Teaching & Learning

It's Time for Learning Science to Drive Education Policy

10 recommendations for synchronizing K-12 education policy with the science of learning and development

It's time to embed learning research into policy, according to a new report. Pulling from neuroscience, psychology and brain science, among other disciplines, learning scientists have found, for example, that learners have to "actively engage in constructing new knowledge and skills," best done through a "dynamic interplay of emotion, motivation and cognition." And once something's learned, students need to be able to move that information from their "working memory" to their "long-term memory," a process that can be helped along by the teacher who guides them through making connections from what's newly learned to "prior knowledge" and the use of "appealing examples that demonstrate the usefulness for solving real-life problems."

The big problem is the current practices of education often get in the way of being able to apply the learning science research.

The report was published by iNACOL, which recently renamed itself to the Aurora Institute and broadened its mission from focusing on online and competency-based learning to "education innovation in the context of human development."

Written by iNACOL/Aurora Policy Director Natalie Truong, the report offers a rundown on nine "valuable resources" from current learning science research. Then it links the findings on learning science to the need for education leaders to develop policies that support the kind of structures that can put learning science into action in schools.

For example, Truong wrote, "When state accountability systems have a singular focus on reading and math, they can miss out on other factors in student success." Also, while learning sciences highlight the value of "continuous check-ins and formative assessments to gauge student learning," too many state education systems put the emphasis on end-of-year summative assessments, which "only provide a limited scope of student achievement."

Another big obstacle: the use of age-based cohorts, which advance in lock-step throughout students' K-12 careers. That structure ignores the need to meet students "where they are in their learning" or to teach students "in their zone of proximal development," including their "emotional, psychological and cognitive processes." In other words, Truong explained, the age-old age-based approach "continues to perpetuate despite growing evidence that age alone tells us very little about what any given child can do or the support they need to develop more fully."

The report offers 10 recommendations for synchronizing K-12 education policy with the science of learning and development. Among them is placing an emphasis on "student success for the whole child." "State and local leaders need to articulate a clear vision of what every student should know and be able to do, grounded in evidence that learning has social, emotional and academic dimensions," the Institute stated. How could those be determined? By having education agencies team up with communities to sort out the "essential knowledge, skills and abilities of a successful high school graduate," including the social and emotional components that will help the student continue with academics and find success in the workforce.

Another recommendation suggests providing for "multiple pathways" along which students can "customize" their learning "according to their unique needs and interests." Doing so, the report suggested, offers "a powerful way to infuse meaning and relevance into school" for the student.

The report, "Aligning Education Policy with the Science of Learning and Development," is openly available on the iNACOL/Aurora website, as is a 20-minute podcast featuring Truong discussing the findings.

The organization, which announced its name change at its recent annual event in Palm Springs, said its work would continue along the same lines: doing research, issuing publications, hosting webinars, visiting schools, analyzing and developing policy, facilitating learning communities, tracking legislation and providing technical assistance, as well as advocating for personalized, competency-based education.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.