Press Release: How Do Students Learn Best?

Published feb. 15, 2012

BOSTON, MA (February 15, 2012) — Despite the growing interest in student-centered approaches to learning, educators have few places to turn to attain a comprehensive accounting of the key components of this emerging field. Supported by funds from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation (NMEF), in 2010 JFF launched the Students at the Center project, commissioning nine papers from noted research teams to build the knowledge base for student-centered learning. The first set of three papers will be released in early March, with the others to follow through the spring.

As the country turns its attention to implementation of the Common Core State Standards, this project is an urgent reminder that higher expectations can only be met with attention to fundamental issues of how students learn, what they need to learn, and how best to teach them. The broad application of student-centered approaches to learning has much in common with other education reform movements including those directed at closing achievement gaps and providing equitable access to a high-quality education, especially for underserved youth; however, critical and distinct elements of student-centered approaches to learning challenge the current schooling and education paradigm.

The series of research papers explores questions organized around three major areas: research on learning, applications of student-centered approaches, and taking the practices to scale.  They span such areas as advancements in the field of mind, brain and education to the challenges of implementing student-centered approaches across districts.  Papers also explore the digital tools now available to customize curriculum and strategies that better engage students of color in mathematics and reading.  And they point to the hard road ahead in transforming the teaching profession so student-centered approaches to learning are a core facet of schooling.

“Moving more schools and school systems toward an approach that targets the skills and knowledge students need for the 21st century while connecting learning to their experiences, strengths and interests, will help every learner achieve more – in school and in the future,” said Nancy Hoffman, Vice President at Jobs for the Future. “We are grateful that the Nellie Mae Education Foundation has the vision and courage to re-imagine learning and teaching, and to recognize that if the US is going to achieve better outcomes for all students, then we have to think deeply as educators about how and where learning best takes place.”
“Placing all students more fully at the center of their educational experience fosters deeper learning that better prepares them for the future,” said Nicholas C. Donohue, President and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.  “We believe it is critical for our entire education system to reorganize around deeper learning, using student-centered approaches to better reach each and every student.”

The Students at the Center project seeks to capture the key components of the field today, grouped into three core areas of inquiry: learning theory, applying student-centered approaches to learning, and scaling student-centered approaches to learning. Following are the titles of the papers to be published in the Students at the Center series:

Learning Theory

Mind, Brain, and Education (To be released on March 14)
Recent brain and cognitive science research makes it possible to study the learning brain in action and track the development of learning pathways. This paper considers student-centered approaches in light of this research. 
See the executive summary HERE. (By Christina Hinton, Kurt Fischer, and Catherine Glennon)

Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice (To be released on April 11)
This synthesis of research on achievement motivation, school engagement, and student voice concludes that motivation and engagement are likely to be higher when educators use student-centered approaches. 
(By Eric Toshalis and Michael Nakkula)

Applying Student-centered Approaches

Teachers at Work—Six Exemplars of Everyday Practice (To be released on March 14)
Taking the reader inside six high schools widely regarded as exemplars of deep student learning, the authors unpack teaching practices and school structures at the heart of student-centered learning. 
See the executive summary HERE. (By Barbara Cervone and Kathleen Cushman) 

Literacy Practices for African-American Male Adolescents (To be released on March 28)
Providing a socio-historical perspective on African-American literacy, this paper discusses student-centered learning in the context of race and gender and proposes an improved approach to literacy instruction for African-American males. (By Alfred W. Tatum) Latino/a and Black Students and Mathematics (to be released on March 28)
Using new perspectives on mathematics as a cultural and social activity and research on learning outside of school, this paper provides  student-centered approaches for reducing the mathematics “achievement gap.”  
(By Rochelle Gutierrez and Sonya Irving) 

Curricular Opportunities in the Digital Age (To be released on March 28)
This paper explores how new technologies can be used to design curricula that can be readily adapted to individual differences, providing a foundation for student-centered, rather than curriculum-centered, approaches to teaching and learning. (By David Rose and Jenna Gravel)

Scaling Up Student-centered Approaches to Learning

Personalization in Schools (To be released on April 11)
This paper examines the connections between strong adult-youth relationships in school and increased student engagement and academic performance, particularly for low-income and underserved students.
(By Susan Yonezawa, Larry McClure, and Makeba Jones)

Assessing Learning (To be released on April 11)
Ideally, schools would implement a balanced system of formative, interim, and summative assessments that together inform learning, instruction, decision making, and policy.  This paper unpacks the components of such a system. (By Heidi Andrade, Kristen Huff, and Georgia Brooke)

Changing School District Practices (To be released on March 14)
If student-centered learning approaches are to improve student achievement, school districts will need to reorganize in support of this result. This paper reviews current district practices and explores strategies for supporting more student-centered approaches. See the executive summary HERE. (By Ben Levin, Amanda Datnow, and Nathalie Carrier)

On April 25-26, 2012, education researchers, writers, practitioners and policymakers will be invited to attend a symposium to further identify how student-centered approaches to learning can be adapted at the district, state and national levels as part of the education reform movement and to align with Common Core standards.

About Nellie Mae Education Foundation 
The Nellie Mae Education Foundation is the largest charitable organization in New England that focuses exclusively on education. The Foundation supports the promotion and integration of student-centered approaches to learning at the middle and high school levels across New England. To elevate student-centered approaches, the Foundation utilizes a strategy that focuses on: developing and enhancing models of practice; reshaping education policies; increasing the body of evidenced-based knowledge about student centered approaches and increasing public understanding and demand for high quality educational experiences. The Foundation’s initiative and strategy areas are: District Level Systems Change; State Level Systems Change; Research and Development; and Public Understanding. Since 1998, the Foundation has distributed over $110 million in grants.

About Students at the Center

Students at the Center synthesizes existing research on key components of student-centered approaches to learning. The papers that launch this project renew attention to the importance of engaging each student in acquiring the skills, knowledge, and expertise needed for success in college and a career. Students at the Center is supported generously by funds from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.


About Jobs for the Future

Jobs for the Future works with our partners to design and drive adoption of education and career pathways leading from college readiness to career advancement for those struggling to succeed in today’s economy.
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