Bransford, Brown and Cocking on How the Brain Learns

Bransford et al. describe how the new brain-based research has led to the development of a new science of learning:

The revolution in the study of the mind that has occurred in the last three or four decades has important implications for education. As we illus­trate, a new theory of learning is coming into focus that leads to very differ­ent approaches to the design of curriculum, teaching, and assessment than those often found in schools today. Equally important, the growth of inter­disciplinary inquiries and new kinds of scientific collaborations have begun to make the path from basic research to educational practice somewhat more visible, if not yet easy to travel. Thirty years ago, educators paid little attention to the work of cognitive scientists, and researchers in the nascent field of cognitive science worked far removed from classrooms. Today, cognitive researchers are spending more time working with teachers, testing and refining their theories in real classrooms where they can see how differ­ent settings and classroom interactions influence applications of their theories. …

In the early part of the twentieth century, education focused on the acquisition of literacy skills: simple reading, writing, and calculating. It was not the general rule for educational systems to train people to think and read critically, to express themselves clearly and persuasively, to solve complex problems in science and mathematics. Now, at the end of the century, these aspects of high literacy are required of almost everyone in order to success­fully negotiate the complexities of contemporary life. The skill demands for work have increased dramatically, as has the need for organizations and workers to change in response to competitive workplace pressures. Thought­ful participation in the democratic process has also become increasingly complicated as the locus of attention has shifted from local to national and global concerns. …

This volume synthesizes the scientific basis of learning. The scientific achievements include a fuller understanding of: (1) memory and the struc­ture of knowledge; (2) problem solving and reasoning; (3) the early founda­tions of learning; (4) regulatory processes that govern learning, including metacognition; and (5) how symbolic thinking emerges from the culture and community of the learner.

These key characteristics of learned proficiency by no means plumb the depths of human cognition and learning. What has been learned about the principles that guide some aspects of learning do not constitute a complete picture of the principles that govern all domains of learning. The scientific bases, while not superficial in themselves, do represent only a surface level of a complete understanding of the subject. Only a few domains of learning have been examined in depth, as reflected in this book, and new, emergent areas, such as interactive technologies (Greenfield and Cocking, 1996) are challenging generalizations from older research studies.

A benefit of focusing on how people learn is that it helps bring order to a seeming cacophony of choices. … Asking which teaching technique is best is analogous to asking which tool is best—a ham­mer, a screwdriver, a knife, or pliers. In teaching as in carpentry, the selec­tion of tools depends on the task at hand and the materials one is working with. Books and lectures can be wonderfully efficient modes of transmit­ting new information for learning, exciting the imagination, and honing stu­dents’ critical faculties—but one would choose other kinds of activities to elicit from students their preconceptions and level of understanding, or to help them see the power of using meta-cognitive strategies to monitor their learning. Hands-on experiments can be a powerful way to ground emergent knowledge, but they do not alone evoke the underlying conceptual under­standings that aid generalization. There is no universal best teaching practice.

If, instead, the point of departure is a core set of learning principles, then the selection of teaching strategies (mediated, of course, by subject matter, grade level,*and desired outcome) can be purposeful. The many possibilities then become a’rich set of opportunities from which a teacher constructs an instructional program rather than a chaos of competing alternatives.

Focusing on how people learn also will help teachers move beyond either-or dichotomies that have plagued the field of education. One such issue is whether schools should emphasize “the basics” or teach thinking and problem-solving skills. This volume shows that both are necessary. Students’ abilities to acquire organized sets of facts and skills are actually enhanced when they are connected to meaningful problem-solving activi­ties, and when students are helped to understand why, when, and how those facts and skills are relevant. And attempts to teach thinking skills without a strong base of factual knowledge do not promote problem-solving ability or support transfer to new situations.


Bransford, John D., Ann L. Brown and Rodney R. Cocking (eds). 2000. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. Washington D.C.: National Academy Press. pp. 3-23. || Amazon || WorldCat


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