Quality Design Principle #6: Base School Design and Pedagogy on Learning Sciences

“One of the biggest changes is from assuming that the stand and deliver approach to learning in which teachers deliver curriculum and students are expected to just give it back on tests actually works. We are inching along in our understanding that scholars have to be active learners and that we need to build on what they already know. We can’t assume what they know – we need to discover it. Without the data, we are at risk of just making up stuff and spinning our wheels. If you are making me learn letters when I already know them, you are not helping me reach my potential. When first-graders are ready for second- or third-grade standards, we need to be able to scaffold up. Practitioners [teachers] are going to have to know and understand the content and have access above grade level.”

 – Cynthia Lamkin, Lead Learner, Otken Elementary School, McComb School District, MS, 2018


Competency-based systems leverage instructional approaches and systems of assessments all of which are based on the learning sciences. Teachers design learning experiences, select instructional strategies and use assessments based on their knowledge of their students’ cognitive, psychological and biological development. The learning sciences have implications for all aspects of school design and pedagogy, including transforming the practice of teaching to a more student-centered approach in which students are active learners.

Key Characteristics

  • Learning sciences. Pedagogy reflects the most recent research about how people learn and develop—cognitive, psychological (motivation and engagement), and biological—ensuring learning environments and learning experiences result in powerful learning outcomes for students.
  • Shared understanding. Teachers internalize understanding of the learning sciences and corresponding pedagogical expectations. Students also have opportunities to understand how learning happens so that they develop metacognitive abilities and the skills to monitor their own learning.
  • Development opportunities. Educators have powerful and personalized opportunities to develop the competencies required of practitioners of the learning sciences. Professional development also reflects the learning sciences so that teachers learn in the ways they are expected to teach.
  • Design to the edges. Instructional strategies that address the educational needs of historically underserved students are embedded into the core instructional strategies.

How Is Developing a Shared Pedagogical Philosophy Based on the Learning Sciences Related to Quality?

Drawing from cognitive, psychological, developmental and biological domains, the learning sciences can inform school design, curriculum and learning experiences, instruction and assessment. Although the body of research on the science of learning is greater than can be summarized here, the following are nine cornerstones of the learning sciences that should drive teaching and learning, as well as culture and structures.

Cornerstones of the Learning Sciences

Learning is an activity that is carried out by the learner. Students do not simply absorb information and skills. Rather, learning requires active engagement and effort. Effort is influenced by motivation. Similar to intelligence, motivation is malleable. Beliefs about intelligence shape the amount of effort students are willing to invest. Those who hold a growth mindset will put more effort toward learning than those who hold the misconception that intelligence is a fixed trait. Providing incremental opportunities to experience growth reinforces that effort will result in success. Learners will be more motivated when they value the task and if they are confident they will be successful with supports available if needed.

Learning results from the interplay of cognition, emotion and motivation. The brain does not clearly separate cognitive from emotional functioning, so optimal learning environments will engage both. Motivation is important to learning but it is also dynamic and changes in response to a number of factors. In fact, as students learn more about their cognitive processes, they develop a greater sense of competence and thereby increase their motivation. The relationship between cognition, emotion and motivation is dynamic.

Learning does not occur through a fixed progression of age-related stages. The mastery of new concepts happens in fits and starts. Learning is shaped by multiple factors, some of which are related to the neural, social and emotional development of children. Others are dependent on the types of experiences and contexts provided for the learner to build new understanding on prior knowledge. Practically speaking, this means that biological factors are only a part of the story. Frequent challenges matched by social and emotional support can strengthen cognitive and psychological development. Rich learning experiences facilitated by helpful guides along with recurring opportunities to experiment, practice and improve will help students learn, develop and achieve.

Intrinsic motivation leads to better long-term outcomes than extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic or controlled motivation (systems of reward or punishment such as the traditional grading system of 0-100 points for assignments and behaviors) may be useful in the short-run but often produces the unintended consequence of disengagement and resistance. Self-determination theory explains that motivation will increase when learners experience competence (I can be successful), relatedness (I have meaning and connection) and autonomy (I have control over the process). It’s important to remember that motivation is dynamic. It increases and decreases. It can be shaped by cognitive processes, and external expectations can become intrinsic motivation.

Effort is dependent on motivation and self-regulation. When learners are able to self-regulate—when they can successfully manage thoughts, behaviors and emotions—they are better able to initiate and sustain focus and effort on difficult tasks. Students may be highly motivated but not have the skills necessary to manage the emotions they experience in the process of learning. Thus, students need coaching to build the social and emotional skills to manage the stress they experience from situations in or out of school, the metacognitive skills to monitor their learning and the self-regulation skills to change strategies as needed.

Learning is shaped by the way information is processed and transferred into long-term memory. New information is processed in working memory before it can be transferred into long-term memory. Working memory has limitations to how much new information it can absorb, requiring students and teachers to consider the cognitive load. Strategies can be used to reduce demand on working memory and helping to transfer new information and concepts into long-term memory.

Learning builds on prior knowledge and context. People learn new knowledge optimally when their prior knowledge is activated. Learners need to have structures to organize and retrieve information. Thus, attaching new information to what they already know in a context where that knowledge is accessible, relevant and responsive to cultural understanding can be helpful in mastering new ideas and skills.

Acquiring new knowledge and skills requires effective feedback. Effective feedback focuses on the task (not the student) and on improving (rather than verifying performance). Assessing student learning, identifying misconceptions or gaps in understanding and providing feedback are critical steps in the learning process. Assessment information is as important to helping teachers to adjust their teaching strategies or improve their skills as it is for helping students adjust their learning strategies. Research on learning progressions helps teachers to understand how students are understanding concepts and processes not just whether they reached the correct answer.

Learning is a social process. Learning occurs in a sociocultural context involving social interactions. Individuals need opportunities to observe and model behaviors—both from adults and peers—to develop new skills. Dialogue with others is needed to shape ways of thinking and construct knowledge. Discourse and collaborative work can strengthen learning when they allow students to assist each other and take on expert roles.

Learning occurs through interaction with one’s environment. The human brain, and therefore learning, develops over time through exposure to conditions, including people, experiences and environmental factors. A person’s culture may also serve as “context” that influences learning. Learning occurs best in conditions that support healthy social, emotional and neurological development. Students will be more motivated in schools when they believe that they are accepted, belong and respected. Optimal learning environments attend to and seek to ameliorate status differences and social hierarchies so that students do not feel marginalized, ostracized or threatened.

When districts and schools consult the learning sciences, they find clear evidence that learning occurs when the learner drives and owns the learning process. They’ll begin to think more strategically about how to design learning experiences around students’ zone of proximal development, activate prior knowledge, manage the limitations of working memory and the transfer to long-term memory. They will also find that intrinsically motivated learning is optimal: motivation and performance will increase when learners experience competence (I can be successful), relatedness (I have meaning and connection) and autonomy (I have control over the process). Districts and schools that turn to the learning sciences to define their pedagogical philosophy will inevitably find themselves focusing on student ownership, engagement and motivation. This focus will improve learning and teaching, and contribute to the culture of empowerment necessary to sustain a competency-based system.

Competency-based systems “design to the edges” with their entire student population in mind. Traditional education systems have relied heavily on instructional strategies that are designed to “teach to the middle.” They design for a “typical” student, often using a definition of “typical” that is rife with bias and assumptions. However, a district or school tailoring education to meet students where they are will need to design to the edges and understand its students deeply, seeking opportunities to know them before the beginning of school and think about what is going to be needed to ensure they succeed. They ensure that pedagogical principles are adequately flexible to support the diversity of needs that will inevitably present themselves in a school, and even in a single classroom. They also recognize that oftentimes designing for students with the most “extreme” needs can result in benefits for all students. In other words, if a classroom is doing a good job of serving the student who is the farthest behind and the student who is the most advanced, they are almost certainly meeting the needs of all the other students.

Policies and Practices to Look For

  • There is a clearly articulated pedagogical philosophy or set of beliefs that drive instruction.
  • Professional learning gives educators the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to enact the shared pedagogical philosophy. It draws upon the learning sciences and is personalized for educators. Within professional learning communities educators engage in inquiry to understand research to better support students that are struggling.
  • Instructional strategies take into consideration that students start with different sets of academic skills, social and emotional skills and life experiences.
  • There are schoolwide approaches for helping students develop the building blocks of learning or self-directed learning skills such as growth mindset, metacognition, self-regulation and perseverance.
  • Learning experiences and instructional strategies are designed to meet the needs of diverse learners. It is learner-centered and culturally responsive, including but not limited to, communication of high expectations, active learning teaching methods, student-driven discourse and small group instruction.
  • All students have opportunities to apply learning and build higher-order skills supported by performance tasks and performance-based assessment.
  • Systems of assessments include assessment for learning that are embedded in the cycle of learning with actionable feedback and structured reflection to build metacognition.
  • Grading practices are aligned with the learning sciences.

Examples of Red Flags

There is no shared understanding of how people learn and implications for teaching. Teachers may share a common curriculum or an instructional model (i.e., project-based learning), but cannot articulate common expectations for how students will actually learn. Learning environments and learning experiences look very different classroom to classroom and students are not consistently engaged in meaningful, challenging work.

Students are expected to listen and learn, with little opportunity for practice or feedback. Direct instruction and lecture has its place in the set of instructional strategies teachers use. However, if most classrooms have students sitting and listening to teachers with little opportunity for students to practice, receive feedback or actively apply their learning, there is a good cause to be concerned that the school has not fully understood or explored the implications for the learning sciences.

Assessments rely heavily on tests that all students are expected to take on the same day. If students all begin at different places in their learning and have variation in the tempo of their learning, why would we expect them to all be prepared on the same day to take a test or an assessment? If assessments are going to be used formatively to inform instruction and guide the next steps of learning, it may make sense to have assessments given on the same day. However, if the assessments are summative, it is important that students have had adequate support and time to become proficient. Deadlines matter as an important part of time management skills. However, that value diminishes when students simply need more time because they are putting forth effort to repair gaps and master rigorous expectations.

Source: Sturgis, C. & Casey K. (2018). Quality principles for competency-based education. Vienna, VA: iNACOL. Content in this book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 international license.

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