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President's Briefing: What We Know About Learning

President's Briefing: What We Know About Learning

Postby Sasha Gumbar » September 7th, 2012, 8:58 am

In the past 10 years, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences has produced a series of important reports about learning and the assessment of learning. The most recent of these reports was released in June of this year, just in time to support the implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century is an examination of research in an effort to define “21st-century skills” – such as critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration – and what we know about how to teach these skills.

The CCSS were designed by governors and chief state school officers to establish uniform K-12 learning outcomes in math and language arts. A key distinction of these new standards is their focus on the development of deep understandings of the content of these keystone disciplines. The learning outcomes expressed by these standards establish content mastery as one aspect of knowing; the ability to use the content to address new problems and new questions is the most highly valued aspect of knowing. Recently developed science standards (NRC’s A Framework for K-12 Science Education) evidence a similar view, in that the standards are integrated and interdisciplinary rather than discipline-specific. In short, the new science standards and the CCSS signal new ways of teaching and assessing learning.

Now that most states are trying to implement the new standards, important questions persist concerning what and how to teach students. While it is clear that recall of content alone is of limited use in novel situations, it is also clear that a new taxonomy is needed to put content in context so we can organize our thinking about learning.

To address this challenging assignment, the National Research Council convened an expert panel in fields such as education, psychology, and economics, led by James W. Pellegrino of the University of Illinois-Chicago. The panel’s report provides a major service to the field, first by introducing and defining 21st-century competencies; next, by conceptualizing the combination of knowledge and skills with the ability to transfer this knowledge to novel situations; and finally, by presenting what is known about teaching for 21st-century competency.

With the acknowledgment that much more research is needed for precision in further explication of 21st-century competencies, the panel identified three domains of ability:

  • Cognitive – thinking, reasoning, and related skills
  • Intrapersonal – self-regulating behavior and emotions to reach a goal
  • Interpersonal – expressing information to others and interpreting information from others

The examination of research concerning these domains of competency led the panel to identify teaching methods that enhance students’ ability to transfer what they know, to enhance what they know, and to apply knowledge to address new situations. These proven methods are grouped into the following categories:

  • Multiple and varied representations of concepts and tasks
  • Elaboration, questioning, and explanation
  • Challenging tasks
  • Examples and cases
  • Connecting with students’ personal lives and interests
  • Monitoring progress and providing feedback, as in formative assessments

For those of us in educator preparation, this report is both an affirmation and a clarion call. It is affirming to read this representation of what is known about learning and the importance of teaching methods. Many critics of educator preparation have asserted that mastery of content is so essential to good teaching that all else can be learned on the job. The new science framework and the CCSS, however, require both deeper learning of educators so they may recognize such in their students, and the development of specific methods to incite the desired understanding. Our programs must ensure that all candidates not only master the use of these teaching methods but also experience them as learners.
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Sasha Gumbar
American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education
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