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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School
such questions as what is taught, how it is taught, and how students are assessed. We emphasized that research on learning does not provide a recipe for designing effective learning environments, but it does support the value of asking certain kinds of questions about the design of learning environments.
Four perspectives on the design of learning environments—the degree to which they are student centered, knowledge centered, assessment centered, and community centered—are important in designing these environments.
A focus on the degree to which environments are learner centered is consistent with the strong body of evidence suggesting 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: effective instruction begins with what learners bring to the setting; this includes cultural practices and beliefs as well as knowledge of academic content.
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 each of their students. Nevertheless, there are ways to systematically become familiar with each student’s special interests and strengths.
Effective environments must also be knowledge centered. It is not sufficient only to attempt to teach general problem solving and thinking skills; the ability to think and solve problems requires well-organized knowledge that is accessible in appropriate contexts. An emphasis on being knowledge centered raises a number of questions, such as the degree to which instruction begins with students’ current knowledge and skills, rather than simply presents new facts about the subject matter. While young students are capable of grasping more complex concepts than was believed previously, those concepts must be presented in ways that are developmentally appropriate. A knowledge-centered perspective on learning environments also 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 emphasize an excessively broad range of subjects run the risk of developing disconnected rather than connected knowledge; they fit well with the idea of a curriculum as being a well-worn path in a road. An alternative metaphor for curriculum is to help students develop interconnected pathways within a discipline so that they “learn their away around in it” and not lose sight of where they are.