People learn every day, in many different settings and in many different ways. Sometimes learning happens intentionally and with great effort, as when a master craftsperson spends years learning a trade. Sometimes it seems to happen almost effortlessly, as when someone realizes he knows how to make his grandmother’s tamales without ever being taught. Research conducted over the past few decades has expanded understanding of human cognition and of how individual and group experiences and differences shape how and what people learn. Much has been learned about how people acquire expertise, how individual learners can monitor the influences on their own understanding, and many other aspects of learning.
Nearly two decades ago, the report How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition (National Research Council ; hereafter referred to as HPL I) described groundbreaking research from disciplines including neuroscience; cognitive, developmental, and social psychology; anthropology; and education. It offered conclusions about learning that were based on these various lines of research and that would be most relevant to teachers, school officials, parents, and policy makers, as well as a research agenda to guide funders and scholars.
In this report, we offer an update to and expansion of HPL I that incorporates insights gained from research conducted over the past decade, considers learning in contexts other than school, and explores how learning changes across the life span. To set the stage, we offer a few observations on what it means to study how people learn.
“How” suggests that learning involves processes that unfold over time. People do not simply collect memories, knowledge, and skills in a linear, in-
cremental fashion—slowly and steadily stashing away bits of information in their heads like a video camera recording images and sounds. Rather, learning involves myriad processes that interact over time to influence the way people make sense of the world.
The processes are the activities and interactions in which individuals engage that help them make sense of their world and their place in it. Play, conversation, reading or being read to, and being alone are all processes. Emotions, goals, social relationships, prior experiences, and cognitive and biological predispositions all influence how individuals interpret situations and hence what they learn. The changing demands, features, and supports of the learning situation further influence people’s interpretations and emotions, what they will decide to do, and consequently what they learn.
“People (or persons)” can be characterized in many ways: by age, gender identity, skin color, skills, past experiences, and physical and intellectual resources, for example. People have likes and dislikes; strengths and weaknesses; families, friendships, and identities; experiences and memories; and interests, goals, and dreams. All of these characteristics also influence learning.
“Learn” is an active verb; it is something people do, not something that happens to them. People are not passive recipients of learning, even if they are not always aware that the learning process is happening. Instead, through acting in the world, people encounter situations, problems, and ideas. By engaging with these situations, problems, and ideas, they have social, emotional, cognitive, and physical experiences, and they adapt. These experiences and adaptations shape a person’s abilities, skills, and inclinations going forward, thereby influencing and organizing that individual’s thoughts and actions into the future.
The foundational research that was documented in HPL I holds true today, but after nearly two decades an examination of new research was needed. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine formed a committee to expand on and update HPL I with recent research.1 The new committee’s 16 members brought diverse expertise in disciplines and fields related to the science and practice of learning, including cognitive science, learning theory, cognitive neuroscience, educational psychology, developmental psychology, workforce development, and educational technology (see Appendix D). The committee was asked to examine new research on learning and to identify the findings with the greatest potential to influence policy. The committee was directed in its formal charge (see Box 1-1) to examine the cultural nature of learning and the influence of context and to explore what
is known about learning across the life span, looking beyond the learning of children and adolescents and the educational setting of kindergarten through twelfth grade (K-12).
This report (referred to as HPL II) describes the committee’s consensus conclusions and recommendations. It is intended not as a replacement for HPL I but as a companion volume that builds on the picture of how people learn, as laid out in that report, and adds new conclusions based on recent research.
Published in 2000, HPL I combined the principal messages from two 1999 reports (see Box 1-2). It summarized key findings from decades of research on (1) memory and the structure of knowledge, (2) problem solving and reasoning, (3) the early foundations of learning, (4) metacognitive processes and self-regulatory capabilities, and (5) how symbolic thinking emerges from the culture and community of the learner. It examined the ways experts differ from novices, how individuals transfer learning to new contexts, how children learn, and findings from neuroscience and cognitive science about brain functioning and development. It distilled from that work key insights about learning, including the following:
- Experts differ from novices in more than just their general abilities (i.e., memory or intelligence) and the use of general strategies. Experts have acquired extensive knowledge that affects what they notice and how they organize, represent, and interpret information in their environments, which in turn affects their abilities to remember, reason, and solve problems.
- Skills and knowledge must be extended beyond the narrow contexts in which they are initially learned in order for deeper learning to occur.
- The development of a sense of the application of knowledge—when the knowledge can be used—is an essential component of learning.
- Learning transfer—the capacity to apply learning in a new context—most likely occurs when the learner knows and understands the underlying general principles that can be applied to problems in different contexts.
- The construction of conceptual understanding of abstract ideas promotes learning.
- Learners are most successful at learning and will sustain their own learning if they are mindful of themselves as learners and thinkers (i.e., use a metacognitive approach to learning and instruction).
The authoring committee of HPL I also explored the implications of new insights about learning for education, focusing particularly on the design of
learning environments, teaching strategies, the education of teachers, and the use of technology to support learning. Among the committee’s major points were several that are important for educators:
- Learning and development in childhood are influenced by the interactions between each child’s early competencies and environmental supports and experiences, as well as by the individuals who care for them.
- Learning is promoted and regulated by both the biology and ecology of the child.
- Learning in itself changes the physical structure of the brain, and the changing structure in turn organizes and reorganizes how the brain functions. Thus, different parts of the brain may be ready to learn at different times.
HPL I has had wide influence, particularly as a text used in teacher preparation programs and other educational settings; nearly two decades after its publication, the report remains the third most popular report published by the National Academies. Since 2000, however, there have been significant developments in research on learning. Users of HPL I have noted the importance of topics that were not emphasized in that report and areas in which there have been notable developments since 2000, including the role of culture in learning, out-of-school learning, how learning changes from childhood through adulthood, and the learning skills needed for college and work.
The committee was not asked to answer a specific question but to provide an update on a wide and diverse body of work. We needed to consider learners’ developmental needs and interests throughout the life span, from birth through old age. A more fundamental shift in focus from HPL I was indicated by the charge to address learning settings outside of school, often referred to as informal settings.
In addition, although the authors of HPL I recognized the importance of culture and context for learning, they concentrated on specific ways that cultural variation influences learning in school and ways educators can take that into account. Since HPL I was published, there has been a growing appreciation for the fundamental role that culture plays for every individual learner in every learning context, for every learning purpose. Navigating the different underlying assumptions and goals associated with the infinitely variable challenges and circumstances people encounter is a critical part of learning. Thus, we needed to explore how people learn as they move through all the varied settings and activities that make up human experience.
We discuss developments in understanding the cultural nature of learning in greater detail in Chapter 2, but the committee was mindful that learning occurs in a complex and dynamic ecosystem. Our investigation encompassed what is known about the individual learner both as a biological organism, with needs such as adequate sleep and nutrition, and as a social being. The very long list of factors that influence learning begins at the microscopic level (the level of lead in the learner’s blood is just one of many such factors) and extends to the macro level (e.g., the impact of the qualities of the learner’s neighborhood, society, and culture).
There was a wide range of research for the committee to consider. We sought to provide a flavor of the varied and creative research going on in diverse disciplines but without attaching too much weight to findings from
individual studies. Our goal is to give the reader a sense of the principal findings and prevailing themes in recent research without oversimplifying sometimes extremely subtle and complex work.
Certainly it was not possible to explore every avenue relevant to the science and practice of learning. Moreover, other reports of the National Academies have already explored related topics from the vast literature on learning, including some that fall under our charge (see Appendix B for a partial list of relevant reports).2
Our goal was to report on research-based findings that would be of most use to audiences who have relied on HPL I and to all readers eager to know about strategies for applying the research to support and foster their own and others’ learning. Two lenses for understanding learning guided our search for relevant research findings.
First, understanding learning as a developmental process requires many levels of analysis. This means that knowledge relevant for understanding learning comes from diverse disciplines that address neurological and biological processes, as well as social and cultural phenomena and contexts. Thus, we explored evidence about learning as a developmental process that undergoes changes over time across the life span. We sought to understand how learning occurs as people age, and we sought new insights into learning disabilities. We looked beyond the neuroscience literature to explore research on how cognitive processes such as executive function and reasoning change across the life span and how affective states such as emotion and motivation, social relationships, systems, and culture influence learning.
We drew on research from diverse fields in order to examine learning at different levels of analysis—from the molecular and cellular to the sociocultural—and thereby to demonstrate the complex systems involved in learning. We sought to accentuate the interdependencies among these levels and domains because we believe that learning is a complex process to be unraveled by analyses that span interdependent biological, cognitive, affective, interpersonal, and sociocultural conditions.
Second, our charge explicitly directed us to consider a wide variety of settings across the life span. People are engaged within formal learning environments such as school for only a small portion of their waking lives, and they learn in many other types of settings throughout their lives. Basic knowledge and skills (reading comprehension, literacy, mathematics, science, geography, oral and written communication, etc.) gained in formal educational settings remain important. But the importance of other kinds of learning, such as those often referred to as 21st century skills (e.g., flexibility and adaptability;
2 For example, our charge mentions “supporting students learning English as a second language,” but this topic is addressed in depth in a new National Academies report, Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017).
teamwork and collaboration; inventive thinking; digital literacy; and deep, motivated, and self-regulated learning), is now well established (Rader, 2002). The committee also recognized the importance of rich knowledge and competencies that people develop in the context of their families and communities outside of formal schooling.
The committee met six times in person for closed-session meetings and held three public information-gathering sessions. Our information-gathering process also included discussion sessions with researchers on the following topics:
- Thought and language in the bilingual infant
- Understanding cultural differences that influence how, why, and where most people learn
- The neuroscience of reading and reading disabilities
- Cognitive and developmental factors affecting learning in context
- Assessment challenges in learning contexts related to developments in psychology and technology
- Learning in informal settings
- Learning in adulthood and the use of technology for learning in adulthood
- Learning disabilities, universal design for learning, and assistive technology
Although the idea that learning occurs across the life span is not new, the increased focus on learning that takes place outside of and beyond K-12 education helped us shape our report, which is designed to provide information useful to multiple audiences: teacher-educators; persons preparing for an education profession; new teachers; and others connected to the world of education, including those who make policies that affect or direct education, as well as individuals.
Much of the research described in HPL I is still supported empirically; we have drawn on this body of evidence, but our task was to review new research. We therefore primarily confined our attention to material published after 2000, although in some cases we included older work that had not been addressed by HPL I. Addressing our charge required us to explore numerous fields of study and therefore to draw on research that varied in both methodology and standards of evidence. A few broad principles guided us in assessing the material we collected:
First, we placed greatest credence in evidence from those controlled studies that (1) included subjects who varied in key characterisitics, (2) drew on
the methodologies of multiple disciplines, and (3) targeted multiple learning outcomes. However, there was not an extensive array of studies of this type for every important subject we hoped to address. Therefore, we also reviewed other types of studies, including case studies, exploratory research examining correlational relationships among variables, design and development research, small and large quasi experiments, small and large random-assignment experiments, studies that document promising practice (or “hot-house” studies), and research reports and online publications not presented in refereed publications. (See Moss and Haertle  for discussion of the value of methodological pluralism in the conduct of research on teaching and learning.)
We recognize that these varied sources offer different sorts of evidence and note that blending findings from different perspectives and disciplines is not easily accomplished. Study designs, samples, and analytical techniques are not always comparable, and findings from laboratory-based studies often prove difficult to reconcile with those from classrooms, workplaces, or other settings. We characterize the nature of the available evidence we relied on for the main areas we explored within each chapter. We also gave greater credence to findings that are replicated and reported in meta-analyses and research syntheses than to empirical findings confined to a single study.
One problem that affects a variety of research on human behavior complicated our capacity to draw firm conclusions from some of the available research. As documented by Henrich and colleagues and by others (Henrich et al., 2010a; Nielsen et al., 2017), the social and behavioral sciences have relied very heavily on study subjects from cultures that are Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic, or “WEIRD” (thus, this issue of potential sample bias is known as the WEIRD problem). These researchers also noted that a substantial proportion of research subjects are college students and thus are also disproportionately younger as a group than adults in general. This issue is a particular challenge with laboratory-based research. Field research in real-world settings can much more readily include diverse populations. Findings based only on research with WEIRD subjects cannot be assumed to characterize human beings in general because this population is not representative of the entire human population.
We note that this caveat must be considered with respect to many research studies, although in other cases the composition of the study population is less relevant (e.g., in neurobiological studies of brain structures). Identifying a way to resolve the WEIRD problem was beyond the scope of our charge, but we note particular areas where it is most pertinent as they arise. Appendix C provides a more detailed discussion of the WEIRD problem and related concerns regarding study populations in learning research.
We also note that over the past several decades, attention to the evidence underpinning education research has increased (Lodge, 2013; Slavin, 2008). For example, the U.S. Department of Education has stressed the importance of
rigorous scientific evidence that includes findings from randomized, controlled trials (U.S. Department of Education, 2001) and offers practice guides and other resources through its What Works Clearinghouse Website.3 Researchers have also pointed out that the research design and methodology used in laboratory-based cognitive psychology and neuroscience research often cannot be practically applied to classroom settings (Oliver and Conole, 2003; Smeyers and Depaepe, 2013). In other words, one of the major ongoing challenges for educational research is that findings from the studies examining fundamental learning processes require substantial translation and interpretation in order to be applicable to practice.
The report begins with an overview of the landscape of current research on learning. In Chapter 2, we elaborate on the heightened interest in and more nuanced understanding of the cultural nature of learning. That chapter describes the committee’s understanding that learning is situated and why learning must be understood not as a phenomenon that occurs in predictable ways within individuals’ brains but rather as a function of dynamic processes that occur within a dynamic system that depends on people, time, and context.
In Chapter 3, we provide an overview of types of learning and of the key brain processes through which learning takes place. In Chapter 4, we describe two key cognitive processes that support learning: the means by which an individual orchestrates his learning and a key element of almost all learning, memory. Chapter 5 discusses the dynamic interplay between knowledge development and reasoning. Chapter 6 examines the roles of motivation, beliefs, goals, and values in learning outcomes.
In the last portion of the report, the committee turns to specific implications of the research we have reviewed for learners at different stages of life and educators. Chapter 7 revisits key findings presented throughout the report and elaborates on their implications for learning in school. Chapter 8 considers the potential for digital technology to support learning. Chapter 9 examines learning in adulthood and into old age, as well as learning disabilities that affect learners of all ages. We close in Chapter 10 with a brief synthesis of the primary themes in this complex body of work and offer an agenda for further research to support sound policy and practice.