Decades of research and the development of new technologies and research methods laid the foundation for a remarkable blossoming of research on the processes and functions of learning in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2000, the National Research Council summarized key findings from this work in How People Learn: Mind Brain, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition (HPL I). This report brought together the work of two committees that had summarized insights on the nature of learning, such as how experts differ from novices, how learning transfers across settings, and how children and adult learners do and do not differ. It described principles for the design of effective learning environments and offered examples of effective teaching in history, mathematics, and science; an examination of the extent to which opportunities for teacher learning enhance effectiveness in facilitating learning; and a discussion of the promise of technology for supporting learning. HPL I was widely used by teacher educators and other postsecondary faculty in courses related to learning, and it has guided the practice of countless educators. This report expands on the foundation laid out in HPL I.
Researchers have continued to investigate the nature of learning and have generated new findings related to the neurological processes involved in learning, individual and cultural variability related to learning, and educational technologies. In addition to expanding scientific understanding of the mechanisms of learning and how the brain adapts throughout life, they have continued to make important discoveries about influences on learning, particularly sociocultural factors and the structure of learning environments. At the same time, technological developments have both offered new possibilities for fostering learning and created new learning challenges.
The Committee on How People Learn II: The Science and Practice of Learning, created by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, was asked to summarize new insights related to the ground covered in HPL I and expand the discussion to include learning that occurs beyond kindergarten through twelfth-grade education and throughout the life span, as well as the constellation of influences that affect individual learning. The committee was charged1 with:
reviewing and synthesizing research that has emerged across the various disciplines that focus on the study of learning from birth through adulthood in both formal and informal settings. Consideration will be given to the research and research approaches with greatest potential to influence practice and policy. The report should specify directions for strategic investments in research and development to promote the knowledge, training, and technologies that are needed to support learning in today’s world.
To address our charge, the committee examined research that expands significantly on what was included in HPL I. This required us to explore numerous fields of study and therefore to draw on research that varied in both methodology and standards of evidence. Research on learning spans disciplines, including those centered on physiological processes, psychological and psychosocial functioning, and broader views of cultural context. We reviewed laboratory-based neuropsychology and cognitive science, as well as work from cultural and social psychology, classroom-based education research, and qualitative studies of adult learning and the workplace.
THE COMPLEX INFLUENCES OF CULTURE
Learners function within complex developmental, cognitive, physical, social, and cultural systems. Research and theory from diverse fields have contributed to an evolving understanding that all learners grow and learn in culturally defined ways in culturally defined contexts. While humans share basic brain structures and processes, as well as fundamental experiences such as relationships with family, age-related stages, and many more, each of these phenomena are shaped by an individual’s precise experiences. Learning does not happen in the same way for all people because cultural influences are influential from the beginning of life. These ideas about the intertwining of learning and culture have been reinforced by research on many facets of learning and development.
CONCLUSION 2-1: Each learner develops a unique array of knowledge and cognitive resources in the course of life that
1 The full text of the committee’s Statement of Task is included in Chapter 1.
are molded by the interplay of that learner’s cultural, social, cognitive, and biological contexts. Understanding the developmental, cultural, contextual, and historical diversity of learners is central to understanding how people learn.
TYPES AND PROCESSES OF LEARNING
Learning is a remarkably dynamic process; from before birth and throughout life, learners adapt to experiences and their environment. Factors that are relevant to learning include influences from the microscopic level (e.g., lead levels in the learner’s blood) up to the macro level (e.g., qualities of the learner’s neighborhood, society, and culture). Even at the most basic individual level, brain development and cognition (and the connectivity between cortical areas) are influenced and organized by cultural, social, emotional, and physiological experiences that contribute to both age-related and individual variability in learning. Different situations, contexts, and pedagogical strategies promote different types of learning.
An individual’s brain develops and is shaped by the set of experiences and influences unique to her—a process that occurs through the pruning of synapses and other neurological developments that take place through adolescence. The brain continues to adapt as the learner ages, through the continuous shaping and reshaping of neural connections in response to stimuli and demands. While the learner gains knowledge and skills as the brain develops throughout childhood and adolescence, the relationship between brain development and learning is not unidirectional: learning and brain development interact in a reciprocal manner. Learning changes the brain throughout the life span; at the same time, the brain develops throughout the life span in ways that influence learning and are in turn influenced by the learner’s context and cultural influences.
Learning requires that the individual orchestrate many different cognitive processes including, for example, memory and attention. Memory—the capacity to store and retrieve knowledge and information—is an essential component of learning because it allows individuals to use past experiences to adapt and solve problems in the present. Memory is not a unitary capacity; it is a set of processes by which a learner reconstructs past experiences and forges new connections among them.
CONCLUSION 3-1: The individual learner constantly integrates many types of learning, both deliberately and unconsciously, in response to the challenges and circumstances he encounters. The way a learner integrates learning functions is shaped by his social and physical environment but also shapes his future learning.
CONCLUSION 3-2: The brain develops throughout life, following a trajectory that is broadly consistent for humans but is also individualized by every learner’s environment and experiences. It gradually matures to become capable of a vast array of complex cognitive functions and is also malleable in adapting to challenges at a neurological level.
CONCLUSION 3-3: The relationship between brain development and learning is reciprocal: learning occurs through interdependent neural networks, and at the same time learning and development involves the continuous shaping and reshaping of neural connections in response to stimuli and demands. Development of the brain influences behavior and learning, and in turn, learning influences brain development and brain health.
CONCLUSION 4-1: Successful learning requires coordination of multiple cognitive processes that involve different networks in the brain. In order to coordinate these processes, an individual needs to be able to monitor and regulate his own learning. The ability to monitor and regulate learning changes over the life span and can be improved through interventions.
CONCLUSION 4-2: Memory is an important foundation for most types of learning. Memory involves reconstruction rather than retrieval of exact copies of encoded mental representations. The cues available in a learner’s environment are critical for what she will be able to recall; they also play a role in the way the learner begins to integrate new information as knowledge.
KNOWLEDGE AND REASONING
Learners identify and establish relationships among pieces of information and develop increasingly complex structures for using and categorizing what they have learned. Accumulating bodies of knowledge and the capacity to reason about them are key cognitive assets throughout the life span. The strategies that have shown promise for promoting learning help learners to develop the mental models they need to retain knowledge so they can use it adaptively and flexibly in making inferences and solving new problems.
CONCLUSION 5-1: Prior knowledge can reduce the attentional demands associated with engaging in well-learned activities,
and it can facilitate new learning. However, prior knowledge can also lead to bias by causing people to not attend to new information and to rely on existing schema to solve new problems. These biases can be overcome but only through conscious effort.
CONCLUSION 5-2: Learners routinely generate their own novel understanding of the information they are accumulating and productively extend their knowledge by making logical connections between pieces of information. This capacity to generate novel understanding allows learners to use their knowledge to generalize, categorize, and solve problems.
CONCLUSION 5-3: The learning strategies for which there is evidence of effectiveness include ways to help students retrieve information and encourage them to summarize and explain material they are learning, as well as ways to space and structure the presentation of material. Effective strategies to create organized and distinctive knowledge structures encourage learners to go beyond the explicit material by elaborating and to enrich their mental representation of information by calling up and applying it in various contexts.
CONCLUSION 5-4: The effectiveness of learning strategies is influenced by such contextual factors as the learner’s existing skills and prior knowledge, the nature of the material, and the goals for learning. Applying these approaches effectively therefore requires careful thought about how their specific mechanisms could be beneficial for particular learners, settings, and learning objectives.
MOTIVATION TO LEARN
Conscious learning requires sustained effort. To learn intentionally, people must want to learn and must see the value in accomplishing what is being asked of them. Numerous factors and circumstances influence an individual’s desire to learn and the decision to expend effort on learning. Engagement and intrinsic motivation develop and change over time; they are not properties of the individual or the environment alone, and they are strongly influenced by cultural and developmental processes.
CONCLUSION 6-1: Motivation to learn is influenced by the multiple goals that individuals construct for themselves as a
result of their life and school experiences and the sociocultural context in which learning takes place. Motivation to learn is fostered for learners of all ages when they perceive the school or learning environment is a place where they “belong” and when the environment promotes their sense of agency and purpose.
CONCLUSION 6-2: Educators may support learners’ motivation by attending to their engagement, persistence, and performance by:
- helping them to set desired learning goals and appropriately challenging goals for performance;
- creating learning experiences that they value;
- supporting their sense of control and autonomy;
- developing their sense of competency by helping them to recognize, monitor, and strategize about their learning progress; and
- creating an emotionally supportive and nonthreatening learning environment where learners feel safe and valued.
IMPLICATIONS FOR LEARNING IN SCHOOL
This report focused on learning that occurs throughout life and beyond formal educational settings, but it has profound implications for school. We highlight four topics related to schooling. First, understanding of the cultural nature of learning and development means that what takes place in every classroom—the learning environment, the influence of educators, and all students’ experience of school—cannot be fully understood without attention to cultural influences. Second, there is a growing body of research that examines learning in academic content areas that can provide guidance to educators. Third, a part of what is accomplished when educators attend to the influences of culture on the classroom environment and the perspectives students bring to their learning is that learners are better supported in taking charge of their own learning. Many strategies for fostering specific types and functions of learning are primarily ways of supporting the learner in actively making progress and improvements for himself. Finally, assessing learning is a central part of education in school; effective assessment depends on understanding of how learning occurs.
CONCLUSION 7-1: Effective instruction depends on understanding of the complex interplay among learners’ prior
knowledge, experiences, motivations, interests, and language and cognitive skills; educators’ own experiences and cultural influences; and the cultural, social, cognitive, and emotional characteristics of the learning environment.
CONCLUSION 7-2: A disparate body of research points to the importance of engaging the learner in directing his own learning by, for example, providing targeted feedback and support in developing metacognitive skills, challenges that are well matched to the learner’s current capacities, and support in setting and pursuing meaningful goals.
CONCLUSION 7-3: A growing body of research supports adopting an asset model of education in which curricula and instructional techniques support all learners in connecting academic learning goals to the learning they do outside of school settings and through which learning experiences and opportunities from various settings are leveraged for each learner.
CONCLUSION 7-4: Purposefully teaching the language and practices specific to particular disciplines, such as science, history, and mathematics, is critical to helping students develop deep understanding in these subjects.
CONCLUSION 7-5: Assessment is a critical tool for advancing and monitoring students’ learning in school. When grounded in well-defined models of learning, assessment information can be used to identify and subsequently narrow the gap between current and desired levels of students’ learning and performance.
There is strong empirical support for the effectiveness of learning technologies, but there is no one universally ideal learning technology. The effectiveness of technology depends on the characteristics of the learner, the types of learning being targeted, sociocultural context, and support from instructors in the use of the technologies.
CONCLUSION 8-1: The decision to use a technology for learning should be based on evidence indicating that the technology has a positive impact in learning situations that are similar with respect to:
- the types of learning and goals for learning;
- characteristics of the learners;
- the learning environment;
- features of the social and cultural context likely to affect learning; and
- the level of support in using the technology to be provided to learners and educators.
CONCLUSION 8-2: Effective use of technologies in formal education and training requires careful planning for implementation that addresses factors known to affect learning. These factors include alignment of the technology with learning goals, provision of professional development and other supports for instructors and learners, and equitable access to the technology. Ongoing assessment of student learning and evaluation of implementation are critical to ensuring that a particular use of technology is optimal and to identifying needed improvements.
LEARNING ACROSS THE LIFE SPAN
Individuals learn throughout their lives in every setting. What and how much they learn, particularly outside of compulsory education, is largely directed by their own choices and circumstances. Learners’ capacities and resources shift over time. For example, both reasoning and knowledge increase up to early adulthood, when their paths begin to diverge. One’s abilities to quickly generate, transform, and manipulate factual information begin to decline, while knowledge levels remain stable or increase. However, the brain adapts throughout life, recruiting and orchestrating its resources to compensate for declines and adapt to circumstances.
CONCLUSION 9-1: People continue to learn and grow throughout the life span, and their choices, motivation, and capacity for self-regulation, as well as their circumstances, influence how much and how well they learn and transfer their learning to new situations.
CONCLUSION 9-2: People learn continually through active engagement across many settings in their environments; learning that occurs outside of compulsory educational environments is a function of the learner’s motivation, interests, and opportunities. Engagement with work (especially complex work that involves both intellectual and social demands), social engage
ment, physical exercise, and adequate sleep are all associated with lifelong learning and healthy aging.
The research the committee has explored for this report demonstrates that learning involves lasting adaptations of multiple systems to the changing external and internal environment. Learning is a dynamic, ongoing process that is simultaneously biological and cultural. Attention to both individual factors (such as developmental stage; physical, emotional, and mental health; and interests and motivations), as well as factors external to the individual (such as the environment in which the learner is situated, social and cultural contexts, and opportunities available to learners) is necessary to develop a complete picture of the nature of learning. We have focused on key ideas that can be distilled from a diverse body of work to build on the picture of how people learn as it stood in 2000. That picture has grown more sophisticated, but there is still much more to learn.
We have identified specific research objectives in two primary areas, which we hope will guide researchers and funders and spur work that integrates levels of analysis, methods, and theoretical frameworks across the diverse disciplines that make contributions to the study of how people learn.
Specifically, it is now possible to move beyond the idea of an “average” learner to embrace and explain variation among individuals. It will be valuable to have more interdisciplinary research that examines how individual variation and developmental and contextual factors, including social, emotional, environmental, institutional, and experiential factors, influence the lifelong learning process and learning outcomes. It would be valuable to have research that addresses diverse study populations, interest in learning, the role of identity in learning, motivation to learn, self-regulated learning, the influence of learning environments, learning across the life span, and learning disabilities.
Among the topics on which further research is needed are whether a technology is well suited to the ecological learning niche in which it may be used, the effects of engagement in self-selected online activities on academic learning, and ways to improve the suite of learning technologies available.