Three Findings from “How People Learn”


“The mind is like an umbrella – it functions best when open.”  Walter Gropius


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“How People Learn”, an important review of the recent research on the brain, was commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences and published in 2000. It produced three major findings.



Finding 1


“Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information taught, or they may learn them for the purpose of a test but revert to their preconceptions.”



The cold, hard fact is that teachers do not know what preconceptions (or misconceptions) their students bring to the classroom. Some teachers may try to find out but others may not. Without that understanding students may miss out on essential learning.




Finding 2


“To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must:


a)  have a deep foundation of factual knowledge,

b)  understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and

c)  organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.”



An expert’s knowledge is embedded in a personal mental structure that incorporates factual knowledge within a context and organization. The more efficient that mental structure is the more “useable” and transportable is the factual knowledge. Experts (teachers) may transmit their factual knowledge but not their personal mental structure. Teachers can, however, help students construct their own personal mental structure.


The process of study  is in large measure the creation of one’s own personal mental structure.




Finding 3


“A metacognitive approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them.”



The implication of these findings is that students learn best when actively engaged in their learning – an engagement not only in the experience of “hands on” or “minds on” activities in class or while studying, but more importantly it means the direct involvement of students with “thinking about their own thinking”. This notion of thinking about thinking or metacognition (a word that literally means thinking beyond cognition) is not an innate human capability but one that needs to be taught. Cognition is the collection of mind actions such as memory, attention, perception, action, problem solving, mental imagery and emotion.



Thus to address issues related to their preconceptions and to build a conceptual structure for their knowledge, students must begin to think about their own thinking – they must learn metacognition.  This is a tricky business; it involves using one’s brain to monitor one’s own thinking. To discuss the process of metacognition we require:

Ø      A language, that is a set of ideas to describe the dispositions of a skillful thinker

Ø      A structure, a means to describe the various cognitive processes


In order to think about thinking there needs to be a common language and the circle of ideas in Art Costa and Bena Kallick’s “Habits of Mind” provides this. Using their ideas, strengths and weaknesses in thinking processes can be identified and dealt with. In addition, we also need to have a list of the cognitive processes – the different types of thinking. To establish this structure we use a list of types of thinking developed by Robert Swartz and the National Center for the Teaching of Thinking.