Back at the turn of the century, I was invited by a friend to a symposium by the National Academy of Sciences as it published a brand new book, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School.

I found myself mesmerized by the speakers who were talking about learning, memory, skill, and creativity in ways that I had never heard before.

I went home and devoured the book, and every once in a while I go back and re-read sections about one seminal experiment or another in cognitive science.

One of my favorite experiments illuminated the question of how novices think differently from experts. The researchers had index cards on which physics problems of different types were printed, one to a card. They gave the cards to college students who had completed a year of physics in college and to expert physicists and asked them all to sort the problems into whatever categories made sense. The novices sorted them according to their superficial characteristics — for example, they put all the problems related to springs in one pile, all those related to levers in another. The expert physicists sorted them by the deep underlying structure of the problems, such as those related to the conservation of energy or the laws of inertia.

The fact that the novices sorted in a different way from the experts didn’t mean the novices were stupid. They simply hadn’t learned enough yet to be able to think like experts. They didn’t have sufficient background knowledge to be able to think about the deep structure of the problem set before them.

That was just one of many studies that How People Learn reported on — in remarkably clear language accessible to the layperson. (If you’re interested, you can download it for free.)

Shortly after the book was published, the American Educator began running a regular column, “Ask the Cognitive Scientist,” by Dan Willingham, as a way to provide teachers a “sturdier” body of information about student learning.

Those two events could be considered the beginning of the breakout for cognitive science into the world of education.

But it has been slow going. Textbooks, curricula, professional development, and lots of school programs still blithely ignore basic cognitive science principles, even when they would be really helpful in the classroom.

A little step was taken a couple of weeks ago toward ensuring that future teachers are armed with the knowledge they should have about how people learn — an effort I write about in this week’s Huffington Post.

Photo credit: The National Academies Press

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