The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine
Office of Congressional and government Affairs
At A Glance
: Federal Education Research and Evaluation Efforts (Joint Hearing)
: 06/17/1999
Session: 106th Congress (First Session)
: Alexandra K. Wigdor

Executive Director, Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, National Research Council

: Senate
: Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions

Testimony of Alexandra K. Wigdor
Associate Executive Director
Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education
National Research Council

Before the

Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
House Committee on Education and the Workforce



June 17, 1999

Good morning. I speak today on behalf of Dr. Bruce Alberts, President of the National Academy of Sciences and Chairman of the National Research Council, whose foremost priority has been to make scientific knowledge highly accessible to educators and to help build the capacity of the education system to appreciate and use this knowledge.

This year, the National Research Council released three publications that provide the basis for my comments today. Each of these reports speaks directly to the question of the potential value of research to education. The first, How People Learn: Mind, Brain, Experience, School was funded by the Department of Education’s Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI). It is the product of a three year effort by an interdisciplinary committee to synthesize what we know about human learning and to draw out the implications for schooling.

The exciting conclusion from the How People Learn effort is that scientific research in the past few decades has produced some important and straightforward implications for how we can improve education and student achievement. For purposes of brevity, I will mention just two of the key findings:

Key Findings:

1) To develop competence in any discipline, students must have both a deep foundation of factual knowledge and they must understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework.

For decades we have debated whether schools need to be teaching facts, or whether they need to focus on big ideas. Substantial research on the differences between experts and novices makes it absolutely clear that both are crucial. Experts, regardless of the field, always draw on a deep, richly structured information base -- i.e., facts. They are not just good thinkers or smart people. The ability to plan a task, to notice patterns, to generate reasonable arguments and explanations, and to draw analogies to other problems are all more closely intertwined with factual knowledge than was once believed.

At the same time, the key to making that factual foundation "usable" knowledge is the mastery of concepts. The concepts are what allow experts to see patterns and relationships, or discrepancies that are not apparent to novices. Not only were we wrong in thinking there is a tradeoff between the teaching of facts and of concepts, but research demonstrates that factual information is better remembered and retrieved when it is tied to concepts or "big ideas."

We can use geography as a case in point. Children can be taught to fill out a map accurately by memorizing information. But after the test is over, the information can quickly be forgotten. The conceptual underpinnings of geography that help explain, for example, the importance of water bodies to the development of cities and towns and the defining of borders will allow students to think about the geographic importance of the Mississippi River in a way that will not quickly be forgotten, and it will help students locate important cities along the river’s path. Perhaps more importantly, such concepts allow students to transfer what they learn from one lesson to the next. They can look at the map of Africa with a set of questions and expectation about the geography along the Nile that will allow them to accumulate the next set of facts more quickly.

The clear implication for schools is that learning facts and concepts should go hand in hand, and we must come to terms with the notion that to achieve both, we will have to use classroom time to educate children more deeply about fewer topics. We will also need to train teachers differently, so they have a deep understanding of the link between a body of facts and the concepts that give those facts meaning.

2) A second, powerful finding is that highly competent people have well-developed processes for defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving those goals.

Experts and high-achieving students make note of when they need additional information, whether new information is consistent with what they already know, and what analogies can be drawn to advance their understanding. But even though much of this monitoring goes on as an internal dialogue, the monitoring process can be very effectively taught in a classroom environment in which the teacher models the monitoring and guides students eventually along the path of self-monitoring. The research suggests that in a variety of subject areas -- reading, science, math, writing -- these skills improve the achievement of all students. But they help low achieving students most. In some cases, initially low achieving students who have mastered the monitoring skills thoroughly are barely distinguishable in their performance from high achieving students.

Unfortunately, what we know from research, and what we do in practice are still distant relatives. The potential of research to influence practice has gone largely unrealized. Educators generally do not look to research for guidance for a number of reasons: The concern of researchers for the scientific validity of their findings often differs from the focus of educators on the applicability of those findings in real classroom settings with many students, restricted time, and a variety of demands.

A further challenge lies in the elaboration of research ideas at the level of detail and with the level of training and guidance needed by classroom teachers. Teachers can be persuaded of the importance, for example, of teaching both factual knowledge and key concepts., But they also need to walk into a classroom with the teaching tools and the professional training experiences that equip them to make the connection between facts and the key concepts to which those facts can be tied. They need a public that understands and shares their vision, and school administrators and policy makers who support it. But such coordination of training, education materials, policy making, and public opinion takes time, and in education, new ideas often come and go with remarkable speed.

The second NRC report that I want to bring to your attention today is meant to address these concerns. Improving Student Learning: A Strategic Plan for Education Research and Its Utilization--which we refer to as the Strategic Education Research Plan or SERP--proposes to bring together teachers, researchers, administrators and policy makers in a collaborative effort that draws on the strengths of all. The SERP goal is to focus the efforts of researchers on issues that challenge the teacher in her or his daily efforts; to bring the worlds, the understandings, and the interests of teachers and researchers closer together. The SERP proposal is that four "networks" involving each of these groups be developed and sustained over a fifteen year period, with each network assigned a "strategic" question. These questions are the following:

To address these questions, SERP calls for a large-scale and sharply defined program of research, demonstration, and evaluation. Much of the work will need to be embedded in school settings; all of it should be informed by the needs of the most challenging schools, in particular, high-poverty urban schools. Together, we believe these sustained efforts to translate research for classroom purposes, to transform schools into institutions that are receptive to new ideas that have a solid research foundation, and to address student engagement in learning, could advance student achievement profoundly.

The report proposes a new model for education research as the heart of the SERP idea. This new model has six crucial features:

• promotion of collaborative and interdisciplinary work;

• provision of constant, ongoing commitment on the part of core teams of researchers;

• a built-in partnership with the practice and policy communities;

• iterative and interactive interplay between basic and applied research in a structure that combines the richness of field-initiated research and the purpose of program-driven research;

• a plan that is sustained over a long enough time for results to

• be cumulative; and

• an overall structure that is cumulative in nature---each step planned to build on previous steps.

Dr. Alberts has expressed the hope that the SERP idea will spur major new investments in education research--both by Federal and state governments and by foundations and other private donors. But the SERP report does not attempt to say where this ambitious research program should be housed--whether in one or more federal agencies, a federal/state partnership, or some sort of public/private enterprise. The feasibility of the plan needs to be widely discussed. The general design features suggested in the NRC report need to be forged into workable specifications for a large-scale, long-term research and development program. Above all, it remains to be seen whether this plan can generate the kind of political will and financial commitment that will be needed for its operation.

The third and final NRC publication relevant to this joint hearing is a recently completed a research agenda for OERI entitled How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice. Like the SERP proposal, this committee’s report, developed independently, emphasizes the need for collaboration among researchers, teacher trainers, teachers, policy makers and the public. And like the SERP committee, this committee emphasized the need to focus rigorous research efforts on classroom practice, and on the development and evaluation of tools for teachers and teacher trainers. Whether it be done in the SERP context or not, both committees agree that a much broader effort must be made to carry research findings that are well supported and convincing through to the classroom level. We cannot assume that good research will be incorporated by schools as a matter of course. School receptiveness to new ideas, and the critical features of effective school reform must themselves be a subject of serious research and intense cultivation.

It is a striking fact that in the complex world of education -- unlike defense, health care, or industrial production -- personal experience and ideology are frequently relied on to make policy choices. In no other field is the research base so inadequate and so little used. And the task of importing even the strongest research finding into over a million classrooms is daunting. It will take a major commitment of research effort and funding to change current practice. But we believe that with commitment and collaboration we can use the power of science to substantially improve education in the United States.