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AAAS’s New Book Explores Research Behind Informal Learning Environments

As standards and approaches for teaching mathematics, science and reading at the grade-school level are debated among educators and policymakers, a new book published by AAAS offers a straightforward, research-based resource on learning. In addition to offering advice for teachers, “Learning: The Science Inside” describes the biological bases and social contexts of learning, how learning changes across the lifespan and strategies to boost learning.

The 98-page book is part of an effort to show evidence of how experiences in schools and non-classroom, everyday settings—such as in the home, at museums or churches, and online—interact to support learning. “We know that context matters in learning,” said Shirley Malcom, who heads AAAS’s Education and Human Resources Programs. “But not enough attention is paid to everyday learning environments.”

Impetus to create the AAAS book came from a brainstorming session among the AAAS Education and Human Resources Programs staff. The group realized that they needed a resource that could guide how they structured programs and activities that support learning of science, mathematics and technology. The book that resulted from that brainstorm has ended up attracting far more attention than originally intended or anticipated.

“It is getting a good response from people who are doing workshops for teachers of all disciplines,” Malcom said.

One of the goals of “Learning: The Science Inside” was to stitch together the empirical evidence supporting the idea that informal learning environments are also key to learning. “We had an intuition that school and non-school were both important, but we wanted to make sure were on the right track,” Malcom said.

From the basic wiring of brain cells to how social networks influence learning, the AAAS book explains how we learn in an easy-to-read style meant to engage a variety of audiences, including teachers, students, parents and anyone else interested in learning.

The book’s author, Neir Eshel, listed the chapter on early learning, titled “Babies: The World’s Best Learning Machines,” as his favorite topic in the book. “Infants are much smarter than most people realize. Very young babies can add, if you ask them in the right way,” said Eshel, a former AAAS intern who has a background in neuroscience and journalism. “It’s pretty amazing the complexity of their knowledge and how quickly they can learn.”

Learning across the lifespan—from infancy to late adulthood—is emphasized in “Learning: The Science Inside.” Eshel describes how the brain changes and remains flexible to soak up new memories throughout life.

The book includes sidebar biographies of scientists, such as child psychologist Jean Piaget and neuropsychologist Donald Hebb. The biographies describing the lives of and experiments performed by the scientists can help students learn about science by humanizing it.

“If you ask a classroom of students to name a scientist, they can’t come up with more than maybe one or two,” said Joanne Mann, who retired two years ago from her 35-year career as a middle school teacher in the Gahanna-Jefferson school district in Gahanna, Ohio. Mann, who will use the AAAS book as part of a teacher workshop she’s organizing, says that biographical information on scientists is an important, yet frequently overlooked, method to teach science and demonstrate the significance of science experiments.

“Young kids can identify with people,” she said, adding how including biographies in history curricula is a standard teaching approach. “But in science, we tend to focus on memorizing vocabulary and covering the numerous required concepts.”

Although the AAAS book includes just a few biographies of scientists, Mann said that it’s enough to inspire a similar approach in teachers who are reading the book to gain teaching ideas. “Biographies of scientists should be a larger part of our science curriculum,” she said. “They provide the emotional and social connection that—as discussed in the book—will enhance learning, while also encouraging students to choose science careers.

Mann, an educational consultant for the Ohio Academy of Science, said that a strength of “Learning: The Science Inside” is that it offers clear-cut, experiment-based advice to teachers on how to maximize student learning.

“Most texts would not come right out and tell you what you should do,” she said. The book advises, for example, that students learn better if teachers show them how new material is different and similar to things they already know. “This approach shows the students how the new information is connected to the structure they already have, as well as how it fits into larger ideas,” Mann said

In addition to giving advice to teachers, the book provides advice to anyone interested in improving their memory. “I thought it would nice to put something practical in there,” said Eshel, adding that people would often ask him how they could learn better when he told them about the project. Other experiment-based learning strategies described in the book include using our natural pattern-seeking instinct to better understand and subsequently remember new information.

“The best way to remember something is to really understand it,” Eshel wrote in “Learning: The Science Inside.” Eshel goes on to describe various memory tricks, including acronyms and mental imagery, that studies have shown can be used to expand the amount of information we memorize.

Explaining the experiments discussed in the book posed a relatively large challenge for Eshel, whose goal was to not dumb down the concepts, but still make them precise and understandable. “I looked at every word and made sure it was not too complicated, and that the sentences were not overly long or complex,” said Eshel, now a graduate student in clinical neuroscience at University College London. “This would help keep the readers’ attention.”

Eshel approaches scientific concepts, such as theories and myths, with the same goal of making the material interesting and accessible to readers. When describing the theory of the Mozart Effect—the belief that listening to classical music increases a child’s IQ—Eshel explains the science behind the theory and the science that refuted the theory. He also includes how a modified version of the theory can be put into practice. “It’s true that a better home environment will lead to better learning,” he wrote. “But there aren’t any magic bullets that will make your child smarter.”

“Learning: The Science Inside” is part of the AAAS book series “The Science Inside“. The series is an initiative that aims to supply accessible resources on science and health topics of popular interest, said Maria Sosa, who edited the AAAS book on learning. Other books include the award-winning books “Obesity: The Science Inside” and “Asthma and Allergies: The Science Inside.”

To order copies of “Learning: The Science Inside,” see The Science Inside Web site.