Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

The Science of Learning

(dcdebs/iStockPhoto)

(dcdebs/iStockPhoto)

The dominant approach to compulsory education in much of the world is still the “transmission” model, through which teachers transmit factual knowledge to students through lectures and textbooks. In the U.S. context, for example, the standards and accountability movement that began in the early 1990s led to the development of standards that have been taught predominantly through the transmission model and tested through recall-based assessments. Even among many national board certified-U.S. teachers, the transmission model dominates. Though many countries are shifting the focus of their educational systems away from this model, it often prevails for two primary reasons—because educational systems are hard to change and because the transmission model demands less disciplinary and pedagogical expertise from teachers than does the contrasting “constructivist” model through which students actively—rather than passively—gain skills and knowledge. Through the transmission model, students have the opportunity to learn information, but typically do not have much practice applying the knowledge to new contexts, communicating it in complex ways, using it to solve problems, or using it as a platform to develop creativity. Therefore, it is not the most effective way to teach 21st century skills.

The Science of Learning

Hong Kong and Shanghai, two of the highest-performing systems in the world, moved away from the transmission model a decade ago. In both systems, reforms address students as holistic learners, mobilize widespread social support and appropriately balanced centralized versus decentralized control. How did they do it?

It started with decades of empirical research on how individuals learn critical lessons. Read the full report and research notes, but for the purposes of this article, we will refer to it as the science of learning.

The science of learning can be distilled into nine points, all of which are about how students learn 21st century skills and how pedagogy can address new learning needs. Many of the lessons—particularly transfer, metacognition, teamwork, technology, and creativity—are also 21st century skills in themselves. Use them as points of advice that other education systems can apply.

1. Make it relevant

To be effective, any curriculum must be relevant to students’ lives. Transmission and rote memorization of factual knowledge can make any subject matter seem irrelevant. Irrelevance leads to lack of motivation, which in turn leads to decreased learning.

To make curriculum relevant, teachers need to begin with generative topics, ones that have an important place in the disciplinary or interdisciplinary study at hand and resonate with learners and teachers.

Choosing a generative topic is the first stage of the well-known Teaching for Understanding [LINK http://www.pz.harvard.edu/research/TfU.htm] framework, developed through a five-year project by Project Zero researchers and used by teachers worldwide.

Both teachers and students benefit from the use of generative topics and reinforcement of relevance. Teachers like this method because it allows for the freedom to teach creatively. Students like it because it makes learning feel more interesting and engaging, and they find that understanding is something they can use, rather than simply possess.

2. Teach through the disciplines

Learning through disciplines entails learning not only the knowledge of the discipline but also the skills associated with the production of knowledge within the discipline. Through disciplinary curriculum and instruction students should learn why the discipline is important, how experts create new knowledge, and how they communicate about it.

Continued learning in any discipline requires that the student—or expert—become deeply familiar with a knowledge base, know how to use that knowledge base, articulate a problem, creatively address the problem, and communicate findings in sophisticated ways. Therefore, mastering a discipline means using many 21st century skills.

3. Simultaneously develop lower and higher order thinking skills

Lower-order exercises are fairly common in existing curricula, while higher-order thinking activities are much less common. Higher-level thinking tends to be difficult for students because it requires them not only to understand the relationship between different variables (lower-order thinking) but also how to apply—or transfer—that understanding to a new, uncharted context (higher-order thinking).

Transfer (which we will discuss in more detail below), tends to be very difficult for most people. However, applying new understandings to a new, uncharted context is also exactly what students need to do to successfully negotiate the demands of the 21st century.

Higher-level thinking skills take time to develop, and teaching them generally requires a tradeoff of breadth for depth.

4. Encourage transfer of learning

Students must apply the skills and knowledge they gain in one discipline to another. They must also apply what they learn in school to other areas of their lives. This application—or transfer—can be challenging for students (and for adults as well).

There are a number of specific ways that teachers can encourage low- and high-road transfer.46 To encourage low-road transfer, teachers can use methods like the following:

  • Design learning experiences that are similar to situations where the students might need to apply the knowledge and skills
  • Set expectations, by telling students that they will need to structure their historical argument homework essay in the same way that they are practicing in class
  • Ask students to practice debating a topic privately in pairs before holding a large-scale debate in front of the class
  • Organize mock trials, mock congressional deliberations, or other role-playing exercises as a way for students to practice civic engagement
  • Talk through solving a particular mathematics problem so that students understand the thinking process they might apply to a similar problem
  • Practice finding and using historical evidence from a primary source and then askstudents to do the same with a different primary source

The purpose of each of these activities is to develop students’ familiarity and comfort with a learning situation that is very similar to a new learning situation to which they will need to transfer their skills, concepts, etc.

Teachers can use other methods to encourage high-road transfer. For example teachers can ask students to:

  • brainstorm about ways in which they might apply a particular skill, attitude, concept, etc. to another situation
  • generalize broad principles from a specific piece of information, such as a law of science or a political action
  • make analogies between a topic and something different, like between ecosystems and financial markets
  • study the same problem at home and at school, to practice drawing parallels between contextual similarities and differences

Shanghai education experts believe that training students to transfer their knowledge and skills to real problems contributed to their success on the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The importance of transfer brings us back to the fundamental rationale for learning 21st century skills in the first place—so that students can transfer them to the economic, civic and global 21st century contexts that demand them.

5. Teach students to learn how to learn

There is a limit to the skills, attitudes, and dispositions that students can learn through formal schooling. Therefore, educating them for the 21st century requires teaching them how to learn on their own. To do so, students need to be aware of how they learn.

Teachers can develop students’ metacognitive capacity by encouraging them to explicitly examine how they think. it is also important for students to develop positive mental models about how we learn, the limits of our learning, and indications of failure. Students benefit from believing that intelligence and capacity increase with effort (known as the “incremental” model of intelligence) and that mistakes and failures are opportunities for self-inquiry and growth rather than indictments of worth or ability.

6. Address misunderstandings directly

Another well-documented science-of-learning theory is that learners have many misunderstandings about how the world really works, and they hold onto these misconceptions until they have the opportunity to build alternative explanations based on experience. To overcome misconceptions, learners of any age need to actively construct new understandings.

There are several ways to counter misunderstandings, including teaching generative topics deeply, encouraging students to model concepts, and providing explicit instruction about misunderstandings.

7. Promote teamwork as a process and outcome

Students learn better with peers. There are many ways in which teachers can design instruction to promote learning with others.

Students can discuss concepts in pairs or groups and share what they understand with the rest of the class. They can develop arguments and debate them. They can role-play. They can divide up materials about a given topic and then teach others about their piece. Together, students and the teacher can use a studio format in which several students work through a given issue, talking through their thinking process while the others comment.

8. Make full use of technology to support learning

Technology offers the potential to provide students with new ways to develop their problem solving, critical thinking, and communication skills, transfer them to different contexts, reflect on their thinking and that of their peers, practice addressing their misunderstandings, and collaborate with peers—all on topics relevant to their lives and using engaging tools.

There are also many other examples of web-based forums through which students and their peers from around the world can interact, share, debate, and learn from each other.

The nature of the Internet’s countless sources, many of which provide inconsistent information and contribute substantive source bias, provide students with the opportunity to learn to assess sources for their reliability and validity. It gives them an opportunity to practice filtering out information from unreliable sources and synthesizing information from legitimate ones.

9. Foster students’ creativity

A common definition of creativity is “the cognitive ability to produce novel and valuable ideas.” Creativity is prized in the economic, civic, and global spheres because it sparks innovations that can create jobs, address challenges, and motivate social and individual progress. Like intelligence and learning capacity, creativity is not a fixed characteristic that people either have or do not have. Rather, it is incremental, such that students can learn to be more creative. In contrast to the common misconception that the way to develop creativity is through uncontrolled, let-the kids-run-wild techniques—or only through the arts—creative development requires structure and intentionality from both teachers and students and can be learned through the disciplines.



The science of learning lessons was extracted from Teaching and Learning 21st Century Skills: Lessons from the Learning Sciences. It includes pedagogical examples from around the world, as well as research notes and a full bibliography.

The report was authored by Anna Rosefsky Saavedra and V. Darleen Opfer from The RAND Corporation.