School administrators were eager to make use of the “scientific” organization of factories to structure efficient classrooms.
When immigrants arrived in large numbers in the 1800s, educators urged schools to deliver “recitation literacy” to the foreign children who filled the schoolrooms.
That literacy was the ability to hold a book and reel off memorized portions of basic American texts such as the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, a part of the Gettysburg address, or some Bryant or Longfellow.
This approach attempted to sort the raw materials (the children) so that they could be treated somewhat as an assembly line.
Teachers were viewed as workers whose job was to carry out directives from their superiors—the efficiency experts of schooling (administrators and researchers).
Learning theory does not provide a simple recipe for designing effective learning environments; similarly, physics constrains but does not dictate how to build a bridge (e.g., Simon, 1969).
Nevertheless, new developments in the science of learning raise important questions about the design of learning environments—questions that suggest the value of rethinking what is taught, how it is taught, and how it is assessed.
Today, students need to understand the current state of their knowledge and to build on it, improve it, and make decisions in the face of uncertainty (Talbert and Mc Laughlin, 1993).
These two notions of knowledge were identified by John Dewey (1916) as “records” of previous cultural accomplishments and engagement in active processes as represented by the phrase “to do.” For example, doing mathematics involves solving problems, abstracting, inventing, proving (see, e.g., Romberg, 1983).
The focus in this chapter is on general characteristics of learning environments that need to be examined in light of new developments in the science of learning; Chapter 7 provides specific examples of instruction in the areas of mathematics, science, and history—examples that make the arguments in the present chapter more concrete.
We begin our discussion of learning environments by revisiting a point made in Chapter 1—that the learning goals for schools have undergone major changes during the past century.