How People Learn, Chapter 1

For my Engineering Education class, I am reading parts of the widely recognized education book How People Learn. Certain parts of the text caught my eye and I want t record them here with some comments interspersed. Chapter 1 can be found online.


Nobel laureate Herbert Simon: The meaning of “knowing” has shifted from being able to remember and repeat information to being able to find and use it (1996).

I believe this quote to be very accurate. We are in the information age now, and we need to learn to process massive amounts of data, rather than to memorize data. Education needs to be revamped to teach the skills necessary to parse large resources, find the desired information, and apply it in appropriate context.


Behaviorism: study consciousness through observable behaviors and the stimulus conditions which control them

The behaviorist Edward Thorndike published an experiment where he trapped a cat in a box, and the cat was required to pull a string to exit the box and get food (1913). He noted that the cat always used trial and error to escape in the early trials of the experiment. When reinforced positively by receiving food, the cat started associating the string with escaping the box and obtaining food. He then argued that rewards increase the strength of connections between stimuli and responses.

Modern behaviorism is not as strict as the original behaviorists required, and allows for hypotheses about mental states.


Pre-Existing Knowledge

People bring all of their prior knowledge, skills, experiences, beliefs, and concepts to the classroom, and this information influences how they learn. They construct their new knowledge on the foundations of what they already know and believe.

In terms of teaching then, teachers need to be aware of their students’ preconceptions, false beliefs, and naive renditions of concepts. This theory results in the constructivist teaching style. Below are two illustrations from the children’s book “Fish is Fish,” which shows how a fish would understand an explanation of humans if he had never seen them before – specifically, in the context of his already-existing worldview.


Active Learning: people should take control of their learning.

What does this mean for students? It requires that we teach them *how* to reflect. They must identify when they are understanding certain material, and when they are not. Metacognition refers to a person’s ability to predict their performance on a task and to monitor their current level of understanding/mastery.

Perhaps most importantly, active learning increases the degree to which students transfer their learning to new environments and situations.


Three major findings:

  1. Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom.
  2. To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must: (a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.
  3. A “metacognitive” approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them.

What they mean for teachers:

  1. Teachers must draw out and work with the preexisting understandings that their students bring with them.
  2. Teachers must teach some subject matter in depth, providing many examples in which the same concept is at work and providing a firm foundation of factual knowledge.
  3. The teaching of metacognitive skills should be integrated into the curriculum in a variety of subject areas.

Note that the numbered sections here are taken directly from the text.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s