What do we know about how people learn?

We know a lot about how people learn. But strangely enough, very little of this knowledge makes its way into the way we “do school” in the traditional system! In fact, many aspects of traditional education are directly in conflict with research about learning. One of the most valuable early steps in improving your school or district is to become familiar with this research and to figure out what it means in practice. This research is not just about cognition (though cognition is in there!). It’s also about psychology, emotion, motivation, culture and social interaction. There are ten cornerstones of how we learn based on research:

  1. Learning is an activity carried out by the learner. You can’t force learning, it has to be active. Students need to be inspired to put forward effort. Sometimes that can be extrinsic motivation like points and awards. However, think about how to best engage and motivate students because it is meaningful to them.
  2. Learning is not just about cognition. The parts of the brain that manage emotion, motivation, and cognitive learning are closely related. People learn best when they are learning about things they care about, and when they have emotional support.
  3. Learning is not linear or age based. Development is different for everyone and does not happen in a straight progression.
  4. Intrinsic motivation is better than extrinsic. People learn best when they truly want to.
  5. Self regulation is key to learning. People need skills – self-awareness, reflection, planning and others – to engage and persist in learning. Think about what the building blocks for learning are and how your school is helping students to develop them.
  6. Learning happens when new information is transferred to long term memory. When there’s too much information and not enough time, learning gets lost.
  7. Learning builds on prior knowledge. For new information to “stick,” it has to stick to something else. It has to be relevant. This includes building on previous knowledge, linked to students experiences and being culturally relevant.
  8. Learning requires feedback. People need meaningful and frequent feedback from their peers, teachers, and their environment. That’s why assessing for learning is so important.
  9. Learning is social. Relationships matter. So do collaboration, dialogue, and inclusion in a supportive learning community.
  10. Learning occurs in context. An individual’s environment impacts how well they learn. Safety, inclusion, and belonging are vital.

Questions to Consider

  • In what ways does your school or district use the learning sciences? How can you build on these strengths?
  • What is your school or district doing that does NOT align with the learning sciences? Where are the gaps or conflicts between research and practice, and what do they look like in action?
  • Why do schools continue to use practices that aren’t aligned with the research on learning?
  • Select one cornerstone at a time. What might it look like in your school or district? What might its implications be for instruction, assessment, and student supports? What might a set of guiding principles for your school or district look like?
  • In what ways might the learning sciences challenge assumptions or beliefs in your school or district? How can you engage your teams and communities?