How people learn

The National Research Council identifies three essential components of powerful teaching and learning in How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice (1999).

Active inquiry

Students are engaged in active participation, exploration, and research; activities draw out perceptions and develop understanding; students are encouraged to make decisions about their learning; and teachers use the diverse experiences of students to build effective learning experiences.

In-depth learning

The focus is on competence, not coverage; students struggle with complex problems, explore core concepts to develop deep understanding, and apply knowledge in real-world contexts.

Performance assessment

Clear expectations define what students should know and be able to do; students produce quality work products and present to real audiences; student work shows evidence of understanding, not just recall; assessment tasks allow students to display higher-order thinking; and students and teachers set learning goals and monitor progress.

How then do we design school facilities that better support how people learn? The National Research Council in How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School (1999) suggests that we design community-centered environments that are learner-centered, knowledge-centered, and assessment-centered.


Build learning environments that promote community of all kinds – including the community of the classroom and the school, and connections between school and the larger community and the school and home. Ensure there are adequate spaces for collaboration, community meetings, and the exhibition of student work. And make certain that students and teachers connect meaningfully with experts outside of school to better prepare students for real-world success.


The facility supports active learning and performance that reveal ways of understanding what each learner can know and do. Build learning environments on a scale that allows educators to pay careful attention to the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs that students bring to their learning. And recognize that ideas are best introduced when students see a need or reason for their use.


The ability to think and solve problems requires well-organized knowledge that is accessible in appropriate contexts. Analogous to figuring out how to live in an environment, students learn their way around content areas, learn what resources are available, and learn how to use those resources in conducting their learning activities productively and enjoyably. The facility, educational program, technology, and community support rigorous knowledge development and inquiry-based learning.


Display student work, provide feedback, and structure activities so that students are able to explore, explain, extend, and evaluate their progress. Project and exhibition spaces help make students’ thinking visible. The program, facility, and technology support authentic learning. People and program provide for feedback and revision and ensure that what is assessed is congruent with learning goals.

Learner-centered environments include teachers who are aware that students construct their own meanings, beginning with beliefs, understandings, and cultural practices they bring to the classroom. If teaching is conceived as constructing a bridge between subject matter and student, learner-centered teachers keep on eye on both ends of the bridge. The teachers attempt to get a sense of what students know and can do as well as their interests and passions. (Bransford, et al, 1999, p. 135-6).