What do we know about learning, and what does it mean for school?

The learning sciences – research on development, emotion, and the brain – tell us a lot about how people learn. The trouble is, it can be hard to make the connection between research and practice. Once you know about learning, what can you do about it? This section summarizes ten cornerstones of the research on learning and suggests a few ways that they translate into practice. The list is not comprehensive, and the ideas below are not mandatory. They’re just that: ideas to get you thinking.

Learning is an activity carried out by the learner. You can’t force learning, it has to be active. Voice and choice matter. Provide students with opportunities to choose what they learn about and how they demonstrate their learning.

Personalize professional development: allow teachers to choose their own  areas of growth and improvement.

Learning is not just about cognition. The parts of the brain that manage emotion, motivation, and learning are closely related. People learn best when they are learning about things they care about, and when they have emotional support. Prioritize time for teachers and students to form deep relationships. Ensure that students feel known by their teachers and respected for their identity and culture.

Integrate small, personalized advisement or mentorship structures into the school day to provide students with close, personal support.

Facilitate culturally responsive and applied learning. Engage students’ joy of learning.

Learning is not linear or age based. Development is different for everyone and does not happen in a straight progression. Shift to multi-age groups (rather than grade level groups) to better meet students where they are. Group students strategically, including homogeneous and heterogeneous groups depending on the task.

Use data practices that engage teachers in studying each student’s numerical age, academic levels, and developmental stage. Recognize that not all will be the same. Personalize supports in each area to meet students where they are.

Intrinsic motivation is better than extrinsic. People learn best when they truly want to. Provide students with opportunities to experience competence (I can do this), relatedness (this matters to me), and autonomy (I have control in the process).

Revise grading practices. Move away from the 0-100, A-F grading scale. Use evaluation systems that allow self-reflection and assessment against objective standards for proficiency, and allow students multiple opportunities to demonstrate competencies.

Self regulation is key to learning. People need skills – self-awareness, reflection, planning and others – to engage and persist in learning. Define  non-cognitive and self-regulatory competencies. Make these explicit and clear to students and to teachers.

Identify opportunities for students to practice and learn these competencies. Provide feedback and integrate demonstrations of learning, just as you would for reading or math.

Design learning experiences that give students the opportunity to practice self regulation, both on their own and in teams.

Learning happens when new information is transferred to long term memory. When there’s too much information and not enough time, learning gets lost. Pace the introduction of new content. Provide brain breaks. Teach students to know what brain breaks are, and when they need them. Allow students to take brain breaks independently.

Provide opportunities for students to use new knowledge as they are first exposed to it. Engaging with knowledge after accessing it can facilitate the transfer to memory.

Learning builds on prior knowledge. For new information to “stick,” it has to stick to something else. It has to be relevant. This includes being culturally relevant. Connect new information to student’s prior understanding of content, and/or with their lives and context.

Make learning progressions transparent to let students see how concepts and content build on each other.

Learning requires feedback. People need meaningingful and frequent feedback from their peers, teachers, and their environment. Integrate multiple forms of assessment into daily classroom practice: self-reflection, peer feedback, quizzes, and performance tasks. Use technology to provide students with frequent feedback on their work, as they work. Equip students with as much data as possible to inform their learning.
Learning is social. Relationships matter. So do collaboration, dialogue, and inclusion in a supportive learning community. Provide opportunities for students to collaborate and work in groups. Facilitate project-based, problem-based, and collaborative learning.

Provide opportunities for teachers to collaborate. Structure dedicated teacher collaboration time. Support teachers to provide each other with formative feedback. Integrate opportunities for collaborative curriculum design, and/or co-teaching.

Learning occurs in context. An individual’s environment impacts how well they learn. Safety, inclusion, and belonging are vital. Create safe, multicultural, and inclusive classrooms. Work with families to understand what safety and inclusion mean to them.

Partner with community and families to create strong bridges between the home and classroom environment.


Questions to Consider

  • How deep is your school’s or district’s knowledge about the learning sciences? How can you engage in learning experiences to deepen your awareness and understanding?
  • 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?
  • Think about how your school or district does or does not use the learning sciences. What relationships might exist between these patterns and your student outcomes? How might your use of the learning sciences help or hinder student growth?
  • 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?