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Aurora Institute

Threshold Concept: Synchronizing K-12 Education Policy with the Learning Sciences

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Susan Patrick, Dale Frost, Maria Worthen, Natalie Truong

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction


The learning sciences are an important reference point in designing instructional models for equity where all students can succeed. Learning sciences are the multidisciplinary study of how students learn best, and what feeds intrinsic motivation and the experience of personal success. A school redesign informed by learning sciences puts student success at its center. It incorporates youth development theory, culturally responsive teaching and evidence-based approaches.  

Policy does not (and should not) dictate pedagogy; however, policymakers should understand the importance of the learning sciences and how the research is transforming student learning with innovative new models. Policymakers should consider how current accountability, assessment and teacher development systems might hinder the development of new learning models and innovative pedagogies that are based in the learning sciences.

Learning models should be rooted in the learning sciences, with any redesign putting student success at the center. Educators can be engaged in teaching as inquiry where the focus is on “identifying student learning problems, hypothesizing on causes, investigating and testing causal links, and acting on the findings to improve outcomes,” writes Dr. Linda Bendikson, New Zealand Curriculum.

Using research and evidence as a foundation for ‘inquiry’ allows all levels of the system to engage in deep conversations around what is working in student learning and how educators are central to systemic improvement. It is important for educators to question how they are using an inquiry approach to improve culturally responsive teaching, as well.

In competency-based systems, we must engage in tough conversations around outdated pedagogical approaches. It is time to critically analyze how the current time-based models may be barriers to addressing learner needs. We should examine how we assess and determine whether our assessment strategies are consistent with the learning sciences research on how students learn best. In addition, we need to determine if our pedagogical approaches align with research on student motivation and meeting kids where they are at the appropriate level of readiness, whether the learning strategies employed are truly fit for purpose. We must ensure we are designing for equity using research on how students learn best, youth development theory, and evidence-based approaches.

Learn more about pedagogical innovations based on learning sciences in the paper Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education.

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