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Aurora Institute

What if Educational Policy Was Shaped by the Learning Sciences? (Part 2)

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

Continuing from the first part of this topic on the implications of the learning sciences for policy, let’s start by looking at three research findings. This is my first cut on this topic and early exploration. In fact I would call these ideas half-baked but I have to start somewhere. It would be a fun collaborative project to draw on lots of great minds. (FYI: I apologize that this is a bit general. To get specific, I’d have to put it in the context of the specifics of policies in a given state.)

Learning is an activity that is carried out by the learner.

I think of this as active learning and active learners. Our brains must be turned on – curious, inquiry-oriented, and actually engaged in the learning, not just listening. This means students need the building blocks for learning to be able to have agency and be active learners. Learning is shaped by our ability to monitor our self-talk, where our focus is, to know what emotions are bubbling up and how to manage them, how to persevere when tired, frustrated or confused. This has several implications for policy. We we want our teachers to know how to coach students in the building blocks such as social and emotional learning, self-regulation, and perseverance. We also want schools to be assessing student development in these areas – not graded or made to take a test on the same day at the same time – by teachers using well-developed professional knowledge. How we think about school effectiveness in our accountability systems might include how well schools help students develop these skills.

Elementary school has always had a lot more active learning with lots of different hands-on resources. But somewhere along the line we decided it was better for students to sit in desks all in a row and listen to the teacher. If we are going to have our students be active learners, then we need to find ways for them to do the learning themselves. This means asking great questions, more hands-on learning, and opportunities to explore. This then requires facilities designed for lots of projects, resources to support learning experiences (not just a curriculum to be covered), and the time to explore.

A good starting point is to review policies regarding facilities to clear out barriers that might drive schools toward standardization. I’d also clear out any “line of sight” policies or policies that assume lecture is the default form of instruction. The idea that a student has to be in the line of sight of the teacher is silly, silly, silly. Students who are active learners, motivated, and highly engaged can be doing learning anywhere! I’ve also seen state policy interpreted to mean that the amount of time a student is receiving instruction interpreted to not include flex time when students are getting small group or individual instruction. Only sitting in a classroom with all the other students and a teacher seemed to account as instructional time. Again, silly, silly, silly. When students are active learners and there are robust learning experiences, they are doing a lot of the learning without the teacher talking at them. They ask the teacher for help when they are struggling and the teachers are constantly assessing when students need guidance, instruction, or more support to address the social and emotional aspects of learning.

I’d also question anything that thinks about curriculum as a thing to be covered. Curriculum in the world of international education tends to be about the learning objectives. We’ve always used the word to describe the resources that are used by the teacher to teach and by the student to learn, such as textbooks (including digital textbooks). As we’ve been writing the papers on meeting students where they are, on the quality design principles (coming soon), and the logic model (coming in May), we switched to talking about learning experiences rather than curriculum. Thus, teachers design (and sometimes co-design with students) the learning experiences.

The key here is that learning objectives are crystal clear and supported by strong common assessment rubrics. Thus, let’s review state and district policies to support learning experiences and question anything that is designed around coverage. (FYI: Some of the social and emotional learning programs are organized as curriculum to be covered. This may be fine as we help schools and educators to become familiar with social and emotional learning, but we need to eventually think about it as coaching students toward a shared understanding of the actual skills and traits we want students to have rather than teaching a curriculum.)

Let’s try one more: Acquiring new knowledge and skills requires effective feedback.

This research finding, what most would call just common sense, is not embedded in the traditional system. In fact, some might argue that there is more attention to judging students than there is to helping students learn. We need to rethink assessment policies to make sure that they are rooted in the cycle of learning. We need policies that enable teachers to continue working with students if it takes more time to repair gaps or master something.

Grading policies have to be upgraded to support students receiving feedback and continuing to learn until mastery. The 100 point scale and A-F without a feedback loop is an impediment. Some schools are trying to move in this direction by saying all students must get an A, B, or C or even just an A or B. That’s certainly worthy, but without allowing a student to proceed above grade level, it’s going to feel like everyone achieving at exactly the same level at the same time. And that’s not consistent with the second research finding.

Given that A-F grading without a revision loop is simply judging students on what they know rather than helping them to learn, any policy or practice that depends on or reinforces  in our the GPA needs to be upgraded. We know that the GPA isn’t going to disappear, but there needs to always be an alternative. We should search the education code (and the scholarship database) in every state to identify where we can start aligning grading with helping students to get targeted feedback.

Let’s do one final one: Learning results from the interplay of cognition, emotion, and motivation.

Again, that makes perfect sense from a common sense perspective. But then why do we keep schools focused only on the academic content and not think about how the culture, instruction, and assessments should be designed around activating all three? If we follow this research finding along its path, we want to have schools that are inclusive and where students feel safe. So disciplinary policy and disproportionately excluding students needs to stop immediately (there are indicators that after several years of getting better, it’s getting worse) and replaced with policies that see behaviors as opportunities to help students develop through guidance and support, not exclusion.

We also want to make sure that schools and teachers can help students build intrinsic motivation. There are multiple ways, including providing some autonomy over the process of learning (choice, where to sit, which book to read, and how much time to work on something), purpose and interests (choice, co-design, and inquiry) and social learning (relationships are important and doing something with your peers can make learning meaningful and fun). If we pay attention to the emotional and motivational aspects of learning, including helping students to build the skills needed for agency, we may be coming up against a time constraint. We may want to reconsider how we are thinking about breadth (cover all the standards) and depth (highly engaging learning experiences that allow students to explore and build higher order skills) in our graduation policies. We need to get honest with ourselves. Adding expectations and more and more standards is risky: we may actually be undermining learning, not enhancing it.

There are many other policies we need such as supporting performance-based assessment and recognizing that students may need additional time if they enter high school with elementary school levels. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Is there a specific policy in your state that isn’t aligned with the learning sciences? Pass it on!

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