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How People Learn: A Landmark Report Gets an Update

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Learning is a conversation with the world, from a newborn's brain lighting up as his mother sings to him, to a teenager choking on a test for fear of fulfilling a stereotype, to elderly people heading off cognitive decline by learning a new language. In an update to its landmark reports on education research, the National Academies' new How People Learn II digs into what science can tell schools about how to build on students' culture and experience to improve learning.

Some of the contexts in which people learn have changed dramatically since the National Research Council's Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning published the original How People Learn book in 1999, and its 2005 follow-up report on teaching history, math, and science. Some of the research from that original report has become common knowledge but still sometimes difficult to implement. A case in point, one of the "key findings" of the Research Council in 1999 was the notion of student-centered learning: "the idea that students come to the classroom with preconceived notions of how the world works. If these notions are not engaged, students may fail to grasp new concepts that they are taught. For example, students may sometimes acquire knowledge for the purposes of a test but later revert back to their preconceived notions outside the classroom."

The new report expands on that idea, digging into the ways research suggests students' experiences affect how they engage with education and vice versa. "People do not simply collect memories, knowledge, and skills in a linear fashion, but through myriad processes that interact over time to influence the way they make sense of the world," said Cora Bagley Marrett, the former deputy director of the National Science Foundation, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and chair of the committee that conducted the report.

The committee also confronted common teaching ideas that have not been borne out, such as teaching for different learning styles. "The appeal of this approach, which has gotten substantial public attention, is the premise that all students can succeed if the instruction is customized. However, experimental research has consistently shown that learning styles do not exist as described by the concept's proponents, so categorizing and teaching children according to such styles is problematic," they concluded.

While the report covers research on learning from birth through old age, its commission had some key conclusions for schools:

  • To be effective, teachers must understand how students' prior knowledge, experiences, motivations, interests, and language and cognitive skills interact with those of the teacher's own experiences and culture and the characteristics and culture of the classroom.
  • Students should be supported in directing their own learning, via targeted feedback, opportunities to reflect on what they've learned, challenges matched to their abilities, and help in developing meaningful goals.
  • Both curricula and instructional strategies should help students connect their academic learning goals to what they learn and do outside of school.
  • Teaching not just science or history content, but the specific language and practices of different disciplines, is critical to helping students develop deep understanding of those subjects.

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