How People Learn
Note: This section synthesizes content and is drawn directly from two books published by the National Research Council in 1999: How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School; and How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice. We highly recommend you purchase and read these books.
Learning is a basic, adaptive function of humans. People are designed to be flexible learners and active agents in acquiring knowledge and skills. Much learning occurs without formal instruction, as we know from observing young children interact with their environment. Highly organized systems of information such as reading, mathematics, science, and history, however, require formal training. Research has shown that diligent drill and practice is not a very efficient way to proceed with learning, nor does information gained in this way transfer to novel situations. Rather, a focus on conceptual understanding and application of knowledge produces the greatest learning and ability to apply knowledge in novel situations.
Acquisition of Learning
Memory is not just simple associations, but entire networks of interconnected information. When an individual makes a new connection in learning, that piece of information is linked into the network. Information can be accessed in multiple ways as new associations are developed.
Experience modifies the brain
Development is not solely the unfolding of pre-programmed patterns in children. Environmental experiences and the individuals who care for children shape a child’s development. Developmental processes involve interactions between children’s early competencies and environmental supports, strengthening relevant capacities and pruning the early abilities that are less relevant to the child’s community. Practice increases learning, learning changes the physical structure of the brain, and structural changes alter the functional organization of the brain. In other words, learning organizes and reorganizes the brain.
Early predisposition to learn about some things but not others
No evidence exists that infants come into the world as "blank slates," as we once believed. Children lack knowledge and experience, but not reasoning ability. They show a predisposition to learn rapidly and readily, particularly physical and biological concepts, causality, numbers, and language (Carey and Gelman, 1991). These areas are called privileged domains. When children don’t have opportunities to develop learning in the privileged domains (e.g., deaf parents do not speak aloud to a hearing child, nor do they expose the child to spoken language in other ways), they often have great challenges in learning that information later. Critical periods for learning certain types of information (e.g., language, reading, mathematics) are related to the maturation of certain parts of the brain (e.g., myelination of axons).
Problem solving and reasoning
Children are born with a predisposition to organize and coordinate information, make inferences, and discover strategies for problem solving. Although they are inexperienced, they reason easily with the knowledge they have. Because of limited experience and undeveloped systems for logical thinking, children’s knowledge contains misconceptions, which influence what they understand and may hinder their grasping new ideas.
Strategies and metacognition
Children can learn practically anything by sheer will and effort, but when required to learn about non-privileged domains, they need to develop strategies and intentional learning. It was once thought that young children lack the ability to learn intentionally, but this has been proven wrong (Brown and DeLoache, 1978; DeLoache Miller, and Pierroutsakos , 1998). Children 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 (e.g., “watch this,” “look what happens when I turn the knob,”), structure experiences, support learning attempts, and regulate the complexity and difficulty levels of information for children.
Metacognitive processes and self-regulatory capabilities
Children can be taught to regulate their behaviors, and these regulatory activities enable self-monitoring such 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.
Cultural experience and community participation
Participating in social practice is a fundamental form of learning. It involves becoming attuned to constraints and resources of the community. Furthermore, although a great deal of children's learning is self-motivated and self-directed, other people play major roles as guides in fostering the development of learning in children. Such guides include other children as well as adults (caretakers, parents, teachers, coaches, etc.). But not only people can serve as guides; so, too, can powerful tools and cultural artifacts, notably television, books, videos, and technological devices of many kinds (Wright and Huston, 1995). A great deal of research on such assisted learning has been influenced by Vygotsky's notion of zones of proximal development and the increasing popularity of the concept of "communities of learners," be they face-to-face or through electronic media and technologies.
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? Here is what is known about transfer of learning.
Designs for Learning Environments
Theoretical physics 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 learning environments and suggests there is value in 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-centered.
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 intrepret 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.
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. However, these concepts must be presented in ways that are developmentally appropriate by linking learning to 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 most often 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.
The fourth 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.
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. In order to design effective learning environments for their students, teachers need both pedagogical expertise and disciplinary knowledge.
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 knowledge. 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 settings.
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