Report on Reports

16. How People Learn... 1999 - National Research Council




I advocate incorporating the “essence” of science, along with whatever content is necessary in the context, into courses across the curriculum. Some subjects already provide logical opportunities for exposing students to scientific thinking: medical ethics or environmental economics, for example. But there are many more. In a political science course, an understanding of the nature of science would help students understand the frequent conflicts between scientists and policymakers. For journalism students, an exposure to the process of science would help them report and interpret scientific issues more accurately. And what about a literature course? Would an exposure to a biological understanding of the world enhance one’s appreciation for literary treatments of the same world? I think so. What’s more, this process would also bring benefits for science students and instructors as well. As we work to incorporate an appreciation for scientific thinking into other disciplines, we will also improve our understanding of the social context in which science is done, and that should make us better scientists and better teachers.

–PKAL F21 Statement, 2002.


How People Learn, a report published in 1999 by a committee established by the National Research Council, has a single focus: bringing research from advances in cognitive science into the work of shaping effective learning environments. It might be that, among all the documents reviewed here, this publication alone could drive decisions of reformers in the next decade in the most productive ways. Although, in the end, it speaks to each of the stakeholder communities, the value of this report is that its starting point is the process of learning, and all discussions, conclusions, and recommendations are derived therefrom. Most faculty understand what works for student learning primarily by analyzing their own experiences– from when they were students and from the achievements or lack thereof of students in their classrooms and labs. This is the case even as educators from John Dewey on have called for attention to how people learn. This NRC publication builds a 21st century educational philosophy on a foundation of solid research, documenting that there are more effective approaches than diligent drill and practice. In the past 30 years, research has generated new conceptions of learning in five areas:

    1. memory and structure of knowledge
    2. analysis of problem solving and reasoning
    3. early foundations
    4. metacognitive processes and self-regulatory capabilities
    5. cultural experiences and community participation.
If the integration of research and education is one of the goals of 21st century reformers, How People Learn is an essential roadmap to make that happen. It will also be a valuable resource for colleges and universities wrestling to use the tools of technology most creatively in the service of student learning. It shows how decisions made at each stage of shaping the learning environment– including incorporating technologies– will be more felicitous over the long term when they are based on scientific research that has implications for the design of formal institutional environments and is designed to explore the possibility of helping all individuals achieve their full potential.