Eighteen years ago, the National Research Council released How People Learn, a report describing key findings of cognitive science and their application to human learning. In 2005, the Council followed up with How Students Learn, which provided additional examples of how these findings could be applied to school curriculum and classroom teaching. On the eve of the release of a new report, How People Learn II, Ann Borthwick of the National Institute for School Leadership has written a brilliant article that is well worth reading. She is concerned that the findings of these reports have had little influence on classroom practice and that the same fate is likely to befall the new one.
How People Learn had three main findings:
- “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.” (Page 14)
- “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.” (Page 16)
- “A ‘metacognitive’ approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them.” (Page 18)
The cognitive science behind these three findings provides much of the scientific rationale for the Knowledge Matters Campaign. Students depend on prior knowledge to make sense of the world and understand what they read. They need a well-organized knowledge base in order to think well. As they build this knowledge base, they become better at identifying and addressing gaps in their own learning. They learn to embrace complexity rather than being overwhelmed by it. Exposure to new ideas, in fact, stimulates their curiosity and desire to learn more.
So why have these findings not been better translated into the classroom? In Dr. Borthwick’s view, teachers have not been given the time or the support they need to understand the findings and incorporate them into their curriculum and daily work, making them dependent on others who often mis-translate the research based on common misconceptions. Among these misconceptions are suggestions that educators should avoid “teacher-centered” activities, that students’ development of conceptually organized knowledge will occur without explicit adult guidance, and that student engagement in projects and group work is prima facie evidence the necessary learning is taking place.
Dr. Borthwick emphasizes that educators can use the findings from How People Learn in their own learning process. Those who do so will continually assess the accuracy of their own preconceptions. They will focus on deep understanding of the research and how it can be applied in different classroom settings. And they will monitor the extent to which the popular ideas they are exposed to are consistent with research.
School and district leaders can provide teachers with the time and support they will need to engage in this important work. A shared vision built around high-quality, knowledge-rich curriculum and an organizational commitment to professional learning rooted in the findings of How People Learn I and II is a good place to start.
Dr. Chrys Dougherty is an education researcher who has held senior positions at the National Center for Educational Achievement and ACT. His most recent writings have addressed the importance of early learning of a content-rich curriculum.