In December 1998, the National Research Council released How People Learn, a report that synthesizes research on human learning. The research put forward in the report has important implications for how our society educates: for the design of curricula, instruction, assessments, and learning environments. The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI), which funded How People Learn, has posed the next question: What research and development could help incorporate the insights from the report into classroom practice? Responding to that question is the focus of this report.
To address OERI's question, the Committee on Learning Research and Educational Practice first considered how research and practice are generally linked. A small number of teachers are engaged in design experiments with researchers or explore research on their own. They constitute a direct link between research and practice. But for the most part, the influence of research on practice is filtered through educational materials, through pre-service and in-service teacher education, through public policy, and through public opinion—often gleaned from mass media reporting and from people's own experiences in schools.
The committee sees the influence of research on these mediating arenas as weak. The research base on learning and teaching has not been consolidated in a way that gives consistent, clear messages in formats that are useful for practice. As a result, the various mediating arenas that influence practice are often not aligned either with research findings or with each other. In synthesizing a broad body of research, How People Learn provides an opportunity to provide research-based messages that are clear and directly relevant to classroom practice. Three of the findings are highlighted in this report because they have both a solid research base to support them and strong implications for how the enterprise of education is conducted:
- Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp new concepts and information presented in the classroom, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom. This finding requires that teachers be prepared to draw out their students' existing understandings and help to shape them into an understanding that reflects the concepts and knowledge in the particular discipline of study.
- To develop competence in an area of learning, students must have both a deep foundation of factual knowledge and a strong conceptual framework. Research that compares the performance of novices and experts, as well as research on learning and transfer, shows clearly that experts are not just "smart people"; they also draw on a richly structured information base. But this factual information is not enough. Key to expertise is the mastery of concepts that allow for deep understanding of that information, transforming it from a set of facts into usable knowledge. The conceptual framework allows experts to organize information into meaningful patterns and store it hierarchically in memory to facilitate retrieval for problem solving. And unlike pure acquisition of factual knowledge, the mastery of concepts facilitates transfer of learning to new problems. This research has clear implications for what is taught, how it is taught, and the preparation required for teaching.
- Strategies can be taught that allow students to monitor their understanding and progress in problem solving. Research on the performance of experts reveals that they monitor their understanding carefully, making note of when additional information is required, whether new information is consistent with what is already known, and what analogies can be drawn that would advance their understanding. In problem solving, they consider alternatives and are mindful of whether the one chosen is leading to the desired end. Although this monitoring goes on as an internal conversation, the strategies involved are part of a culture of inquiry, and they can be successfully taught in the context of subject matter. In teaching them, the monitoring questions and observations are modeled and discussed for some time in the classroom, with the ultimate goal of independent monitoring and learning. This research, again, has clear implications for teacher preparation, as well as for curriculum design.
To explore how these insights from research might be incorporated into practice, the committee convened both a conference and a workshop. Both events brought together teachers, administrators, researchers, curriculum
specialists, and education policy makers. The conference solicited feedback on How People Learn, its potential to influence classroom practice, and the barriers to its doing so. The workshop focused more specifically on research and development that could help bridge research and practice. This report incorporates the many insights of participants. From these, the committee drew five overarching goals that helped to guide the design of the research agenda that is the heart of this report:
- Elaborate the messages in How People Learn at a level of detail that makes them usable to educators (including teacher educators) and policy makers.
- Communicate the messages in How People Learn in a manner that is effective for each of the audiences that influences educational practice.
- Use the principles of learning for understanding articulated in How People Learn as a lens through which to evaluate existing education practices (K-12 and teacher training programs) and policies.
- Conduct research in teams that combine the expertise of researchers and the wisdom of practitioners.
- Extend the frontier of learning research through more intensive study of classroom practice.
In the research and development agenda proposed here, these goals are incorporated into a comprehensive program of ''use-inspired" strategic research and development focused on issues of improving classroom learning and teaching. The research and development proposed addresses needs in each of the four mediating arenas. With respect to educational materials, the proposals include a review of a sample of existing curricula, with the goal of identifying areas of alignment with the principles of learning that might be replicated or built on. Research and development are also recommended to extend the existing knowledge base by developing and testing new educational materials and by elaborating key research findings from How People Learn. Finally, creating an electronic database for information on curricula that have been evaluated by a team of experts is proposed.
The principles of learning highlighted here apply to teacher education and professional development programs as well as to K-12 education. The committee proposes that current practices in schools of education and professional development programs be evaluated for alignment with the principles of learning. The development and study of new tools for teacher training are proposed, as is an elaboration of key findings from How People Learn as they apply to teacher learning.
In the area of public policy, research is proposed to review state standards and assessments through the lens of How People Learn. Research to extend the knowledge base by studying district-level reform efforts that have been successful is proposed as well. And the development and study of effective communication tools for policy makers are recommended. Similarly, the development of a popular version of How People Learn is suggested in order to promote an understanding among parents and the public of the principles of learning that it identifies, as well as their implications for classroom practice.
Although much can be done now with the research reviewed in How People Learn, many unanswered research questions with clear importance for classroom practice remain. The committee therefore recommends research that would extend the knowledge base in areas in which it is now weak.
Finally, the committee suggests experimentation with, and study of, an interactive communications site where information and research findings from these proposed efforts can be accessed by a variety of audiences. The goal of this effort is to provide a knowledge base that is useful to teachers and to the various mediating groups that contribute to educational practice.