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At the present time, more is known about how people learn than ever before in human history, and breakthroughs in research are occurring with increasing frequency. The social sciences have contributed enormously to this body of theoretical knowledge, but the diffusion of pedagogical innovations remains problematic. New theories and practices usually do not completely displace existing pedagogies but are simply added to teachers’ instructional repertoire. Moreover, the translation of theory into classroom practice depends heavily on how well individual teachers understand the theories they were taught and how they put them into practice.
During the twentieth century psychologists and educational theorists developed a wide variety of models to explain how humans learn, and it is clear that ongoing basic research has begun to have an impact on pedagogical practice at all levels of the educational system. Recent research in neuroscience has also added a biological dimension to our understanding of the learning process, although the pedagogical implications of this research are still not clear.
Several important themes have emerged from this body of research. For example, there is substantial agreement that in order for deep learning to occur, learners must construct new knowledge themselves, through experience, reflection, and integration. Learners also must build on what they already know and believe, so they must reconcile existing knowledge with new knowledge and correct mistaken beliefs. Metacognitive skills, such as critical thinking and problem solving, are primary goals of learning, but mastery of factual knowledge is also essential to critical thinking. Factual knowledge is best learned within conceptual frameworks that organize it in meaningful ways, and since subject disciplines use different frameworks, students need to learn a variety of approaches for organizing their knowledge.
These theories suggest that students must engage in learning tasks that require inquiry, experimentation, and active engagement in real-world problem solving. Groupbased activities and projects are commonly used teaching methods in this paradigm, since cooperation and collaboration seem to facilitate the desired outcomes. The teacher’s content expertise is still important, but it is used in novel ways. Questioning and dialogue largely replace lecturing, and the teacher becomes an instructional coach who designs learning activities, facilitates discussion, and guides students through the process of learning.
With various adaptations, these principles can be applied at all levels of instruction, from early childhood to adult education. For example, in an elementary school, students use models of the sun, the earth, and the moon, and a bright lamp to conduct an experiment to explain the phases of the moon. At the end of the exercise, they write up their conclusions and take a test on the essential astronomical concepts. In a college biology course, student groups are presented with a case study on stream pollution. They work collaboratively to pool their biological knowledge, pose researchable questions, develop a learning plan that includes readings for the group, conduct an investigation of the questions, and finally produce scientifically defensible solutions. The product of their work is evaluated on the accuracy of their knowledge, the thoroughness of their research, and the quality of their scientific reasoning.
Although empirical research clearly supports the effectiveness of these pedagogical approaches, only the most progressive educational institutions promote and support them as the primary mode of instruction. Typically, selected activities and projects occur only sporadically within the context of traditional didactic instruction. The reasons these theories have not been more pervasive in education are related to some of the fundamental problems of translating theory into practice.
Beyond the difficulties of mastering new instructional methods and techniques, teachers often find it hard to abandon the role of expert didact and the instructional paradigm of drill and practice under which they were taught. Indeed, educational researchers have found that the intuitive beliefs of teachers about learning have a greater impact on their instructional practices than theoretical models derived from research. Outside the academy, parents and school boards often do not understand these new approaches and may resist their incorporation into their schools. In some cases, state education standards and curriculum guides may contradict new pedagogical models suggested by research. Finally, governments and school systems increasingly require standardized end-ofgrade tests as part of school accountability, and teachers can find that “teaching to the test” is more important to their career success than considerations of effective pedagogy.
It is not sufficient for social scientists to demonstrate the effectiveness of new teaching methods and techniques, since pedagogical change requires attention to the gamut of social, cultural, and political forces that mitigate the translation of theory into practice.
Bransford, John D., Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, eds. 2000. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, expanded ed. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
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