How People Learn:
Experience, and School
Learning is a basic,
adaptive function of humans. More than any other species, people are
designed to be flexible learners and active agents in acquiring
knowledge and skills. Much of what people learn occurs without formal
instruction, but highly systematic and organized information
systems--reading, mathematics, the sciences, literature, and the history
of a society--require formal training, usually in schools. Over time,
science, mathematics, and history have posed new problems for learning
because of their growing volume and increasing complexity. The value of
the knowledge taught in school also began to be examined for its
applicability to situations outside school.
Science now offers new
conceptions of the learning process and the development of competent
performance. Recent research provides a deep understanding of complex
reasoning and performance on problem-solving tasks and how skill and
understanding in key subjects are acquired. This book presents a
contemporary account of principles of learning, and this summary
provides an overview of the new science of learning.
FIVE THEMES THAT CHANGED CONCEPTIONS OF LEARNING
In the last 30 years,
research has generated new conceptions of learning in five areas. As a
result of the accumulation of new kinds of information about human
learning, views of how effective learning proceeds have shifted from the
benefits of diligent drill and practice to focus on students'
understanding and application of knowledge.
1. Memory and structure of knowledge Memory has come
to be understood as more than simple associations; evidence describes
the structures that represent knowledge and meaning. Knowing how
learners develop coherent structures of information has been
particularly useful in understanding the nature of organized knowledge
that underlies effective comprehension and thinking.
2. Analysis of problem solving and reasoning One of
the most important influences on contemporary learning theory has been
the basic research on expert learners. Learning theory can now account
for how learners acquire skills to search a problem space and then use
these general strategies in many problem-solving situations. There is a
clear distinction between learned problem-solving skills in novice
learners and the specialized expertise of individuals who have
proficiency in particular subjects.
3. Early foundations The development of creative
methodologies for assessing infants' responses in controlled research
settings has done much to illuminate early learning. Scientific studies
of infants and young children have revealed the relationships between
children's learning predispositions and their emergent abilities to
organize and coordinate information, make inferences, and discover
strategies for problem solving. As a result, educators are rethinking
the role of the skills and abilities children bring with them to school
to take advantage of opportunities for learning in school.
4. Metacognitive processes and self-regulatory
capabilities Individuals can be taught to regulate their
behaviors, and these regulatory activities enable self-monitoring and
executive control of one's performance. The activities include such
strategies as predicting outcomes, planning ahead, apportioning one's
time, explaining to one's self in order to improve understanding, noting
failures to comprehend, and activating background knowledge.
5. Cultural experience and community participation
Participation in social practice is a fundamental form of
learning. Learning involves becoming attuned to the constraints and
resources, the limits and possibilities, that are involved in the
practices of the community. Learning is promoted by social norms that
value the search for understanding. Early learning is assisted by the
supportive context of the family and the social environment, through the
kinds of activities in which adults engage with children. These
activities have the effect of providing to toddlers the structure and
interpretation of the culture's norms and rules, and these processes
occur long before children enter school.
By definition, experts
have developed particular ways to think and reason effectively.
Understanding expertise is important because it provides insights into
the nature of thinking and problem solving. It is not simply general
abilities, such as memory or intelligence, nor the use of general
strategies that differentiate experts from novices. Instead, experts
have acquired extensive knowledge that affects what they notice and how
they organize, represent, and interpret information in their
environments. This, in turn, affects their abilities to remember,
reason, and solve problems.
Key scientific findings
have come from studies of people who have developed expertise in areas
such as chess, physics, mathematics, electronics, and history. The
examples are important not because all school children are
expected to become experts in these or any other areas, but because the
study of expertise shows what the results of successful learning look
- Experts notice features and meaningful patterns of information
that are not noticed by novices.
- Experts have acquired a great deal of content knowledge that is
organized, and their organization of information reflects a deep
understanding of the subject matter.
- Experts' knowledge cannot be reduced to sets of isolated facts
or propositions but, instead, reflects contexts of applicability, i.e.,
it is "conditionalized."
- Experts are able to retrieve important aspects of their
knowledge with little attentional effort.
- Though experts know their disciplines thoroughly, this does not
guarantee that they are able to instruct others about the topic.
- Experts have varying levels of flexibility in their approaches
to new situations.
TRANSFER OF LEARNING
Another aspect of
effective learning is its durability--does the learning have
long-term impact in the ways it influences other kinds of learning or
performance? Research studies on the concept of transfer of learning
comprise a vast literature that can be synthesized into the new science
- Skills and knowledge must be extended beyond the narrow
contexts in which they are initially learned. For example, knowing how
to solve a math problem in school may not transfer to solving math
problems in other contexts.
- It is essential for a learner to develop a sense of when
what has been learned can be used--the conditions of application.
Failure to transfer is often due to learners' lack of this type of
- Learning must be guided by generalized principles in order to
be widely applicable. Knowledge learned at the level of rote memory
rarely transfers; transfer most likely occurs when the learner knows and
understands underlying principles that can be applied to problems in new
- Learners are helped in their independent learning attempts if
they have conceptual knowledge. Studies of children's concept formation
and conceptual development show the role of learners' mental
representations of problems, including how one problem is similar
and different from others and understanding the part-whole
relationships of the components in the overall structure of a problem.
- Learners are most successful if they are mindful of themselves
as learners and thinkers. A learner's self-awareness as a learner and
the role of appraisal strategies keep learning on target or help keep
the learner asking if s/he understands. Learners can become independent
learners who are capable of sustaining their own learning--in essence,
this is how human beings become life-long learners.
CHILDREN AS LEARNERS
While there are
remarkable commonalties across learners of all ages, children differ
from adult learners in many ways. Studies of young children offer a
window into the development of learning, and they show a dynamic picture
of learning as it unfolds over time. A fresh understanding of infant
cognition and of how young children build on early learning
predispositions also offers ideas on ways to ease their transition into
formal school settings.
- Humans have a predisposition to learn in certain domains, and
young children actively engage in making sense of their worlds. In
particular domains, such as biological and physical causality, number,
and language, infants and young children have strong predispositions to
learn rapidly and readily. These biases toward learning support and may
make early learning possible and pave the way for competence in early
- Children lack knowledge and experience, but not reasoning
ability. Although young children are inexperienced, they reason
facilely with the knowledge they have.
- Precocious knowledge may jump-start the learning process, but
because of limited experience and undeveloped systems for logical
thinking, children's knowledge contains misconceptions. Misinformation
can impede school learning, so teachers need to be aware of the ways in
which children's background knowledge influences what they understand.
Such awareness on the part of teachers will help them anticipate
children's confusion and recognize why the children have difficulties
grasping new ideas.
- Strategies for learning are important. Children can learn
practically anything by sheer will and effort, but when required to
learn about non-privileged domains, they need to develop strategies of
- Children need to understand what it means to learn, who they
are as learners, and how to go about planning, monitoring, and revising,
to reflect upon their learning and that of others, and to learn to
determine for themselves if they understand. These skills of
metacognition provide strategic competencies for learning.
- Children are both problem solvers and problem generators. They
attempt to solve problems presented to them, and they seek novel
challenges. They refine and improve their problem-solving strategies in
the face of failure and often build on prior successes. They persist
because success and understanding are motivating in their own right.
- Adults help children make connections between new situations
and familiar ones. Children's curiosity and persistence are supported
by adults who direct children's attention, structure experiences,
support learning attempts, and regulate the complexity and difficulty
levels of information for children.
Children, thus, exhibit
capacities that are shaped by environmental experiences and the
individuals who care for them. Developmental processes involve
interactions between children's early competencies and the environmental
supports--strengthening relevant capacities and pruning the early
abilities that are less relevant to the child's community. Learning is
promoted and regulated by both the biology and ecology of the child;
learning produces development.
COLLATERAL DEVELOPMENT OF MIND AND BRAIN
neuroscience are confirming many theoretical hypotheses, including the
important role of early experience in development. What is new, and
therefore important for a new science of learning, is the convergence
of evidence from a number of scientific fields. As developmental
psychology, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience, to name but three,
have contributed vast numbers of research studies, details about
learning and development have converged to form a more complete picture
of how intellectual development occurs. Clarification of some of the
mechanisms of learning by neuroscience advanced with the advent of
non-invasive imaging technologies, such as positron emission tomography
(PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). These
technologies enabled researchers to observe directly functions of human
The key finding is the
importance of experience in building the structure of the mind by
modifying the structures of the brain: development is not solely the
unfolding of preprogrammed patterns. Some of the rules that govern
learning are now known. One of the simplest rules is that practice
increases learning and there is a corresponding relationship between the
amount of experience in a complex environment and the amount of
structural change in the brain.
- Learning changes the physical structure of the brain.
- Structural changes alter the functional organization of the
brain; in other words, learning organizes and reorganizes the brain.
- Different parts of the brain may be ready to learn at different
DESIGNS FOR LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS
does not prescribe the design of a bridge, but surely it constrains the
design of successful ones. Similarly, learning theory provides no
simple recipe for designing effective learning environments, but it
constrains the design of effective ones. New research raises important
questions about the design of learning environments--questions that
suggest the value of rethinking what is taught, how it is taught, and
how it is assessed.
A fundamental tenet of
modern learning theory is that different kinds of learning goals require
different approaches to instruction; new goals for education require
changes in opportunities to learn. The design of learning environments
is linked to issues that are especially important in the processes of
learning, transfer, and competent performance. Those processes, in
turn, are affected by the degree to which learning environments are
student centered, knowledge centered, assessment centered, and community
- Learner-centered environments Effective
instruction begins with what learners bring to the setting; this
includes cultural practices and beliefs, as well as knowledge of
academic content. A focus on the degree to which environments are
learner centered is consistent with the evidence showing that learners
use their current knowledge to construct new knowledge and that what
they know and believe at the moment affects how they interpret new
information. Sometimes learners' current knowledge supports new
learning; sometimes it hampers learning.
People may have
acquired knowledge yet fail to activate it in a particular setting.
Learner-centered environments attempt to help students make connections
between their previous knowledge and their current academic tasks.
Parents are especially good at helping their children make connections.
Teachers have a harder time because they do not share the life
experiences of all of their students, so they have to become familiar
with each student's special interests and strengths.
- Knowledge-centered environments The ability to
think and solve problems requires knowledge that is accessible and
applied appropriately. An emphasis on knowledge-centered instruction
raises a number of questions, such as the degree to which instruction
focuses on ways to help students use their current knowledge and skills.
New knowledge about early learning suggests that young students are
capable of grasping more complex concepts than was believed previously.
However, these concepts must be presented in ways that are
developmentally appropriate by linking learning to their current
understanding. A knowledge-centered perspective on learning
environments highlights the importance of thinking about designs for
curricula. To what extent do they help students learn with
understanding versus promote the acquisition of disconnected sets of
facts and skills? Curricula that are a "mile wide and an inch deep" run
the risk of developing disconnected rather than connected knowledge.
- Assessment to support learning Issues of
assessment also represent an important perspective for viewing the
design of learning environments. Feedback is fundamental to learning,
but feedback opportunities are often scarce in classrooms. Students may
receive grades on tests and essays, but these are summative assessments
that occur at the end of projects. What are needed are formative
assessments, which provide students with opportunities to revise and
improve the quality of their thinking and understanding. Assessments
must reflect the learning goals that define various environments. If
the goal is to enhance understanding and applicability of knowledge, it
is not sufficient to provide assessments that focus primarily on memory
for facts and formulas.
- Community-centered environments The fourth,
important perspective on learning environments is the degree to which
they promote a sense of community. Students, teachers, and other
interested participants share norms that value learning and high
standards. Norms such as these increase people's opportunities and
motivation to interact, receive feedback, and learn. The importance of
connected communities becomes clear when one examines the relatively
small amount of time spent in school compared to other settings.
Activities in homes, community centers, and after-school clubs can have
important effects on students' academic achievement.
Expertise of any kind
involves more than a set of general problem-solving skills; it also
requires well-organized knowledge of concepts and inquiry procedures.
Various disciplines are organized differently and have their own methods
of inquiry. For example, the evidence needed to support a set of
historical claims is different from the evidence needed to prove a
mathematical conjecture, and both of these differ from the evidence
needed to test a scientific theory.
- Effective teachers need "pedagogical content
knowledge"--knowledge about how to teach in particular disciplines,
which is different from knowledge of general teaching methods.
- Expert teachers know the structure of their disciplines and
this provides them with cognitive roadmaps that guide the assignments
they give students, the assessments they use to gauge student progress,
and the questions they ask in the give and take of classroom life.
In short, teachers'
knowledge of the discipline and their knowledge of pedagogy interact.
But knowledge of the discipline structure does not in itself guide a
teacher. Expert teachers are sensitive to those aspects of the
discipline that are especially hard and easy for new students to master.
An emphasis on interactions between disciplinary knowledge and
pedagogical knowledge directly contradicts a common misconception about
what teachers need to know in order to design effective learning
environments for their students. The misconception is that teaching
consists only of a set of general methods, that a good teacher can teach
any subject, and that content knowledge alone is sufficient.
Teacher learning is
relatively new as a research topic, so there is limited information
about it. Nevertheless, the research that exists, generally in the form
of rich case studies, provides important information about what kinds of
learning opportunities teachers need in order to change their practices.
- Opportunities for teachers to continue their learning fall
short when viewed from the perspective of being learner, knowledge,
assessment, and community centered. Preservice programs often fail to
provide the kinds of learning experiences that lead to learning for
understanding or teaching for understanding.
- Successful learning for teachers requires a continuum of
coordinated efforts that range from preservice education to early
mentored teaching to opportunities for lifelong development as
professionals. Creating such opportunities represents a major
A number of the
features of new technologies are consistent with the principles of a new
science of learning.
- Because many new technologies are interactive, it is now easier
to create environments in which students can learn by doing, receive
feedback, and continually refine their understanding and build new
- Technologies can help people visualize difficult-to-understand
concepts, such as differentiating heat from temperature. Students are
able to work with visualization and modeling software similar to the
tools used in nonschool environments to increase their conceptual
understanding and the likelihood of transfer from school to nonschool
- New technologies provide access to a vast array of information,
including digital libraries, real-world data for analysis, and
connections to other people who provide information, feedback, and
inspiration, all of which can enhance the learning of teachers and
administrators as well as students.
There are many ways
that technology can be used to help create such environments, both for
teachers and for the students whom they teach. However, many issues
arise in considering how to educate teachers to use new technologies
effectively. What do they need to know about learning processes? About
the technology? What kinds of training are most effective for helping
teachers use high-quality instructional programs? What is the best way
to use technology to facilitate teacher learning? Good educational
software and teacher-support tools, developed with full understanding of
principles of learning, have not yet become the norm.
RESEARCH FOR THE FUTURE
It will take time and
effort to communicate the new approaches to learning and teaching
throughout the very decentralized U.S. education system. We suggest a
number of ways to begin the process through a research agenda that
follows from our conclusions. The research will have greatest potential
for impact in education if it is implemented as a program of research,
making educational research an integrative science.
The Research Foundations of the Learning Sciences
- The committee recommends a commitment to basic research programs
in cognition, learning, and teaching.
Our report has shown
the payoff from investing in research on such topics as the foundational
role of learners' prior knowledge in acquiring new information;
plasticity and adaptability of learning; the importance of social and
cultural contexts in learning; understanding the conditions of transfer
of learning; how the organizational structure of a discipline affects
learning; how time, familiarity, and exploration impact fluency in
learning; and many other topics. While these areas have produced an
impressive body of research findings, the research needs to be
continued. The framework has been constructed from the earlier
research; details now need to be provided in order to advance the
science of learning by refining the principles.
- The committee recommends establishing new research programs in
emerging areas, including technology, neurocognition, and sociocultural
factors that mediate learning. Research is needed on the interrelations
between learning and learning environments and between teaching and
This research will
build on current findings in areas such as how children learn to apply
their competencies as they encounter new information; how early
competencies relate to later school learning; the conditions and
experiences that support knowledge scaffolding; and how representational
systems are challenged by new tools of technology, such as visual
cognition and other types of symbolic thinking.
- The committee recommends new assessment research to focus on
improving and implementing formative assessment.
Teachers need a variety
of supports and learning opportunities for making their classrooms
assessment centered in ways that support learning. Research questions
that remain to be addressed include: How does a teacher use assessment?
What skills do teachers need in order to be able to use formative
assessments in ways that will improve their teaching? What kinds of
supports do teachers need for learning and adopting innovative
The Foundations for Science Learning
The committee held a
workshop on children's cognitive development and the ways in which
cognitive science research has influenced science instruction in recent
years. The workshop explored ways in which new research findings can
facilitate new directions in areas of science and mathematics learning.
- How does the field "scale up" successful demonstrations of
research-based curricula so that they can be implemented in many diverse
settings under the guidance of many different kinds of teachers?
- Which factors influence the conversion of research knowledge
into effective instructional methods in real settings?
- Do strategies that work for science education also work to
improve instruction in other subject areas?
- How can preschool children be assisted in developing
representational structures so that there are bridges, rather than gaps,
between early and later school learning?
- How can collaborative learning environments be organized in ways
that counteract societal stereotypes and tap diversity as a positive
resource for learning?
- Which kinds of assessments can effectively measure new kinds of
- How do the features of a constructivist curriculum interact with
other social factors in classrooms?
- What is the impact of new technologies on school performance?
Methodologies of the Learning Sciences
The research areas
relevant to the science of learning are demonstratively broad, including
cognitive development, cognitive science, developmental psychology,
neuroscience, anthropology, social psychology, sociology, cross-cultural
research, research on learning in subject areas such as science,
mathematics, history, and research on effective teaching, pedagogy, and
the design of learning environments. New technologies are needed for
assessing learning in ways that track the growth of learning, not just
the cumulation of facts. Developing effective research methodologies is
particularly important for research from this diverse array of
- The committee recommends that government agencies and research
foundations develop initiatives and mechanisms of support specifically
aimed at strengthening the methodological underpinnings of learning
sciences. Such mechanisms should include cross-field collaborations,
internships, visiting scholar programs, training junior scholars in
interdisciplinary approaches, and other procedures to foster
collaborations for learning and developing new methodologies that can
lead to more rigorous investigations in the science of learning.
- The committee recommends research aimed at developing and
standardizing new measures and methods. Studies should be conducted and
validated with diverse populations. New statistical techniques should
be developed for analyzing the complex systems of learning. New
qualitative measurement techniques need to be developed.
- The committee recommends new research that is focused on ways to
integrate qualitative and quantitative methods across the learning
Collaborations in the Science of Learning
This book emphasizes
the breadth of knowledge areas that affect learners and the significant
advances that have been the direct result of collaborative research
efforts across disciplines. That kind of collaboration is critical to
further development of the learning sciences.
- The committee recommends that government agencies and research
foundations explicitly support a wide variety of interdisciplinary
collaborations in the learning sciences. Such work should include
The field of learning
research needs to become more integrated in focus and draw together
relevant fields for interdisciplinary collaborations. To this end,
mechanisms are needed to prepare a new generation of learning scientists
by supporting interdisciplinary training for students and scientists to
work together. It is important to expand the research scope so that
basic researchers and educational researchers can work together on basic
and applied issues and to facilitate ways for teachers and researchers
to work together. Fields such as neuroscience and cognitive science
have made important advances through their joint efforts, but
researchers had to learn the methodologies and techniques of each
discipline before new research studies could be conducted. Efforts are
now needed to direct training programs in order to foster such
- The committee recommends establishing national databases to
To capitalize on the
new developments in information systems, research scientists of varying
disciplines should be linked together, and teachers should be included
in these virtual dialogues. In addition to electronic linkages through
websites, scientists should begin to share databases with one another
and work with national databases that they can access electronically.
Databases that link
physics researchers with classroom physics educators, for example, have
the potential to bring the two sectors closer to the core issues of the
field. Basic researchers often have a poor understanding of why
learners fail to grasp basic concepts of the field; teachers often fail
to see relationships of core concepts that, if better understood from
the standpoint of theory, could facilitate their teaching. National
databases can foster interdisciplinary collaboration and uses of
cross-disciplinary data, promote broader exploration of testable
questions across datasets, increase the quality of data by maintaining
accurate and uniform records, and promote cost-effectiveness through the
sharing of research data. Furthermore, national databases that are
built from representative samples of the changing school population have
the potential of broadening the scope and power of research findings.
Technology Research to Enhance Learning
computer-based technologies are relatively new to classrooms, basic
premises about learning with these tools need to be examined with
respect to the principles of learning.
- The committee recommends extensive evaluation research be
conducted through both small-scale studies and large-scale evaluations
to determine the goals, assumptions, and uses of technologies in
classrooms and the match or mismatch of these uses with the principles
of learning and the transfer of learning.
Teachers' Professional Development
Much of what
constitutes the typical approach to formal teacher professional
development is antithetical to what promotes teacher learning.
- The committee recommends research to explain how people learn to
be effective teachers.
Research studies are
needed to determine the efficacy of various types of professional
development activities, including preservice and inservice seminars,
workshops, and summer institutes. Studies should include professional
activities that are extended over time and across broad teacher learning
communities in order to identify the processes and mechanisms that
contribute to the development of teachers' learning communities.