An Evolving Science

This volume synthesizes the scientific basis of learning. The scientific achievements include a fuller understanding of: (1) memory and the structure of knowledge; (2) problem solving and reasoning; (3) the early foundations of learning; (4) regulatory processes that govern learning, including metacognition; and (5) how symbolic thinking emerges from the culture and community of the learner.

These key characteristics of learned proficiency by no means plumb the depths of human cognition and learning. What has been learned about the principles that guide some aspects of learning do not constitute a complete picture of the principles that govern all domains of learning. The scientific bases, while not superficial in themselves, do represent only a surface level of a complete understanding of the subject. Only a few domains of learning have been examined in depth, as reflected in this book, and new, emergent areas, such as interactive technologies (Greenfield and Cocking, 1996) are challenging generalizations from older research studies.

As scientists continue to study learning, new research procedures and methodologies are emerging that are likely to alter current theoretical conceptions of learning, such as computational modeling research. The scientific work encompasses a broad range of cognitive and neuroscience issues in learning, memory, language, and cognitive development. Studies of parallel distributed processing, for example (McClelland et al., 1995; Plaut et al., 1996; Munakata et al., 1997; McClelland and Chappell, 1998) look at learning as occurring through the adaptation of connections among participating neurons. The research is designed to develop explicit computational models to refine and extend basic principles, as well as to apply the models to substantive research questions through behavioral experiments, computer simulations, functional brain imaging, and mathematical analyses. These studies are thus contributing to modification of both theory and practice. New models also encompass learning in adulthood to add an important dimension to the scientific knowledge base.

Key Findings

This volume provides a broad overview of research on learners and learning and on teachers and teaching. Three findings are highlighted here because they have both a solid research base to support them and strong implications for how we teach.

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

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