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Understanding Learning Science Research

What is the science of learning?

One of the hallmarks of the new science of learning is its emphasis on learning with understanding. This is not to say that the new science of learning denies that facts are important for thinking and problem solving. Indeed:

Research on expertise in areas such as chess, history, science, and mathematics demonstrate that experts' abilities to think and solve problems depend strongly on a rich body of knowledge about subject matter (e.g., Chase and Simon, 1973; Chi et al., 1981; deGroot, 1965). However, the research also shows clearly that "usable knowledge" is not the same as a mere list of disconnected facts. Experts' knowledge is connected and organized around important concepts (e.g., Newton's second law of motion); it is "conditionalized" to specify the contexts in which it is applicable; it supports understanding and transfer (to other contexts) rather than only the ability to remember. (Bransford et al., 2000)

Why is this important?

It is essential that we help our teachers understand both the what and the how of the change process we are suggesting is necessary for our millennial generation to develop into active and productive citizens of the 21st century. It is an awesome responsibility we hold in our hands. Drawing on the richness of the learning science research helps ensure that our change efforts are focused on the right outcomes.

What does the research tell us?

The Key Findings of the How People Learn report are summarized as:

  1. Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom.

  2. To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must:
  3. * have a deep foundation of factual knowledge;

    * understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and

    * organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.

  4. A metacognitive approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them. (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000, 14-8)

The essence of the change in expertise is to take our students from novice to expert, but to also develop adaptive experts as opposed to routine experts. Understanding adaptive expertise is critical to understanding the style of learning change that is required:

The concept of adaptive expertise (Hatano and Ignaki, 1986) provides an important model of successful learning. Adaptive experts are able to approach new situations flexibly and to learn throughout their lifetimes. They not only use what they have learned, they are metacognitive and continually question their current levels of expertise and attempt to move beyond them. They don't simply attempt to do the same things more efficiently; they attempt to do things better. A major challenge for theories of learning is to understand how particular kinds of learning experiences develop adaptive expertise or "virtuosos." (Bransford et al., 2000)

Key Questions

  1. How are the key findings of the How People Learn report currently reflected in your school's curriculum?
  2. Why do you think a greater emphasis on understanding may be beneficial to the lives of the millenials?
  3. Can you discuss how adaptive expertise may look in an example from your curriculum area?


Bransford, J. D., Brown, A.L., and Cocking, R., eds. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. Washington D.C.: National Academy Press, 2000.

Mathematics, and Science in the Classroomshington. D.C.: National Academy Press, 2005..