NAS Hoping To Bridge Divide on Learning Methods

By David J. Hoff — January 13, 1999 3 min read
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The nation’s most respected scientific organization is in the middle of a two-stage campaign to define how research on children’s learning can be used to reshape what happens in classrooms.

The National Academy of Sciences will soon publish a report summarizing existing research on how people learn. Later this year, the Washington-based professional society that advises federal policymakers will issue a follow-up study detailing how that research should inform educational practice.

For More Information:
Prepublication copies of “How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School” are available for $44.95 each from the National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Ave. N.W., Lockbox 285, Washington, DC 20055; (800) 624-6242. The report is also available on the Web at: http://www.nap.edu/bookstore/

Both reports, the researchers hope, will help enlighten the current debate between advocates of traditional methods and those who emphasize hands-on learning. The debate, the scholars say, should not focus on which method is best, but on how to use each correctly.

“Sometimes a lecture is what is needed to propel students to the next level of understanding,” said John D. Bransford, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and a co-chairman of the first NAS panel. “The trick is sometimes.”

Moreover, he added, experiential learning can be as ineffective as a dull lecture if it doesn’t have a clearly defined purpose.

“It’s knowing when to use which [method] based on the principles of learning,” Mr. Bransford said at a one-day conference the NAS held here last month to brief policymakers, researchers, and teachers on “How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School.” The report is scheduled for publication in March.

Those principles, as defined in the report, fall into four categories. Teachers must:

  • Tailor their lessons to what their students already know, trying to deepen and expand students’ understanding of the material;

  • Design curricula intended to help students “learn with understanding” rather than memorize “disconnected sets of facts and skills";

  • Provide students with feedback that encourages them to “revise and improve the quality of their thinking"; and

  • Create “a sense of community” that encourages people to value “learning and high standards.”

Creating a Truce?

In a glimpse of what the follow-up report will explain in detail, “How People Learn” offers examples of how some teachers design lessons around the principles.

For example, one mathematics teacher asked students how she could draw a picture representing the algorithm 12 x 4. They told her it could be shown by 12 jars, each containing four butterflies.

Over the course of the lesson, she drew pictures and showed her students that (10 x 4) + (2 x 4) and (6 x 4) + (6 x 4) both yield the same answer as 12 x 4.

A focus on such applications of the research may help create a truce in current debates over how to teach subjects such as reading and math, a member of the panel writing the second report said.

The divisions, seen most recently in California’s adoption of standards in math and science, relies on false assumptions, said Karen C. Fuson, a psychology professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

“In most of the rhetoric, people pick the worst of the opposition,” Ms. Fuson said in an interview. “It’s a typical straw-man argument that says, therefore, everything is wrong” with the other approach.

Scientific research may quell such debates because it shows that elements of both methods can be combined, she added, much as an NAS report last year urged phonics and whole-language proponents to incorporate both their philosophies to help children learn to read. (“NRC Panel Urges End to Reading Wars,” March 25, 1998.)

Transporting Ideas

How such principles can be used to change day-to-day practice in classrooms will be answered by a panel facing a June 30 deadline. Both reports are financed by the Department of Education’s office of educational research and improvement.

“The idea here is to help ideas travel productively,” C. Kent McGuire, the department’s assistant secretary for research, said at the Dec. 18 conference.

Even if teachers absorb the lessons from the NAS reports, they won’t succeed if school policies don’t change. All the reports’ recommendations will require extra time, which policymakers are rarely willing to pay for, said David C. Berliner, the dean of the college of education at Arizona State University in Tempe.

“Time may be the biggest enemy of implementation of what’s in this report,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 1999 edition of Education Week as NAS Hoping To Bridge Divide on Learning Methods


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