does not help that a premium is placed on ease of use. Teaching strategies are often presented as procedures set out in bullet point form. Without an explanation of the rationale underlying any given strategy, its implementation can quickly lose much of its potential learning value.

The reason that the new science of learning has not found its way into classrooms is because teachers have not spent the time nor had the support needed to study and develop deep understanding of its implications for their work. A standard refrain is that teachers have no time and thus new information and ideas must be simplified to make them easily digestible and packaged in ready-to-use-on-Monday form. It is true that teachers do not have enough time to learn. But there is no easy work around. There are ways of creating time for teachers to learn about new research and conduct research themselves using what they have learned as we have seen in systems around the globe that are out-performing the United States. Attempting to transform teaching and learning through standards and curriculum materials alone or by peddling so-called “Best Practices” strategies as simple sequences of easy to implement steps will never get us to the quality teaching we know our students need to learn effectively.

The title of the NRC report was How People Learn, and its findings apply to educators as learners too. The only way that the findings will make their way into teaching practice in a coherent way is if educators learn about them in ways that reflect the findings themselves. Those who do will be well-placed to capitalize on the new report from the How People Learn II panel. If its findings compare with even a small fraction of the richness of the original, it will have much to offer teachers and teaching.

This is the first in a series of three pieces on advances in learning science, the theory and scholarship of “action research,” which is also known as practitioner inquiry, and the power of combining them. 

NISL’s work in this area is informed by the Center on International Education Benchmarking’s study of leading international school systems, where the development of effective school leaders and professional growth of teachers go hand-in-hand and are treated as reciprocal rather than parallel, largely disconnected enterprises. In these countries, school leaders create and lead systems where teachers work in a professional environment in which conducting research on one’s own practice is treated as having both a central role in professional growth and an essential role in the success of students’ learning and achievement.

NISL is supporting school districts as they leverage this research to reorganize their schools and transform teaching practice. NISL’s market-leading Executive Development Program (EDP) is designed so that school leaders have the tools and knowledge necessary to organize their schools in ways that support the development of professional community. Implementing the research is further bolstered by direct support for teachers, through NISL’s  Teaching for Effective Learning (TEL) Series, a companion to the EDP, which is aimed at building teachers’ understanding of how people learn and kick-starting and cultivating the processes of practitioner inquiry, which provide a shared knowledge base and practices for principals to build their schools into strong professional communities.

The series author, Ann Borthwick, instructional systems architect at NISL, is the designer of the TEL Series and leads the team of NISL staff who work on it. 

[1]Bransford, J., Brown, A., and Cocking, R. 1999. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington: National Academy Press.

[2]Project Kaleidoscope pkal.org/documents/HowPeopleLearn1999Page16.cfm. Retrieved January 30, 2017.

[3]Bransford, J., Brown, A., and Cocking, R. 2000. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Expanded Edition. Washington: National Academy Press.

[4]James W. Pellegrino. (2006). Rethinking and Redesigning Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment: What Contemporary Research and Theory Suggest. Washington, DC: National Center on Education and the Economy.