Support Materials

1. How People Learn - Introduction to Learning Theory


Kendra Hearn: I refer to them as writers and then when they're talking with me, it's just as a coach of a writer and we talk quite frankly again about what problems they're having in their writing, and what sort of strategies we might use to overcome those.

Don Johnson: I teach them that science is not a body of unconnected facts and figures to memorize, more it's the study of anything.

Linda Darling-Hammond: Learning is a constant throughout our lives - from the moment we're born, we never stop processing information and developing new ideas.

How do we do it? What happens inside our minds that makes one fact stick and another one fade? That causes those "eureka" moments of discovery? Or that allows us to invent something entirely new?

Start with yourself.

How do you do it? You've been a learner a long time, and now you're a teacher.

What have other teachers done to help you learn? 

Welcome to The Learning Classroom.  I'm Linda Darling-Hammond, and we will be spending the next 13 sessions exploring these ideas together.

Knowing how people learn is at the heart of teaching.  If you know what enables your students to understand and apply new ideas, you can organize your classroom to support much greater success for all of them.

Our thirteen sessions are grouped into four major areas that influence learning:  first, the learner, him or herself, second,  the environment for learning, third, the teaching and learning process, and fourth, the interactions among these that produce motivation to learn and that build strong learning communities.

The first sessions look at students as learners: how they develop, process information, and use their multiple intelligences.

We have several teachers from southeastern Michigan in the studio with us today.

Fe MacLean is a first grade teacher at Paddock Elementary School in Milan. Kathleen Hayes-Parvin teaches sixth grade at Birney Middle School in Southfield. Kendra Hearn was teaching  at West Bloomfield High School when we taped her.  She is now a professional development consultant with the Macomb Intermediate School District. And Donald Johnson teaches eighth grade at Columbus Middle School here in Detroit.

Welcome to all of you.

Linda Darling-Hammond:  Fe, your lessons are like carefully polished stones.  It looks like you're thinking of everything: the development of the students, the kind of content you're trying to teach.  Tell me a little about what you were thinking when you were planning this lesson that we're about to see on mass and momentum.

Fe MacLean:  First of all, I had to keep in mind, for first and foremost, the goal, the conceptual goal I have for the students.  And then I consider their experiences. 

I consider their capacity to attend, what kind of equipment I will need to have for them to handle so that they're really, they will believe that this, it's their work, they're doing these activities for themselves, by themselves, and decided by themselves somehow. 

Linda Darling-Hammond:  It's really masterful to watch.  Let's take a look. 

(classroom scene)
Boy: We went in my sled together down the hill.
Fe: Oh, you used one sled?
Boy: Yeah!
Fe: Oh, okay.
Fe: Is there anyone else sledding with an adult  in a separate sled?… So who got there first to the bottom?
Both of us.
Fe: Really? Oh, okay, well, this is interesting, class. 'Cause I have a book here. What does it say Colby?
Colby: Sledding on a Hill. Rolling down a Ramp.
Fe: Rolling down a Ramp. So our story starts with a child and a grown up.  And they're gonna go down the hill. How do you think they're going to get down the hill?
I think the littler kid will go down first because it probably has more, much more energy.
Fe: Ok, any other thought?
Boy: I think the grown up will get down first because more weight makes the sled go faster.
Fe: So we have all these different ideas, look what happens in the story. They go down and go Swoosh!
Students: Whoa.
Fe: They get to the bottom of the hill together. That's what the story says.
Fe: We'll call this the ramp, okay? Now, how are we going to know or how are we going to remember how long it takes for a ball to go down?  Remember? We can't just keep it in our heads cause everybody forgets especially after recess.  We want to make sure we remember.
Write it down?
Fe: Write it down.

Linda Darling-Hammond:  Fe, I loved the way that you used the sledding story to tap into the kids' prior knowledge and their experiences.  I guess it's something they do a lot here in Michigan, so they had a lot of ideas about that.  And then you used that big book as sort of a visualization to help them think about and hypothesize about what might be happening with this concept.  What are some of the other things that you do when you're trying to make these complex ideas accessible to young children?

Fe MacLean:  I try to visualize myself as a kid and with the, for example, with the ramp, it took me a long time to decide how long they would have to be because if you time it, there is a, their capacity to time it and also their knowledge of numbers.  It has to be long enough so they will count one, two, three seconds later. Not, rather than a fraction of a second and that sort of thing.  So, I really consider a lot of whatever is their developmental level and plan accordingly, and what also is coming, where are they going, and try to devise a way for them to get there.

Linda Darling-Hammond:  Let's take a look at how the lesson plays out.

(classroom scene)
Boy: Ready?
Fe: Wait, wait.  Look at this.  Make sure they are all in the same line.

Fe Maclean: From my experience children are not going to be able look at the data using numbers of measurement to really understand the concept in this context of the level of the ramp relative to the momentum, and that is how far the can will move…

(classroom scene)
Come to Papa, ball! Come to papa!

Fe Maclean: The tracing is more pictorial and is more appropriate to their age.

(classroom scene)
Fe: Now, can you look at it and think about the speed of the balls as they went down the ramp? And look at our picture. Actually people would call that a graph, a line graph.  I'd like to have you make a picture of it, though.

Linda Darling-Hammond:  So, Fe, at the end of this process, we see them going off to engage in a wide variety of activities.  You have them writing and drawing and making presentations of various kinds.  How does that allow them to find their developmental level of performance and use their different intelligences?

Fe MacLean:  During our discussions some of the children were more articulate than others.  But when they went to drawing, they could show a lot of what they were thinking with their drawing.  They could show me if they understood or not the concept of what causes momentum, what causes speed, why they're drawing.  Some of them write.  They describe what they saw.  Those are the more they're more linguistically able, or they can write, but they don't talk very, very much, but they can write very well.  Some of them just, are just plain drawing.  Some act them out.  You know, they're going down or sliding down themselves, pretending they're sliding down with their drawing.

Whatever will let me show, will let them show that they understood the concept that we are trying  to learn.

Linda Darling-Hammond: The next set of episodes looks at how teachers construct a productive environment for learning.  There are several important aspects of the learning environment: first, feelings count when it comes to learning – they affect how we process information and how much we understand.

Second, culture is the reflection of our families, our geography, religion, language, ethnic or racial heritage.

Culture is the root of our experience and it influences everything we do, including how we learn.

And third, learning is essentially social - it occurs much more productively when students have the opportunity to learn from one another as well as the teacher.

Kathleen Hayes-Parvin has been teaching at Birney Middle School for 12 years.  And Kathleen, in this tape that we're going to see of your teaching, you're engaged in drawing out children's family histories in this memoir project.  Tell us a little about this project and why you do it.

Kathleen Hayes-Parvin:  Okay.  It's part of our curriculum to study the genre of memoir.  But I also feel it's very important to develop a partnership with parents, students, and teachers, so we co-write together our family histories.  We do some research and turn those pieces into memoir.  And that's what we're about to see.

Linda Darling-Hammond:   Let's take a look.

(classroom scene)
Actually, the kids oftentimes translate if they're bilingual.  We have a very wonderful ESL department here in the building.  In fact my para-pro, Mr. Hendi, we work together.  He speaks six different languages.
Why couldn't they just vote on him to be off the ballots?
Hendi:  There is no democracy, that's what the dictatorship is.  There is no democracy.  People they don't vote their mind.
Thomas: When I got the computer my mom was like, how do you use this thing. And my dad came over and he was like, you wanna learn how to use the computer, and he was like, yeah, and then he just started typing. And then I was like, you wanna play solitaire?  He was like I don't know how to play that.  Then we started playing this Arabic game and I learned how to play.
Thomas:  Kenny, this is a game called Dama and it's an Arabic game and this is how you play, see?
Kenny:  How, how do all these pieces move?  Like which direction?
Thomas:  Like they could move like this and they could move like this.

Linda Darling-Hammond:  So, Kathleen, as the families bring their stories into the classroom, there's some pretty powerful material that comes out of this.  How do you create an emotionally safe place within which that kind of conversation can take place?

Kathleen Hayes-Parvin:  From the first days we're learning to be real writers together and w…I just establish very firmly that we have to have a safe environment in order to share our writing.  When the parents come in and read their writing and model literacy for us, there's a deep respect within the classroom for each other by this time and for parents who come in.  We work hard at that throughout the year together.  But we do, we get to the point where we can share some personal stories and really develop a tolerance for each other's cultures and an awareness of each other's lives.

Linda Darling-Hammond:  Well it's, it's extremely exciting to see how it plays out.  Let's take a look at what else happens.

(classroom scene)
Carlson's Mom:  This is a picture of Nillie, she was from Turkey and was brought over to this country at the age of seven.  She married and his name is Luke. He was, he was just recently freed from slavery and he married her……
Carlson: My mom once told me that, uh, that, uh, my, I think it was great-great-uncle or cousin, he's, he was the first black person to go to school with white kids, or something.
Carlson's Mom:  She was a part of the Little Rock Nine…and the Little Rock Nine was…She helped those students, there was a few of them but the Little Rock Nine was nine black students entering or integrating an all-white school. And during that time that was not heard of, so this really was history.
Carlson: I like the idea that I'm in school with everybody and all different kinda races and everything and I feel good that, um, my, one of my relatives was one of the first people to go to school with white people. And, and it's just nice to just be all together.
Carlson's Mom:
We are carpenters, doctors, lawyers, painters, ah educators, plumbers, scientists, journalists, ministers and adventurers.  Wherever we go we will always remember and honor our ancestry.

Linda Darling-Hammond: So, Kathleen, in that segment it was so clear that you had brought the families in and created a bond between them and really got an understanding of these cultures in your classroom.  What do you find that you're able to do in the classroom as a result of having done all of that?

Kathleen Hayes-Parvin: Well, one of things…First of all we only saw a few parents.  They continue to trickle in over our days together and read and, and explain their lives to our kids.  It helps me to understand the home environment.  It helps me to know each child better and we bond.  And it helps me to know how to approach them in terms of their own personal literacy.  

And I think that helps the kids to know who they are.  It gives me an idea of who they are, very deeply.  And you can't get this kind of rich teaching from an anthology. 

Linda Darling-Hammond: That's for sure.  I wonder how you sort of manage the social context in the classroom, the social interactions among the kids so that they kind of learn how to learn from each other, 'cause that doesn't necessarily come naturally.

Kathleen Hayes-Parvin: We spend a lot of time teaching kids how to conference together, how to be in response groups together, so that they become articulate about their work.  And these things really begin to translate and take a hold of, um, and they internalize them so that they learn to be real writers together.

Linda Darling-Hammond: Thank you!

As teachers are thinking about their learners and cultivating a productive learning environment, they are also, of course, worrying about how to help them master the content and develop the skills they'll need in life.

In the series, we discuss four big ideas regarding the process of teaching and learning: the first is the idea of cognitive apprenticeship, which describes how teachers can support the process of learning to think just as masters guided their apprentices in learning their trades.

The second is metacognition - that is, teaching students to reflect on their own thinking and guide their own learning. This is made easier when we understand the structure of the disciplines - what the major concepts and kinds of inquiry are that guide experts in each field: what it means to think like a mathematician, a scientist, a writer, or a historian.

And finally, transfer – applying the knowledge and skills that are learned in one setting to other situations.

When we videotaped Kendra Hearn she was teaching a high school writing class.

Her class created an apprenticeship for teaching them how to write, and used a wide range of metacognitive strategies for helping them to understand how writers think and how to improve their own work.

Kendra, in your classroom, which was wonderful to watch, you use a lot of these strategies to get the students to reflect on their learning and then to revise their work.  How did you decide to do that and why?

Kendra Hearn: It was particularly important for me as a high school teacher – and many of my students after their experience with me in a classroom would then be going off into the real world or college – that they be able to think on their own and independently.

And it was sort of by chance that I discovered the whole notion of metacognition in some advanced studies.  And it seemed to me the key that if I kept teaching them strategies, but not empowering them and showing them how to know when on their own to engage those strategies for the tasks that were lying in front of them or for their own learning abilities and styles, then I was really failing them and shortchanging them as a teacher.  So I really built it into my repertoire to make sure that they knew a lot about their own thinking processes.

Linda Darling-Hammond: And we are gonna watch them as they're thinking about their thinking and revising their writing.  Let's take a look.

(classroom scene)
Kendra: Any of you feel like I need to make adjustments from your original thoughts? Or there was something that you left out? David?
David: Well, when you have your mind map, you have, like every idea that you wanna talk about, and when you write out, you know, your rough draft, and you read it to your group, but a lot of times they have ideas for you, so you can help improve on the things that you felt were the most important and maybe didn't come across as well as you hoped for in your rough draft.
Kendra: Good. That's a good point. I think that is THE point. Again, it's whether or not you convey what you intended. And your mind map is a record of what you intended.

Kendra Hearn: We focus, particularly in the, in terms of composition and, and writing, on the notion of what works for me as a writer.  So I realize and I honor the fact that an outline may work for some and we've learned outlining strategies, and a mind map may work for others.  And they've had plenty of opportunities to do that.  And again, along the lines of metacognition, is for them to begin to make some conscious choices about which of these sorts of strategies will actually work for the task that they're being asked to do, given what they know about themselves as a thinker, a learner, and a writer.

(classroom scene)
Kendra: Let's look at this one. 'Cause you've come a long way in your thinking. What's different now in your thinking about this essay, than the mind map that you started with?
Girl: It's not a box anymore.
Kendra: It's not a box, you had boxes for this essay that we're working on? No, you didn't.
Girl: Oh, how it's different. I made it more specific and more to the, um, rubric.
Kendra:  Okay.

Linda Darling-Hammond: Kendra, it's clear in your classroom that you've got the kids really thinking like writers and acting like real writers.  And they're taking a lot of responsibility for that process.  At the same time I know that you've done a lot of scaffolding to get them where they are with their understanding of the writing process.  How do you decide, sort of, what you need to do to get them supported in this process and when to step out and let them try things on their own?

Kendra Hearn: I refer to them as writers, and then when they're talking with me, it's just as a coach of a writer, and we talk quite frankly again about what problems they're having in their writing and what sort of strategies we might use to overcome those.

Linda Darling-Hammond: Thank you.

One of the most important cross-cutting influences on learning is motivation - something that happens when the learner's interests are mobilized by the environment and the teachers' strategies.

Our last two segments focus on motivating students and creating a school culture that supports learning in everything the school does.

Donald Johnson was teaching an elective class designed to give students an introduction to the profession of engineering when we videotaped his work with students.

Don, it's an exciting excerpt that we're about to see from your classroom.  And in this we're about to see you engaged in a toothpick…toothpick bridge project with your kids.  Why did you choose that?  What's the premise behind this project?

Don Johnson:  Well the program that the children are in is to expose them to engineering, and I'm a teacher, I'm not an engineer.  So, I wanted them to be engaged in something that engineers have to do, so that in the process they will learn a lot of the skills and a lot of the thought processes that engineers must undertake.

Linda Darling-Hammond:  So you've got them engaged in this authentic project, and in the middle of this exercise you've just hit them with a whole bunch of surprises.  There's a war, and inflation is going up, the toothpick prices are skyrocketing and they have to solve all of these problems.  So let's see what happens.  Let's take a look.

(classroom scene)
Don: Ok, hold on.  Hold on.  Hold on.  I thought we were talking about money.  Now I see Essence coming over here with these toothpicks. What is this all about?
Girl: We agreed to it.  She give us the money, she gave us little bit of extra money, we give her the toothpicks.
Don: Ok, now I thought I was the person who gave out the toothpicks. What's the difference between getting toothpicks from you and getting toothpicks from me?
They haven't got them.
Girl 2:
You cost too much.
Girl: Trying to help them out, but we still get the money.  You see, everybody happy.
Don: Is that right? Should you be able to do that?
Girl: The only person that's getting cheated is you. 

Don Johnson: Basically in order to help them see the connection between concepts, I try to teach them a methodical way of looking at everything. For example the classic scientific method.  I teach them that science is not a body of unconnected facts and figures to memorize, more it's the study of anything.

(classroom scene)
Does it have to be 28 cm for each side?
Now, can I ask you a question? Is the string going to be straight or does it swoop?

Don Johnson: They can show me that they've learned everything that I've taught by creating something.

For example, in this particular project, everything that I want them to learn I'll know if they learned it, because I'll see a successful bridge that meets the specifications.

It's not even important whether the bridge wins the contest or if it holds more than one gram. Just that, visually I see proof that everybody understood. Now, because there is a group of five of them, obviously I won't see a bridge unless there's been some cooperation. So again it's not something that is pencil and paper, and I'm going to mark off when they get 10% or 20%, but it's more of an application in the real world, because in the real world, the proof is that you did it.

Linda Darling-Hammond:  So, Don, when we watch this we see the kids in this very complicated and sometimes pretty frustrating work, and you're adding to their frustrations as they go along.  How do they stay motivated and involved even when it gets tough?

Don Johnson:  What really helps is that they're learning these skills not by writing something down, but they're building something.  So it's very concrete.

Kendra Hearn:  It's the nature of our brains to want to learn.  And with students it's just a matter of tapping in to where their interests are, and then connecting that to the classroom.  And as was evident in Don's lesson, is to have something really authentic for them to rally their learning around and they often don't even realize that they're learning some really heavy concepts in the mix of it all, but as a teacher and an expert you're standing back, quite delighted by the learning that's actually going on in that authentic situation.

Linda Darling-Hammond:  Yeah, so it's that skillful development of that task is one part of it.

Kendra Hearn:  That's right.

Linda Darling-Hammond:  When you think about all of the aspects of teaching, understanding your learners and building this productive environment and then creating the tasks and the kind of scaffolding that helps kids get where we want them to go, I'm sure that you, like many of us, think about the ideal situation in which to create that kind of learning for students, where it all comes together.  And I wonder what you think about the aspects of a school or classroom setting where all of the pieces of the learning puzzle can come together.  What's important there?  Kathleen?

Kathleen Hayes-Parvin:  One of the things that's helped me, long after my master's degree I took the writing project and I've noticed a correlation between my learning versus what I'm able to impart to kids, and the more I learn, the better they do.  So I think as lifelong learners, you know, we continue our journey and we can inspire them and keep motivated and fresh.

Linda Darling-Hammond:  Well, I am so appreciative of all of you, both for being here today and for all of your contributions to this series.  We're gonna look forward to seeing you in the sessions to come, and thanks very much for being with us.

Teachers:  Thank you.  Your welcome.

Linda Darling-Hammond: Teaching is a process of organizing people, organizing the environment, and organizing knowledge so that they enable learning for the wide range of students who are in all of our classrooms.

If it seems to you that some of these ideas seem to overlap with other topics we've considered, you are absolutely right. These learning theories don't stand in isolation.  They look at different aspects of the learning puzzle, serving as a prism that allows you to look through different lenses and see another dimension each time.

Good teaching isn't created by having a single theory or technique that would work in every situation.  Human beings are much too complicated for that, and teachers are trying to do many things at once.  Well-tested theories provide a map of the territory through which teachers must chart their own course.

As you watch later shows you will want to reflect upon your own teaching.

Ask yourself, "How am I taking into account who my students are as learners? How am I constructing a safe and productive classroom? And how am I supporting my students in learning at a high level that will transfer to other situations?" Of course, throughout our entire teaching lives, we all ask ourselves every day, "How can I do this most important job even better?" One of the most exciting things about teaching is that children provide us with continuing mysteries, and there's always room to grow and learn.

We are excited about exploring this territory with you, and we hope you are too. I'm Linda Darling Hammond and I'll see you next time on The Learning Classroom.

Return to the Support Materials for Session 1.

Contributors to this Session

Linda Darling-Hammond
Charles E. Ducommon Professor of Education, Stanford University

Kendra Hearn
former teacher, West Bloomfield High School, Michigan. Currently professional development consultant Macomb Intermediate School District, Michigan

Don Johnson
eighth grade teacher, Columbus Middle School, Detroit. Michigan

Fe MacLean
first grade teacher, Paddock Elementary School, Milan, Michigan

Kathleen Hayes-Parvin
sixth grade teacher, Birney Middle School, Southfield, Michigan