Learning is at the heart of every country's efforts to advance the standing of its youth and its economic competitiveness. Nations promote better learning through education policies that establish standards for student achievement, guidelines for textbooks, and requirements for testing. National standards, national curricula, and national exams are all, in principle, aimed at improving the kind and extent of learning in a nation's schools. Coupled with state- or province-level policies and the decisions of local leaders, national policies are intended to work across entire nations, improving student learning on a broad scale.
But what does it take to improve student learning on a broad scale? The history of education reform in the United States offers few insights. Although past reforms have tried to change patterns of learning in our schools, few, if any, have penetrated the “core” of educational practice: teachers’ ideas about the nature of knowledge and about student's role in learning, and how these ideas are manifested in teaching and classwork (Elmore, 1996). So, for example, although access to education has continually broadened – through the creation of the common school, the development of the comprehensive secondary schools, the introduction of kindergartens – actual teaching practice has scarcely changed in a systematic or sustained way in more than a century (Cuban, 1993; Tyack, 1995). Most instruction is still teacher centered; most students work most of the time by themselves on discrete tasks that require little independent thought or collaboration with others; and most tests and assessments focus on factual recall and aptitude rather than on reasoning and inquiry (Stigler & Hiebert, 2004). Yet, learning sciences (LS) research demonstrates that these practices result in ineffective learning (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014; Sawyer, 2014).
Here, we argue that improving student learning on a large scale will require a new set of education policies that challenge the dominant paradigm on which the US educational system is based and that support a new vision of education that is rooted in LS. In addition, federal and state policymakers need to reach beyond evidence produced by one particular research design (experimental) and action guided by a limited set of policy instruments (mandates and incentives) to a variety of research traditions (as exemplified by LS) and a broader set of instruments (e.g., capacity building).