How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School

edited by John Bransford, et al.

This book , a work of the National Research Council, condenses and organizes a great deal of research from the fields of cognitive psychology, child development, social psychology, and neuroscience into the framework of teaching and learning.  The research is fascinating.  I especially was intrigued by the information on how experts differ from novices in their approaches to problems, and how teaching those approaches, and the "big picture" elements of a field, can radically improve learning.  This book really does show the extent to which the challenge of helping all students learn serious material to a high standard is "rocket science." 

Further, the book backs up the importance of culture in schools:  "The relationship among adults who live in a school has more to do with the character and quality of the school and with the accomplishments of the students than any other factor."  p. 147, citing Barth, 1988.

Key findings presented based on quality research:

1.  Students 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 purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom.

2.  To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must:

  • have a deep foundation of factual knowledge
  • understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and
  • organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application

3.  A "metacognitive" (thinking about their own learning) approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning goals and monitor their progress in achieving them.

 

Suggested implications for teaching include:

1.  Teachers must draw out and work with the pre-existing understandings that their students bring with them.

2.  Teachers must teach some subject matter in depth, providing many examples in which the same concept is at work and providing a firm foundation of factual knowledge.

3.  The teaching of metacognitive skills should be integrated into the curriculum in a variety of subject areas.

For an interesting commentary by E.D. Hirsch that looks at "educational research", explains why it is inevitably unreliable for policy, and recommends a closer working relationship between educators and cognitive scientists, see Classroom Research and Cargo Cults.