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Learning how to learn

By Nicole Krueger
December 19, 2018

If the digital age has taught us anything, it’s that everything we know is subject to change. No matter what field you work in, today’s best practices could be tomorrow’s bad habits. Fads flare up and fade out. Long accepted facts become debunked myths.

As teachers grapple with questions about how to prepare students for this world of accelerated change, one thing has become clear: The future of education isn’t in the content students absorb. It’s in the cognitive skills that allow them to keep learning and adapting long after they’ve left the classroom.

At the convergence of neuroscience and psychology, the field of mind, brain and education (MBE) science has generated a wealth of research showing how students actually learn – often debunking many of the long-held beliefs today’s educational practices are based on. Yet despite the transformative potential of these findings, the field of education has been slow to adopt practices based on the latest learning science research.

“We’ve learned more about the brain in the last 20 years than in the previous 200,” says Ian Kelleher, a science teacher and head of research for the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning. “But when we looked at how it has changed teaching – really, it hadn’t. Teachers were still teaching in the way they were taught or that worked for them when they were in school.”

While teachers and learners alike struggle to find their footing in the shifting sands of content-based learning, learning science offers the promise of solid ground, says Meg Lee, supervisor of advanced academics at Frederick County Public Schools in Maryland.

“When I think about what the next 20 years will bring, I can’t even imagine where we will be in terms of technology,” Lee says. “But what we do know is we’re still going to have a student brain present and an adult brain present. The thing I love about MBE science is it’s not only applicable in any content area or grade level, but it’s also applicable no matter what that frontier is that we can’t imagine. To me it’s a great thing for a school system to grab hold of because it’s not going to expire.

As educators catch on to the value of developing teaching methods based on learning science research, schools are increasingly looking for ways to distill these findings into actionable strategies and practices for the classroom. But it’s a lot harder than it sounds.

Part of the problem, says University of California, San Francisco, neuroscientist Melina Uncapher, is that “the science of learning isn’t systematically being taught to our teachers, which is terrifying.” At the same time, “research on how people learn is almost exclusively being done in labs and not in classrooms. Our research is not being informed by how kids learn in real-world settings. There’s almost this complete disconnect between research and practice.”


Although the learning sciences have generated a wealth of findings over the past few decades, there aren’t enough educators working to translate the research, produced and replicated in lab conditions, into practical strategies suitable for the diverse, dynamic and often messy classroom context. While the science may seem relevant, it’s not always clear how teachers are supposed to apply it in the real world.

“ We seem to be missing a kind of professional that is like an engineer,” says Bror Saxberg, vice president of learning science at Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), an organization dedicated to advancing education through personalized learning. “Somebody who stands between the science going on and its application at scale, whose job and training is to keep finding ways to apply what the science might suggest is a good solution in ways that are affordable, graceful, usable and fit into the context they’re in.”

While a study or lab experiment has a finite beginning and end, adapting research for the classroom involves an open-ended process of designing, testing and iterating to arrive at a workable solution – and it’s hard to find educators with the right combination of skills and experience, both in the lab and in the classroom. They need to be highly capable as both teachers and researchers, says Tina Grotzer, principal research scientist in education at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

“I don’t think there are a lot of them around,” she says. A teacher-turned cognitive-scientist, she’s one of the rare individuals who maintains a foot in each world. “I think we really need to invest in those people – not cognitive scientists who spent lot of time in a lab, but cognitive scientists who spent time in a classroom.”

To help bridge the disconnect, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has begun supporting “innovation clusters” as one way to fuel the development of new teaching methods backed by learning science. The organization pairs researchers with practitioners to co-define a problem and rapidly iterate solutions.

“Right now the concept is to generate the problem of practice at the site, so that as solutions come out we immediately have a place to test them out where it’s meaningful,” says Jessica Tsang, co-author of The ABCs of How We Learn and manager of learning research at CZI.

As concern over the gap between research and practice escalates, a growing number of educators are stepping in to fill the void. St. Andrews Episcopal School in Washington, D.C., has spent the past 12 years advancing its mission to innovate new classroom approaches grounded in mind, brain and education science research. Driven by a desire to improve the quality of teaching within its own walls, the school launched an initiative in 2007 to train all faculty members in the learning sciences. As other educators started taking notice of their work, St. Andrews began partnering with schools around the world to share what they’d learned, eventually forming the Center For Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL) as a way to keep research-informed practices front and center.

With a research center embedded in its PK-12 school, St. Andrews joined a small but growing list of organizations that have successfully united research and practice under one roof. In 2013, it became the eighth school to join Research Schools International, a global network of schools led by faculty members from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, whose goal is to conduct cutting-edge research in learning science and disseminate its findings to the global education community.

To that end, the CTTL recently launched a beta test of its latest professional learning offering, Neuroteach Global, a gamified micro-course designed to teach educators about mind, brain and education research through a series of five-minute activities they can complete on their mobile device. The micro-course takes a meta approach, drawing upon learning science to teach teachers about learning science through research proven techniques, such as storytelling, emotional engagement, novelty, spaced learning and formative assessments.
“It’s our attempt to disrupt the current PD model in a way that all teachers can do,” Kelleher says.

As CEO of the Institute for Applied Neuroscience, Uncapher is another researcher working to bring learning science into schools. After spending nearly two decades studying brain scans to understand how people learn, she felt like she was hitting a wall. Her lab research, while revealing, wasn’t telling her how students learned in real-world contexts. She began reaching out to educators and forming partnerships to help take her research into the classroom.
In 2016, she partnered with Santa Clara Unified School District in California for a multi-year longitudinal study on executive function. Using software loaded onto the students’ iPads, she was able to collect data about how they learned in their day-to-day classroom setting.

“Since working with educators, I’ve learned so much that has informed my research,” she says. Her experiences have inspired her to write a primer on how to conduct in-school research, which is in the process of being published.


Partnerships with organizations like the CTTL or the Institute for Applied Neuroscience can help schools transform their outmoded learning models into cutting-edge practices rooted in learning science research – but availability is limited. For the rest of the education world, the push to translate research into practice often relies heavily on grassroots efforts within individual schools or districts.

To that end, some schools and teachers have begun forming smaller-scale partnerships with researchers to test out research-based innovations in a classroom environment rather than a lab. These partnerships can be mutually beneficial as researchers seek relevant problems to study and teachers seek to determine which practices actually work. But finding people to partner with poses a challenge for both sides.

In an ISTE 2018 session on closing the gap between research and practice, a group of educators and researchers discussed some of the difficulties they’ve faced in their attempts to bring research into the classroom.

“It takes time to find each other and figure out what to do, and there aren’t a lot of ways to support that,” says Aubrey Francisco, chief research officer for Digital Promise, an organization dedicated to accelerating innovation in schools.

“How do we engage providers and researchers in research practice partnerships? How do we make it work? What’s the incentive? Practitioners need practical, tangible information they can use, while researchers are interested in more long-term questions. How do we do both?”

Francisco’s questions cut to the heart of the issue, which is that researchers and teachers are, essentially different beasts with divergent interests and needs.
Having walked in both worlds, Grotzer has gained unique insight into the differences between teachers and researchers. A lot of it, she says, comes down perspective.

“Researchers are really driven by distinctions – this theory is a little different than that theory – because they have to distinguish themselves in the field,” she says. “But then what you have are teachers who are trying to make a cohesive whole for their students, and their lens is much more one of cohesion than distinctions. So I think we need to have a lot of humility and respect for each other, and even better, having a foot in each other’s field we would at least know how to talk the language enough to benefit from what teachers are offering us, and vice versa.”

If you think of the two spheres of interest as a Venn diagram, the key to forming successful research-practice partnerships is to look for lines of inquiry in the spaces where they overlap, she says. One way to do this is by finding or forming interest groups composed of teachers, researchers, scientists and other stakeholders, either locally or online. These types of discussion groups can generate interesting ideas for study. Reaching out to a local university is another way to find researchers to partner with.

Until there’s a system in place to help like-minded teachers and researchers find each other, forming research-practice partnerships will remain largely a patchwork effort, Grotzer says.

“We need to figure out way for people to better match what we want to do. We advertise in local teacher magazines and put it on our website, but there needs to be something else. We need a”


For many educators focused on bringing mind, brain and education research into the classroom, helping teachers leverage neuroscience to inform their teaching practice is just part of the equation. They also want students to learn how to leverage their brain’s capabilities to become more effective learners.

Metacognition, or the ability to understand one’s own thought processes, can provide the missing piece students need to not only direct their own learning but also extend it beyond the confines of a formal education.

Lee has worked to establish a framework for embedding a growth mindset within her district’s 67 schools. Rooted in the concept of neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to continue to grow over the course of a lifetime, a growth mindset teaches students that their capabilities aren’t fixed and their capacity can be expanded through practice and effort. Research has shown that students learn best when they have to struggle a bit to get there.

“In our district, I’ve been working for five years to turn ‘struggle’ into a positive word so kids will say, ‘Oh, I’m struggling. That means I’m learning.’ So they understand the brain learns best when it’s given a level of challenge that’s just out of reach, but not too hard and not too easy. I think we’re starting to see kids who are able to use their metacognitive skills in the classroom to let us know that.”

One of the areas she’s focusing on now is the transition from grade 5 to 6 – a time that provokes intense anxiety among both parents and students. She asked middle school teachers to suggest some high-level learning strategies their sixth graders commonly lack, then shared those strategies with fifth graders preparing to enter middle school. Once the students have become integrated into their new environment, she plans to conduct a follow-up survey to discover whether the intervention made a difference.

Bringing learning science into schools, she says, is all about making incremental changes.

“I liken it to how do you move a ship,” she says. “You don’t take the big wheel and spin it to turn in a different direction. You make a series of very small moves all in the same direction.

“ We look for areas where we can infuse the research so we move the whole system along without creating a disruptive environment.”


Educators offered the following tips for forming research-practice partnerships (RPP):

  • Network with faculty at a local university.
  • Form a learning science interest group with researchers, practitioners and other stakeholders.
  • Reach out to an organization that supports RPPs, such as: Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning; Chan Zuckerberg Initiative; Digital Promise; Institute for Applied Neuroscience.
  • Choose a focus and research individuals and organizations working within your area of interest.
  • Leverage existing relationships with organizations that have partnered within your community in the past.

Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.