How Children Learn

"Educators are sometimes intrigued by the contrast between traditional school practices and the way learning takes place in other settings. The respected cognitive researcher Lauren Resnick talked about it in her 1987 presidential address to the American Educational Research Association (Resnick 1987). And before her, generations of teachers undoubtedly looked for ways to somehow make better use of their students' natural learning abilities. Now, with new information from cognitive psychology and brain research, educators have more authoritative knowledge on the subject of learning than ever before." (Ron Brandt, Powerful Learning, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1998)

As it turns out, the old adage about horses and water is equally true for students and learning: you can lead a student to knowledge, but you can't make him or her drink, or make them learn.

Educational psychologist, neuroscientists, and education researchers have come up with a number of summary statements about learning that can help teachers improve instructional methods and their students to understand more deeply. The summary statements about learning are as follows:

Students of all ages learn what is personally meaningful to them, what they are passionate and/or curious about, and what is culturally relevant.
Students of all ages learn when they accept challenging but achievable goals.
Learning is developmental.
Individuals learn differently.
Students of all ages construct new knowledge by building on their current knowledge.
Much learning occurs through social interaction.
Children need feedback to learn.
Successful learning involves use of strategies—which themselves are learned.
A positive emotional climate strengthens learning.
Learning is influenced by the total environment, including feeling welcome, cared for, included, accepted, liked, having one's culture and language honored, and being comfortable, rested, fed, safe, and secure.

Understanding Inquiry Learning Performance Tasks Planning Resources

Medieval Helpdesk: What happens when you have to learn something new?

This short video illustrates how learning occurs. Adults and children alike have to overcome their many misconceptions. They need expert feedback and time to practise to learn.

Key resarch findings about how people learn

Key Findings 

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.

Students at a variety of ages persist in their beliefs that seasons are caused by the earth’s distance from the sun rather than by the tilt of the earth (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, 1987), or that an object that had been tossed in the air has both the force of gravity and the force of the hand that tossed it acting on it, despite training to the contrary (Clement, 1982). For the scientific understanding to replace the naïve understanding, students must reveal the latter and have the opportunity to see where it falls short.

2. To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must: (a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.

Experts, regardless of the field, always draw on a richly structured information base; they are not just “good thinkers” or “smart people.” The ability to plan a task, to notice patterns, to generate reasonable arguments and explanations, and to draw analogies to other problems are all more closely intertwined with factual knowledge than was once believed.

To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must have opportunities to learn with understanding. Deep understanding of subject matter transforms factual information into usable knowledge. A pronounced difference between experts and novices is that experts’ command of concepts shapes their understanding of new information: it allows them to see patterns, relationships, or discrepancies that are not apparent to novices. They do not necessarily have better overall memories than other people. But their conceptual understanding allows them to extract a level of meaning from information that is not apparent to novices, and this helps them select and remember relevant information. Experts are also able to fluently access relevant knowledge because their understanding of subject matter allows them to quickly identify what is relevant. Hence, their attention is not overtaxed by complex events.

3. 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.

In research with experts who were asked to verbalize their thinking as they worked, it was revealed that they monitored their own understanding carefully, making note of when additional information was required for understanding, whether new information was consistent with what they already knew, and what analogies could be drawn that would advance their understanding. These meta-cognitive monitoring activities are an important component of what is called adaptive expertise (Hatano and Inagaki, 1986).

Because metacognition often takes the form of an internal conversation, it can easily be assumed that individuals will develop the internal dialogue on their own. Yet many of the strategies we use for thinking reflect cultural norms and methods of inquiry (Hutchins, 1995; Brice-Heath, 1981, 1983; Suina and Smolkin, 1994). Research has demonstrated that children can be taught these strategies, including the ability to predict outcomes, explain to oneself in order to improve understanding, note failures to comprehend, activate background knowledge, plan ahead, and apportion time and memory. Reciprocal teaching, for example, is a technique designed to improve students’ reading comprehension by helping them explicate, elaborate, and monitor their understanding as they read (Palincsar and Brown, 1984). 

(excerpts from How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning: Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 1999, expanded Edition 2000, retrieved online November 14, 2015 )

Inaccurate preconceptions must be addressed before new learning can occur.

This short video illustrates how all of us, including young children, have preconceptions about the world and the way it works. These naive ideas must be addressed and challenged.

Implications for teacher education and instruction

Click on the diagram to enlarge it.

Implications for Teaching

The three core learning principles described above, simple though they seem, have profound implications for the enterprise of teaching and teacher preparation.

1. Teachers must draw out and work with the pre-existing understandings that their students bring with them.

The model of the child as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge provided by the teacher must be replaced. Instead, the teacher must actively inquire into students’ thinking, creating classroom tasks and conditions under which student thinking can be revealed. Students’ initial conceptions then provide the foundation on which the more formal understanding of the subject matter is built.

Schools of education must provide beginning teachers with opportunities to learn: (a) to recognize predictable preconceptions of students that make the mastery of particular subject matter challenging, (b) to draw out preconceptions that are not predictable, and (c) to work with preconceptions so that children build on them, challenge them and, when appropriate, replace them.

2. Teachers must teach some subject matter in depth, providing many examples in which the same concept is at work and providing a firm foundation of factual knowledge.

Superficial coverage of all topics in a subject area must be replaced with in-depth coverage of fewer topics that allows key concepts in that discipline to be understood. The goal of coverage need not be abandoned entirely, of course. But there must be a sufficient number of cases of in-depth study to allow students to grasp the defining concepts in specific domains within a discipline. Moreover, in-depth study in a domain often requires that ideas be carried beyond a single school year before students can make the transition from informal to formal ideas. This will require active coordination of the curriculum across school years.

Teachers must come to teaching with the experience of in-depth study of the subject area themselves. Before a teacher can develop powerful pedagogical tools, he or she must be familiar with the progress of inquiry and the terms of discourse in the discipline, as well as understand the relationship between information and the concepts that help organize that information in the discipline. But equally important, the teacher must have a grasp of the growth and development of students’ thinking about these concepts. The latter will be essential to developing teaching expertise, but not expertise in the discipline. It may therefore require courses, or course supplements, that are designed specifically for teachers.

3. The teaching of metacognitive skills should be integrated into the curriculum in a variety of subject areas.

Because metacognition often takes the form of an internal dialogue, many students may be unaware of its importance unless the processes are explicitly emphasized by teachers. An emphasis on metacognition needs to accompany instruction in each of the disciplines, because the type of monitoring required will vary. In history, for example, the student might be asking himself, “who wrote this document, and how does that affect the interpretation of events,” whereas in physics the student might be monitoring her understanding of the underlying physical principle at work.

Integration of metacognitive instruction with discipline-based learning can enhance student achievement and develop in students the ability to learn independently. It should be consciously incorporated into curricula across disciplines and age levels.

Developing strong metacognitive strategies and learning to teach those strategies in a classroom environment should be standard features of the curriculum in schools of education.

Evidence from research indicates that when these three principles are incorporated into teaching, student achievement improves.

(excerpts from How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning: Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 1999, expanded Edition 2000, retrieved online November 14, 2015 )

Conditions for Powerful Learning

Click to enlarge image.

Students will learn deeply, retain their knowledge and skills learned, and be able to apply their learning in new situations if ... 

What they learn is personally meaningful.
What they learn is challenging and they accept the challenge.
What they learn is appropriate for their developmental level.
They can learn in their own way, have choices, and feel in control.
They use what they already know as they construct new knowledge.
They have opportunities for social interaction.
They get helpful feedback.
They acquire and use strategies.
They experience a positive emotional climate.
The environment supports the intended learning.


How to Spark Deep Learning In the Classroom

Designing Learning That Matters

I'd like to invite you to try something. Stop reading for a moment and think back to a time when you were immersed in a deep learning experience. Maybe you're remembering a time when you figured out how to solve a problem? It might have been a time when you had little choice but to persevere. Changing a tire in order to continue a trip? Or maybe a time when you didn't give up until you mastered a new skill? A home project or a new video game? Now, consider what different qualities made this learning memorable.

Deep learning often happens when learners encounter experiences that challenge them to figure something out, explore new information, and create a product. (Does this match the memory you just recalled?) According to Jal Mehta:

The sad truth is that, for most of us, many of our experiences of deep learning occurred outside of school. The good news is that it is possible to bring the characteristics of deep learning to classrooms and school learning. Designing curriculum is the point when teachers can be innovative in order to create memorable and profound opportunities for their students. What does it take to design deep learning experiences that matter to students? Here are four ideas. Please share additional ideas in the comments below.

1. Use Inquiry

Chances are that your example of deep learning involved trying to figure something out. When learning is framed with problems and essential questions, there are clear reasons to pursue information. True inquiry allows for debate and encourages students to develop ideas that they can support with evidence. For example, my unit on Revolutions begins with the question, "What is a revolution?" I tell students that the dictionary won't be much help (although they are welcome to use it), but that they must come up with a definition which they can support. After the class has developed and debated ideas, we revisit these ideas regularly as we study different historic and contemporary examples of revolutions (or non-revolutions, depending on their definitions).

2. Look for Inspiration

Instead of beginning the unit-planning process by thinking of standards or by focusing solely on content, try to find examples of inspirational work in the world. Some examples:

  • A particularly poignant radio piece and issues faced by transgender youth started me thinking about podcasts, so as a culminating project in a unit that included a novel with a theme of racial boundaries, I challenged my students to create a podcast about crossing boundaries.
  • A newspaper article that creatively integrated text and media encouraged me to have my students create products that integrated text and media.
  • A crisis around education funding in our city led me to a digital story project that invited students to share their own ideas about Education and Democracy.

Standards matter, of course, but they are easily integrated into a larger, more creative vision for learning.

3. Remember to Ask "Why?"

Educators should always have an answer for that whiny kid off to the side who wants to know, "Why are we learning this?" I try to answer this question early on, before anyone has had a chance to ask it. At its best, school learning can matter to students on many levels. It might connect to recent events, be related to students' lives, or investigate an issue that is misunderstood by many. Whatever the reason for a unit, make sure that it's clear to you and clear to students.

4. Let Them Loose!

Chances are that the example of deeper learning you recalled when you started reading this post was not something you were forced to do. Choice and personal expression are powerful ways of allowing students to find themselves in their own learning. Project-based learning can transform old visions of school and make learning about more than retaining information. As I've said before, my students regularly amaze me with their abilities, their commitment to their work, and the products that they create. Jasmin and Kia are two examples of students who took a project idea beyond my expectations.

There is nothing inherently engaging, creative, or fun about school. In fact most school experiences are remarkably unmemorable. Yet school learning can be transformative, and school can help students discover themselves and their abilities. Our work as educators is to design experiences that allow this to happen.

How do you lead your students to deep learning?

One Teacher's Appeal for Deeper Learning

Teaching Students, Not Subjects:

Why We Need a Deeper

Learning Approach

by Sean McComb 2014 National Teacher of the Year
(retrieved online Nov. 02, 2015 from Huff Post Education: )
Posted: 09/25/2014 3:59 pm EDT Updated: 11/25/2014 5:59 am EST

Photo Digital Vision. via Getty Images

One thing I learned right away when honored with the National Teacher of the Year Award is that people wanted to know my philosophy of teaching. The answer has always been easy: Kids before content. In my classroom, I don't teach English. I teach students.

Everything we know about what it takes to succeed in today's economy and society suggests that our nation needs more individuals with nimble minds capable of creative, innovative thinking, and who have the perseverance to take on -- and learn from -- challenges. These are the demands of the 21st century. We should prepare students by helping them develop these skills across all subjects.

An educational approach known as deeper learning does that. Deeper learning encourages critical, independent thinking across all academic subjects, from history to mathematics. By presenting, defending and analyzing long-term projects, students also learn to communicate effectively, work collaboratively and believe in their own efficacy as rigorous thinkers -- all while mastering core academic content, because robust content knowledge enhances students' abilities to leverage and apply their skills.

In my English class, for example, students explore the wider world through the Injustice Project. Students select a topic that interests them: Human trafficking. Child soldiers. The history and treatment of Native Americans. They choose, read and discuss a relevant book that illuminates the issue. Having gained empathy through the narrative, students then conduct their own research to compose an argument for a solution to the issue. They then "market" their learning by creating a presentation that defends their solution and promoting their cause on social media.

A growing number of schools across the country fully embrace deeper learning and imbed its tenets into their culture and curriculum. But can this educational approach be taken to scale?

I believe it can. But not without overcoming some challenges first. The structure of a typical school day -- 45-minute bell schedules, teachers working in silos away from each other, and the difficulty of orchestrating off-campus projects and internships in the community -- would need to change to accommodate deeper learning's interdisciplinary nature.

Then there's the issue of measuring student outcomes. Many hold the perspective that "what's measured is what matters." For better or for worse, the predominant measurement system currently in our schools is standardized testing. But these tests, at least in their present form, don't fully reflect or measure 21st century skills. To truly capture deeper learning outcomes, we will need to rethink how we measure student outcomes.

Deeper learning also does not translate easily to a simple curriculum guide that teachers can just pick up and implement. As with Common Core, establishing new educational norms requires a different paradigm of training, instruction and assessment. We must invest in teachers on the front lines of this change.

All of this takes work and no small measure of will. But it will be worth it because our kids are worth it. When I started high school, I wasn't working to my potential. My home life was chaotic. But the teachers who became my mentors saw that, with the right support, I could do better. They knew that learning and growth happens when students are highly engaged in valuable learning, and so they stoked my curiosity and gave me room to run with my own questions and ideas. This should be the rule, not the exception.

As students prepare for a future where their work lives are likely to span a dozen or more jobs, one of the most important dispositions they can adopt is to embrace challenge and find joy in continuous learning. Teachers can nurture this resilient mindset. They can empower young people to translate learning into a vital, personal practice that can fuel their ambition and sense of purpose for a lifetime. In this way, our investment in deeper learning for our children returns to students the preparation that the future demands and the education that they deserve.