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Aurora Institute

How Do the Learning Sciences Drive Learning in Your School and District?

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation

Two weeks ago, iNACOL/CompetencyWorks released the paper Levers and Logic Models. There are lots of interesting ideas throughout the paper thanks to an incredible group of people who shared their expertise. One of the most interesting processes was creating a set of principles based on the learning sciences that should guide school design, learning experiences, and instruction/assessment, as we were drawing from multiple domains of research. (See below.)

The more schools I visit, the more I believe that there isn’t one way of designing based upon the learning sciences. I think it is important to think about how to optimize across the different research findings. However, being clear about the pedagogical principles is critically important. In fact, before your district and school begins the journey toward creating a competency-based model, I think it is very much worth taking the time to create a shared set of pedagogical principles.

  • What are the pedagogical principles that guide your school? How do they relate to the research on learning?
  • What are the beliefs that guide traditional approach to education and how do they compare to the cornerstones of learning?

Cornerstones of the Learning Sciences

Learning is an activity that is carried out by the learner. Students do not simply absorb information and skills. Rather, learning requires active engagement and effort. Effort is influenced by motivation. Similar to intelligence, motivation is malleable. Beliefs about intelligence shape the amount of effort students are willing to invest. Those who hold a growth mindset will put more effort toward learning than those who hold the misconception that intelligence is a fixed trait. Providing incremental opportunities to experience growth reinforces that effort will result in success. Learners will be more motivated when they value the task and if they are confident they will be successful with supports available if needed.


Learning results from the interplay of cognition, emotion and motivation. The brain does not clearly separate cognitive from emotional functioning, so optimal learning environments will engage both. Motivation is important to learning but it is also dynamic and changes in response to a number of factors. In fact, as students learn more about their cognitive processes, they develop a greater sense of competence and thereby increase their motivation. The relationship between cognition, emotion and motivation is dynamic.


Learning does not occur through a fixed progression of age-related stages. The mastery of new concepts happens in fits and starts. Learning is shaped by multiple factors, some of which are related to the neural, social and emotional development of children. Others are dependent on the types of experiences and contexts provided for the learner to build new understanding on prior knowledge. Practically speaking, this means that biological factors are only a part of the story. Frequent challenges matched by socio-emotional support can strengthen cognitive and psychological development. Rich learning experiences facilitated by helpful guides along with recurring opportunities to experiment, practice and improve will help students learn, develop and achieve.


Intrinsic motivation leads to better long-term outcomes than extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic or controlled motivation (systems of reward or punishment such as the traditional grading system of 0-100 points for assignments and behaviors) may be useful in the short-run but often produces the unintended consequence of disengagement and resistance. Self-determination theory explains that motivation will increase when learners experience competence (I can be successful), relatedness (I have meaning and connection) and autonomy (I have control over the process). It’s important to remember that motivation is dynamic. It increases and decreases. It can be shaped by cognitive processes, and external expectations can become intrinsic motivation.


Effort is dependent on motivation and self-regulation. When learners are able to self-regulate — when they can successfully manage thoughts, behaviors and emotions — they are better able to initiate and sustain focus and effort on difficult tasks. Students may be highly motivated but not have the skills necessary to manage the emotions they experience in the process of learning. Thus, students need coaching to build the social and emotional skills to manage the stress they experience from situations in or out of school, the metacognitive skills to monitor their learning and the self-regulation skills to change strategies as needed.


Learning is shaped by the way information is processed and transferred into long-term memory. New information is processed in working memory before it can be transferred into long-term memory. Working memory has limitations to how much new information it can absorb, requiring students and teachers to consider the cognitive load. Strategies can be used to reduce demand on working memory and helping to transfer new information and concepts into long-term memory.



Learning builds on prior knowledge and context. People learn new knowledge optimally when their prior knowledge is activated. Learners need to have structures to organize and retrieve information. Thus, attaching new information to what they already know in a context where that knowledge is accessible, relevant and responsive to cultural understanding can be helpful in mastering new ideas and skills.



Acquiring new knowledge and skills requires effective feedback. Effective feedback focuses on the task (not the student) and on improving (rather than verifying performance). Assessing student learning, identifying misconceptions or gaps in understanding and providing feedback are critical steps in the learning process. Assessment information is as important to helping teachers to adjust their teaching strategies or improve their skills as it is for helping students adjust their learning strategies. Research on learning progressions helps teachers to understand how students are understanding concepts and processes not just whether they reached the correct answer.


Learning is a social process. Learning occurs in a socio-cultural context involving social interactions. Individuals need opportunities to observe and model behaviors — both from adults and peers — to develop new skills. Dialogue with others is needed to shape ways of thinking and construct knowledge. Discourse and collaborative work can strengthen learning when they allow students to assist each other and take on expert roles.



Learning occurs through interaction with one’s environment. The human brain, and therefore learning, develops over time through exposure to conditions, including people, experiences and environmental factors. A person’s culture may also serve as “context” that influences learning. Learning occurs best in conditions that support healthy social, emotional and neurological development. Students will be more motivated in schools when they believe that they are accepted, belong and respected. Optimal learning environments attend to and seek to ameliorate status differences and social hierarchies so that students do not feel marginalized, ostracized or threatened.