Twenty years ago, as a psychology major focused on learning and memory, I took a history of psychology course that included phrenology, Freud, Skinner, Piaget, and Vygotsky, among other ideas and theorists. A few years later, as a doctoral student in education policy, I took a child development class that claimed to be current and correct—it featured Piaget and Vygotsky. A pitifully watered-down version of my history course, it did not offer any indication of which aspects of Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s insights have endured and which have been updated.

That was one of many eye-opening experiences in my introduction to the field of education. Since then, I’ve often thought policymakers, administrators, and teachers would make different choices if they knew more about how our minds work. Early childhood education would be fully funded. Reading comprehension instruction would focus more on building knowledge and vocabulary than finding the main idea. Efforts to improve critical thinking would embrace the necessity of factual, conceptual, and procedural knowledge. Reading comprehension tests would be high stakes only if they drew from academic domains that had been taught.

You get the idea.

At long last, well-established findings from psychology are being applied to education. Deans for Impact has just released a short but powerful document: The Science of Learning. In answering six essential questions, it distills large bodies of research into basic cognitive principles and practical implications. Here are the six questions:

  1. How do students understand new ideas?
  2. How do students learn and retain new information?
  3. How do students solve problems?
  4. How does learning transfer to new situations in or outside of the classroom?
  5. What motivates children to learn?
  6. What are common misconceptions about how students think and learn?

These are complex questions, but The Science of Learning provides clear answers. For example, in explaining how students understand new ideas, one cognitive principle is “Cognitive development does not progress through a fixed sequence of age-related stages. The mastery of new concepts happens in fits and starts.” And the classroom application is “Content should not be kept from students because it is ‘developmentally inappropriate.’ The term implies there is a biologically inevitable course of development, and that this course is predictable by age. To answer the question ‘is the student ready?’ it’s best to consider ‘has the student mastered the prerequisites?’”

This is especially exciting because of the group behind it. Deans for Impact is just that: 24 deans and leaders devoted to improving teacher education. Instructional quality is just as important as curricular quality; unfortunately, the out-of-date child development course I took seems pretty typical. (See, for example, Dan Willingham’s New York Times op-ed defending teachers’ intelligence and noting the troubles with preparation programs.)

Being unaware of current cognitive science causes problems in everything from lesson plans to our national vision for education. Consider the vision set forth by Linda Darling-Hammond in announcing her new institute: “The quantity of human knowledge is exploding…. Rather than memorizing material from static textbooks, our young people need to learn how to become analysts and investigators who can work with knowledge they themselves assemble to solve complex problems we have not managed to solve.”

Last time I checked, D-Day was still June 6, 1944. We can all agree that students need more than the knowledge provided by “static textbooks,” but we’ll never accomplish our goals if we continue to deride knowledge while lauding forms of critical thinking. It takes knowledge to make knowledge.

Or, as Annie Murphy Paul wrote:

Yes, we must help students learn how to “find and apply knowledge.” But we also need to teach students in ways that ensure that a good deal of knowledge is absorbed and retained in their own heads. (And one of the most effective ways of ensuring retention is retrieval practice, a key part of affirmative testing.)

The difference in emphasis is crucial. The amount of information in the world will continue to grow, as will the accuracy of our search engines. But unless we succeed in moving a lot of that information into our students’ own minds, we won’t be preparing them to grapple with that brave new world.

Hopefully, The Science of Learning will be embraced as an essential guide by educators and policymakers at all levels. It would move essential cognitive science into their minds, and allow all of us to focus on cultivating the broad academic knowledge and related skills our youth need firmly planted in theirs.


Shutterstock Photo
Building knowledge of the world, even through textbooks, is absolutely essential to analysis, investigation, and problem solving (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

6 comments on “With “The Science of Learning,” These Deans Will Have an Impact”

  1. 1
    Ewaldoh on September 24, 2015

    Oh, sounding so wise. If only we knew all those factors, we could all be perfect teachers to all students with the perfect teaching style.
    Nowhere did I read that students come with different learning styles. Be it verbal, visual, kinetic or olfactory, ya’ still need to get into the kid’s brain and teach him or her as that child is receptive.

    1. 2
      Stephen Reich on November 3, 2020

      Please read the studies on learning styles. There is actually no evidence whatsoever that learning styles exist and that catering to a particular learning style results in any student improvement. Unfortunately, this is another myth that has captured the imagination of educators without any empirical foundation. Moreover, this myth is impractical. No teacher can deliver a lesson on the carbon cycle in 30 different ways to suit every student’s “learning style”. But the bottom line is that there is simply no science behind this popular belief. It is, so to speak, the flat earth of education.

  2. 3
    Ponderosa on September 24, 2015

    Wow, a group of ed school deans that listens to Dan Willingham! What a positive development! I’d been under the impression that there was no significant intellectual diversity amongst America’s ed schools –that Teachers’ College set the tune for all. I’m glad I was wrong.

  3. 4
    Janice on September 24, 2015

    I just wonder how did this nation of ours become so great without all that education mambo jumbo. It was the one room school house with its untrained teachers. How did Lincoln or Franklin become such erudite men who gave this country so much? I’ll tell you how: self motivation. How did Jane Austen learn to write without those writing courses? If a kid doesn’t want to learn, all of your educational theories won’t help. Those of us who want to learn do so DESPITE our teachers. Stop fooling yourself into thinking that you make a difference if a child has no interest. I tried that for over 30 years. Those who appreciated my love of learning had it within them to begin with. Those who didn’t, well, they turned a deaf ear. Once in a while you see movies like Freedom Writers, but at what cost to the teacher? And I wonder how much of it is true.
    Just go back to the one room school house, and remember how it made this country great. Think of all the money spent/wasted in some districts, and blame the teachers for “failing their students.” I failed those students myself, and then one day I was transferred to another district, and Voila! I became a wonderful teacher literally overnight. You want to improve the schools? Change the students. It’s a battle we will never, ever win. People learn because they want to, not because somebody came up with a theory. If I can’t learn one way, I’ll find another way to learn, thank you. And only if I want to.

  4. 5
    Hainish on September 28, 2015

    Wow, such negative comments here. I’ll try for a positive one:

    I studied cognitive psychology in college and was dismayed when, getting my teaching certification years later, I found that very little of that knowledge made it into the field of education. I’m so glad to see that this is starting to change.

  5. 6
    agnes mcevilly on October 5, 2015

    Perhaps Martin Heidegger was correct when he said that only those who can LEARN can TEACH. Why else would educationists promulgate the notion that you can learn the skills of critical thinking and sound judgement for example,devoid of context? It’s tantamount to trying to satisfy ones hunger armed with the best cutlery but no food or trying to catch steam with a strainer?

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