School & District Management

NRC Publishes Follow-Up on Student Learning

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — January 11, 2005 3 min read
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The National Research Council’s synthesis of the research on learning turned into an international best seller after its release six years ago. Now, the council has released a companion volume intended to help teachers convert the abstract research-based principles identified in the earlier report to effective practice.

But the report is unlikely to quell debates about which methods are best for teaching the subjects.

“How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom” is available for online viewing or purchase from the National Academies Press.

How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom outlines how three central tenets of learning theory might shape instruction in those subjects. Those tenets, drawn from the extensive research analysis of a committee of scholars, suggest that teachers must address students’ initial understanding and preconceptions about particular topics, provide a foundation of factual knowledge and conceptual understanding, and teach strategies to help students take control of their learning.

“These principles, even if teachers [understood] them, were still at too abstract a level,” said M. Suzanne Donovan, who directed the study for the NRC, a part of the National Academies, which advise the federal government and the public on issues in science, engineering, and medicine. “We were looking for a set of chapters that took all three principles and addressed them in depth and communicated them effectively to teachers.”

‘Repertoire of Strategies’

The 600-page volume is divided by subject area, with recommendations from experts for incorporating the three principles into lessons and activities in those areas. The book also features a number of detailed descriptions of how skilled educators have designed lessons around the principles.

A case study of a history lesson, for example, outlines how students can use textbook descriptions and a number of primary sources to put into broader context the experience of the Pilgrims and Native Americans in the early part of the 17th century.

John D. Bransford

Another example is a discussion by 2nd graders and their teacher of the varying strategies they use to solve math problems. And an extended section describes how to lead students on a scientific study of light.

“The individual chapters in this volume might be viewed as presentations of the strategies taken by individuals (or teams) who understand the rules of the teaching and learning ‘game’ as we now understand them,” Ms. Donovan and John D. Bransford write in the introduction. Mr. Bransford, a professor of education at the University of Washington in Seattle, has done research on how people learn and was a co-chairman of the original committee.

The subject-area sections will also be published separately in the hope of making them more useful to teachers.

A range of instructional methods could be used to cover the content of lessons and help students master them, but the report falls short of suggesting how to teach the subjects—a question that has stirred vigorous debate in each of the fields and among policymakers.

“We don’t believe, nor do the chapters indicate, that there is a single method that can be used,” Ms. Donovan said. “We hope teachers will see things they can incorporate into their own repertoire of strategies.”

The report is, however, a step toward bridging the gap between research and practice and improving instruction for all students, according to Beatrice L. Bridglall, the assistant director of the Institute for Urban & Minority Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Teacher Access

But while it could prove a valuable resource, disseminating research for use in classrooms has long been difficult.

“One of the challenges . . . is the lack of time teachers and other educators have for reading, honestly reflecting on what they read, and integrating relevant information in instruction,” Ms. Bridglall wrote in an e-mail. “I am not sanguine that the main audience for whom this book is intended, namely teachers, will even know about this resource.”

The earlier publication, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, was one of the council’s most popular, selling 85,000 copies in a number of languages, including Chinese, Finnish, Korean, Japanese, and Portuguese.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2005 edition of Education Week as NRC Publishes Follow-Up on Student Learning

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