Educational Research and Innovation

Centre for Educational Research and Innovation

2076-9679 (online)
2076-9660 (print)
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This series of books from the OECD's Centre for Educational Research and Innovations provides the results of OECD work on innovation in education.

Also available in: French
The Nature of Learning

The Nature of Learning

Using Research to Inspire Practice You do not have access to this content

Centre for Educational Research and Innovation

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09 Aug 2010
Pages :
9789264086487 (PDF) ; 9789264086470 (print)

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What do we know about how people learn? How do young people’s motivations and emotions influence their learning? What does research show to be the benefits of group work, formative assessments, technology applications, or project-based learning and when are they most effective?  How is learning affected by family background? These are among the questions addressed for the OECD by leading researchers from North America and Europe. This book brings together the lessons of research on both the nature of learning and different educational applications, and it summarises these as seven key concluding principles.  

Among the contributors are Brigid Barron, Monique Boekaerts, Erik de Corte, Linda Darling-Hammond, Kurt Fischer, Andrew Furco, Richard Mayer, Lauren Resnick, Barbara Schneider, Robert Slavin, James Spillane, Elsbeth Stern and Dylan Wiliam.

The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice is essential reading for all those interested in knowing what research has to say about how to optimise learning in classrooms, schools and other settings. It aims, first and foremost, to inform practice and educational reform. It will be of particular interest to teachers, education leaders, teacher educators, advisors and decision makers, as well as the research community

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  • Foreword
    There is intense interest today in the nature of learning and creating the environments for it to flourish. Global drivers are pushing all countries to give priority to generating high levels of knowledge and skills with attention increasingly to more demanding forms of "21st century competences". The corollary concern is that traditional educational approaches are not adequately delivering on such demanding agendas. There have been major strides in measuring learning outcomes – of which our own PISA surveys are a prime example – which turns the spotlight onto how those outcomes can actually be changed. Meanwhile, despite high levels of educational investment (including in educational technology) and extensive educational reforms in our different countries, we know how difficult it is to make an impact on the "black box" of teaching and learning.
  • Executive summary
    Over recent years, learning has moved increasingly centre stage for a range of powerful reasons that resonate politically as well as educationally across many countries, as outlined by Dumont and Istance (Chapter 1). These define the aims of this important volume from the work on Innovative Learning Environments produced by OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI )
  • Analysing and designing learning environments for the 21st century
    Hanna Dumont and David Istance set out the reasons why, over recent years, learning has moved increasingly centre stage politically. These include the nature of knowledge economies and societies, the demands of 21st century competences, the ubiquity of ICT, frustration with the lack of success of repeated education reforms and the burgeoning learning research base. They call for harnessing knowledge about learning and applying it more systematically to education. The chapter argues why these developments call for a particular focus on innovative "micro" arrangements – "learning environments" – which are conceptualised in this OECD work at a level between individual learners and conventional educational parameters. The chapter locates the book as seeking to address the "great disconnect" (as it has been called) between research, on the one hand, and policy and practice, on the other.
  • Historical developments in the understanding of learning
    Erik de Corte describes a progression in which earlier behaviourism gave way increasingly to cognitive psychology with learning understood as information processing rather than as responding to stimuli. More active concepts of learning took hold ("constructivism"), and with "social constructivism" the terrain is not restricted to what takes place within individual minds but as the interaction between learners and their contextual situation. There has been a parallel move for research to shift from artificial exercises/ situations to real-life learning in classrooms and hence to become much more relevant for education. The current understanding of learning, aimed at promoting 21st century or "adaptive" competence, is characterised as "CSSC learning": "constructive" as learners actively construct their knowledge and skills; "self-regulated" with people actively using strategies to learn; "situated" and best understood in context rather than abstracted from environment; and "collaborative" not a solo activity.
  • The cognitive perspective on learning
    Michael Schneider and Elsbeth Stern place knowledge acquisition at the very heart of the learning process, albeit that the quality of the knowledge is as necessary as the quantity and that "knowledge" should be understood much more broadly than (but including) knowing facts. They summarise the cognitive perspective through ten "cornerstones". Learning: i) is essentially carried out by the learner; ii) should take prior knowledge importantly into account; iii) requires the integration of knowledge structures; iv) balances the acquisition of concepts, skills and meta-cognitive competence; v) builds complex knowledge structures by hierarchically organising more basic pieces of knowledge; vi) can valuably use structures in the external world for organising knowledge structures in the mind; vii) is constrained by the capacity limitations of human information-processing; viii) results from a dynamic interplay of emotion, motivation and cognition; ix) should develop transferable knowledge structures; x) requires time and effort.
  • The crucial role of motivation and emotion in classroom learning
    Monique Boekaerts posits that the role of emotions and motivations has been seriously neglected in the design of learning arrangements and teacher professional development. She summarises knowledge about the key role of emotions and motivations around a small number of principles. Students are more motivated to engage in learning when: they feel competent to do what is expected of them and perceive stable links between actions and achievement; they value the subject and have a clear sense of purpose; they experience positive emotions towards learning activities and, contrariwise, turn away from learning when they experience negative emotions; and when they perceive the environment as favourable for learning. Students free up cognitive resources when they are able to influence the intensity, duration and expression of their emotions, and are more persistent in learning when they can manage their resources and deal with obstacles efficiently.
  • Learning from the developmental and biological perspective
    Christina Hinton and Kurt Fischer consider first how genetics and experience interact to guide development, and how learning experiences literally shape the physical structure of the brain. They stress how cognition and emotion work in tandem. The chapter reviews research on how the brain acquires core academic abilities, including language, literacy and mathematics, and discuss atypical development of these abilities. The brain is biologically primed to acquire language, while the capacity for literacy, on the other hand, is built over time with cumulative neural modifications and varies depending on the language in question. Similarly, different instruction shapes the neural circuitry underlying mathematical abilities. Neuro-scientific research has underpinned key findings regarding learning, such as the extent of individual differences and the essential social nature of human learning, which means that learning environments should incorporate multiple means of representation, assessment and engagement.
  • The role of formative assessment in effective learning environments
    Dylan Wiliam describes assessment as the bridge between teaching and learning. The concept of " formative assessment" emerged with recognition of the importance of feedback and application of navigational metaphors about staying on course through corrective steering. There is substantial evidence, reviewed here, on how feedback improves learning but most studies suffer from weak conceptualisation and neglect of longer-term impacts. The definition here emphasises the role of assessment in improving the quality of instructional decisions.
  • Co-operative learning: what makes group-work work?
    Robert Slavin reviews the substantial body of studies of co-operative learning in schools, in particular those using control groups being taught with more traditional methods. There are two main categories – "Structured Team Learning" and "Informal Group Learning Methods" – each reviewed and illustrated. As regards affective outcomes, co-operative learning overwhelmingly shows beneficial results. For achievement outcomes, positive results depend heavily on two key factors. One is the presence of group goals (the learner groups are working towards a goal or to gain reward or recognition), the other is individual accountability (the success of the group depends on the individual learning of every member). The chapter presents alternative perspectives to explain the benefits of co-operative learning – whether it acts via motivations, social cohesion, cognitive development, or "cognitive elaboration". Despite the very robust evidence base of positive outcomes, cooperative learning "remains at the edge of school policy" and is often poorly implemented.
  • Learning with technology
    Richard Mayer argues that few of the many strong claims made for the transformative potential of new technologies have been convincingly tested against research evidence. A major reason is that too often a "technology-centred", as opposed to a "learningcentred", approach is followed. A convincing theory of how people learn with technology can be based on three important principles: "dual channels" (people process sound and visual images separately), "limited capacity" (people can only process a small amount of sound or image at a time), and "active processing" (meaningful learning depends on engagement in appropriate cognitive processing). These are explained and applied to argue that effective instruction with technology helps cognitive processing in learners without overloading their cognitive system; this can be achieved by reducing extraneous processing, managing essential processing, and fostering generative processing. How this can be done applying different techniques and principles, together with supportive evidence, are presented in detail.
  • Prospects and challenges for inquiry-based approaches to learning
    Brigid Barron and Linda Darling-Hammond summarise three, often overlapping, families of inquiry-based learning: "project-based", "problem-based" and "learning through design". A first key conclusion of their review of research evidence is that students learn more deeply when they can apply classroom-gathered knowledge to real-world problems; inquiry-based approaches are important ways to nurture communication, collaboration, creativity and deep thinking. Second, inquiry-based learning depends on the application of well-designed assessments, both to define the learning tasks and to evaluate what has been learned. Third, however, the success of inquiry approaches tends to be highly dependent on the knowledge and skills of those implementing them. If these approaches are poorly understood and mistaken for being unstructured, their benefits are substantially reduced compared with when they are implemented by those appreciating the need for extensive scaffolding and constant assessment to inform their direction.
  • The community as a resource for learning
    Andrew Furco’s chapter reviews "academic service learning": i.e. experiential learning that takes place in the community as an integral part of the curriculum. These approaches are arousing substantial international interest and embrace pedagogies of engagement; pedagogies of empowerment; national service programmes; values education initiatives; citizenship education programmes; and community resource programmes. They lie between community service and volunteer work, at the service end of the spectrum, and field education and internships, at the learning end. Different forms of service learning are of value in themselves as good education. They also positively influence cognitive achievements in ways discussed in other chapters of this volume, such as by giving opportunities for authentic learning, engaging students actively, fostering co-operation and collaboration, meeting individual interests, empowering learners and extending horizons beyond comfort zones. However, the evidence base on associated outcomes and on what works best and why reveals some emerging, positive findings but remains seriously under-developed.
  • The effects of family on children's learning and socialisation
    Barbara Schneider, Venessa Keesler and Larissa Morlock address (a) how families influence children’s learning development, (b) what families influence and (c) when this influence takes place. Socio-economic status exercises a profound influence on student learning yet is not simply deterministic as individual families play a key role, arguably a more important one than schools in shaping educational expectations, occupational aspirations and academic performance. Research shows how children’s well-being and development are influenced by the engagement of both mothers and fathers. Children are more likely to learn when they have structured home environments with clear expectations about learning but adapted to child-specific needs and personalities. The socialisation received at home is critical to the development of ambition and perceived self-efficacy. Engaging in extracurricular activities and parental involvement in schooling both show positive results, but they are beneficial particularly when they are consistent with the goals and activities of the school.
  • Implementing innovation: from visionary models to everyday practice
    Lauren Resnick, James Spillane, Pam Goldman and Elizabeth Rangel observe the lack of impact of the learning sciences on teachers’ practice, identifying the reliance on "telling" as professional development and overly individualised perspectives as at cause. They also note the in-built conservatism and resistance to innovation of schools and school systems, and the gap between classroom practice, on the one hand, and the policies of organisations and systems, on the other. The authors argue for much greater attention to be given to the sociological understanding of organisations, organisational routines, and the role of professional learning communities. To enable change to happen, they identify the importance of "kernel routines" for seeding and propagating change focused on teaching and learning. Resnick et al. present and discuss two such routines. The first develops instructionally-focused leadership teams in schools and the second aims at direct improvement of teaching and learning through content-focused professional development.
  • Future directions for learning environments in the 21st century
    David Istance and Hanna Dumont summarise the key conclusions that emerge from the different chapters taken together.
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