Cover Story

Psychologists involved in the "science of learning" run the gamut from social psychologists to cognitive types and experimentalists to software designers. They reside in traditional psychology departments and departments of education, and interact with a range of colleagues from those in the core disciplines of biology, chemistry and math to those in computer science and engineering.

Here's a taste of what some of them have been up to.

Stop the stereotypes, improve learning

Social psychologist Joshua Aronson, PhD, first tuned into stereotypes and prejudice in junior high school, where he noticed that Hispanic and African-American children were much smarter than the teachers assumed.

"The teachers only saw them in academic situations," recalls Aronson, an assistant professor at New York University. "I would see them in all kinds of situations and I noticed that their smartness and confidence would rise and fall with the situation. Many of them seemed to be paralyzed by the atmosphere in certain academic classes. I saw a lot of really smart kids completely crash and burn in these schools. I see the same thing today as a researcher."

That experience led him to a career studying the link among stereotypes, expectations and learning.

As a postdoc with Claude Steele, PhD, at Stanford University, Aronson conducted seminal studies demonstrating the power of "stereotype threat": the idea that racial and sex stereotypes and teacher expectations strongly--and negatively--influence how children perform in school and on standardized tests.

Aronson's work now focuses on how stereotype threat works, when it develops and who's most at risk. He's also developed some techniques--based on his work and that of Columbia University colleague Carol Dweck, PhD--that appear to help children overcome stereotype threat and perform better in school and on high-stakes tests.

He believes harnessing psychology in the search for productive school reform can be powerful.

"Local psychological interventions are much cheaper than those proposed by sociologists and economists," he says. "We can accomplish a lot by going in, figuring out psychological barriers to success and addressing them."

Mapping spatial learning

Cognitive psychologist Nora Newcombe, PhD, has been piecing together children's understanding of space in the same way other researchers have focused on language.

Spatial learning is the "other" major part of intellect, says Newcombe, professor of psychology at Temple University. "'Other' than language, that is. And yet [it] has been relatively neglected," she says.

That neglect was attractive to Newcombe, who loves the "thrill of discovery." She and her colleagues--in particular the University of Chicago's Janellen Huttenlocher, PhD--have had the opportunity to forge new ground. One of their goals has been to document when and how spatial skills develop. With that information, the researchers believe they'll be able to develop tools to help parents and teachers foster spatial learning.

Teaching and fostering spatial skills is becoming increasingly important, mandatory not only for navigating locally and globally but also for many types of jobs critical to our increasingly technical society in the fields of chemistry, biology, geography, architecture and engineering.

Newcombe's favorite finding is usually her most recent, she says. "Right now, I'm very taken with our data that indicate a fundamental transformation of spatial thought between 18 and 24 to 30 months," she says.

At 18 months, she explains, children can succeed at very simple spatial tasks--finding a single object in a small sandbox. But they aren't good at locating two objects, understanding the relationship between two objects or remembering where an object is if they're distracted for two minutes before being asked to find it--tasks they're much better at after they turn 2.

"I think there's a representational shift in the spatial domain after age 2," says Newcombe.

This developmental shift is especially interesting, she says, because the abilities that improve after age 2 depend on the brain's hippocampus. That suggests that there is some kind of maturation of this area between 18 months and 2 years, either due to an innate biological timetable or due to effects of experience on this brain area, she says.

Education technology

Marcia Linn, PhD, approaches her research on technology in the classroom from multiple perspectives. Trained as a statistician, an educational psychologist and a computer programmer, she wears all her hats when designing educational software and evaluating its effectiveness.

"We form partnerships with physicists, classroom teachers, psychologists and computer scientists because you need so many disciplines to do this kind of work," says Linn, of the University of California, Berkeley. "We all need to learn to talk to each other--and I have more practice based on my background."

Her focus is on developing computer-based environments that promote learning, particularly in the area of science and mathematics. The key to creating these programs is to make them flexible enough so that teachers and schools can modify them to match their needs while at the same time maintaining the elements that make them work, she says.

Probably her most advanced learning "environment" is WISE (http://wise.berkeley.edu), which provides projects on several topics, including genetically modified foods, earthquake prediction and the deformed-frog mystery. The program uses diagrams, graphs and demonstrations to help students learn core concepts. The program is based on years of experiments in classrooms conducted by Linn and her colleagues to discover how best to explain these core concepts and build on the ideas that students bring to science class (see www.clp.berkeley.edu). For example, students often struggle with the difference between heat and temperature--thinking that because a metal chair feels colder than wood, its temperature is lower. Linn and her colleagues discovered that visualizations showing how heat moves faster from a person's hand into metal than into wood--making the wood seem warmer--was enough to help students properly interpret their sensory experience.

"We have numerous useful experimental findings about students' beliefs and learning practices that allow us to shape teaching tools to address these issues," says Linn. "We design new ideas to add to the mix of views held by students to propel their reasoning in a normative direction."

Integrating learning research

Jim Pellegrino, PhD, and Susan Goldman, PhD, have spent their careers studying the learning sciences from slightly different perspectives. Now, the husband and wife are integrating their ideas as co-directors of a revolutionary center started at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).

Both are world-renowned for their research--Pellegrino for his work on individual differences and educational assessment, and Goldman for her work on comprehension, learning and the design of innovative curricula and learning environments, particularly multimedia-based programs.

Their goal at UIC is to create an interdisciplinary research center on cognition, instruction and teacher development that will bring together various perspectives and disciplines in the learning sciences to address complex questions and problems in education and learning.

"The center is very much trying to capture the spirit of a multidisciplinary inquiry into issues of learning," says Pellegrino, "from student learning to teacher learning and design of environments that encourage that. It can also mean 'What are the organizational conditions that best support student or teacher learning?' or 'What is the best way to structure the classroom environment?'"

The center is housed in the psychology department, but "just thinking about psychology wasn't going to do it," explains Goldman. "There are people in mathematics, science, computer science, a host of people in the college of education concerned with literacy, leadership and teacher development, and of course people in psychology looking at cognitive aspects of learning. Until now they've mostly been working on education issues by themselves or in small teams."

The center creates a context for people to share ideas and develop projects through coordinated dialogues, colloquia and joint grant proposals, says Goldman. She and Pellegrino spend a lot of time doing outreach to discover which faculty members and students on campus are doing related work and to encourage them to work together. After just one year, they've coordinated people from eight different departments in partnership with a group of researchers from Northwestern University and the Chicago Public Schools to compete for a math and science partnership grant from the National Science Foundation.

"The vision for the center can be articulated at several different levels," says Pellegrino. "One is the vision for effectively merging the talents that are here already at UIC to pursue projects of a larger scope than individual investigators could take on. Beyond that, we're obviously interested in how the center can be a point of synergy for projects with connection to the Chicago Public Schools. And related to that is a vision of effectively working with colleagues across institutions in Chicago--Northwestern, the University of Chicago, Loyola, DePaul. The idea is to leverage the talent that exists here locally to pursue work that has theoretical and practical benefits."

The center also supports its own seed grant competition to encourage partnerships among researchers who haven't worked together before.

Along with their work at the center, both Pellegrino and Goldman are maintaining their separate research agendas. He's interested in designing educational assessments to measure what people know--not to grade them, but to understand where instruction is failing them.

"I think of assessment as a fundamental part of teaching and learning," he says.

He sees the day when teachers have teaching tools that have assessments embedded in technology. Those assessments then provide teachers with information they can use to see where students are having problems.

Meanwhile, Goldman divides her time between the lab and classrooms, using what she learns in lab studies--assessing the variables that affect what children learn--to guide collaborations with practitioners; in turn, she uses what she learns from practitioners and their classrooms to inform lab studies. Often, curriculum development is part of the collaboration because new kinds of materials embody new ways of thinking about teaching and learning. Along with colleagues, she's already designed two multimedia-based learning programs--one for mathematics and one on reading comprehension and writing.

Beth Azar is a writer in Portland, Ore.