The new ‘How People Learn’: Culture matters



A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine puts a research spotlight on issues that matter to educators.


Two decades ago, I had the privilege of serving on the committee that produced How People Learn (NRC, 1999), the National Research Council’s landmark report on the learning sciences and their implications for K-12 education. And I also had the opportunity, over the past few years, to serve on the panel for the follow-up report, How People Learn II (NASEM, 2018), just published in October. Both times, I was a lonely practitioner in a room full of university folk.

On the first committee, I found myself constantly trying to push my colleagues to focus more directly on the real-world, everyday problems educators face. While I was fascinated by all of the new findings about how learning happens in the brain, I worried that some of the psychologists and neuroscientists weren’t paying enough attention to the cultural and political forces — especially the pressures of high-stakes testing — that influence what actually gets taught and learned in schools.

My experience on the second committee couldn’t have been more different. This time — while the national policy environment had become, if anything, even more antithetical to good teaching and learning — I found myself sitting quietly and cheering on the researchers. Something had changed dramatically over those two decades. Now the researchers were the ones insisting that if we want to help young people learn, then we must consider the school environment and the differing cultural backgrounds that students and their teachers bring to the classroom.

For example, while the first report acknowledged that “school failure may be partly explained by the mismatch between what students have learned in their home cultures and what is required of them in school” (NRC, 1999, p. 72), How People Learn II does much more to “[take] into account the social, emotional, motivational, cognitive, developmental, biological, and temporal contexts in which learning occurs.” (NASEM, 2018, p. 136).

The idea that context matters may not be news to those of us working in K-12 classrooms, but it marks a striking, and welcome, shift in the scientific discourse. For example, I keep thinking back to a wonderfully rich committee discussion we had, a couple of years ago, about differences in children’s book illustrations by European American and Native American authors: The former might create a picture meant to show children that “they must respect nature and have a responsibility to take care of it,” but the latter would be more likely to say, “I want my children to realize that they are part of nature” (p. 139). While the first NRC committee rarely discussed issues of cultural identity, these kinds of examples are sprinkled throughout How People Learn II, reflecting a consensus among the panel members that educators should understand not just brain science but also sociocultural research, including studies of cultural modeling, collaborative and individualistic learning, the differences between deficit- and asset-based teaching strategies, stereotype threat, cultural funds of knowledge, and more.

Sure, the new volume does teach educators some things about grey matter (though it doesn’t ask us to become brain scientists). But it’s informed by researchers’ growing understanding of just how dynamic brain development is, not just in young people but across the human life span, and just how much we all gain from powerful emotional experiences, social relationships, opportunities to explore interesting ideas, and the chance to bring our own cultural backgrounds into formal schooling.

The first How People Learn report made an immensely important contribution to the field of education. But as a member of that committee, two decades ago, I often felt like I was in a room full of wizards who had just emerged from their labs to tell me about amazing discoveries that I would never truly understand, and which illuminated only part of the complexity of life in schools. But this time, I’m delighted to say, the scientists have wrestled with the full range of issues and concerns that have always mattered to educators. The new report speaks to us all.


National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). (2018). How people learn II: Learners, contexts, and cultures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Research Council (NRC). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.


Citation: Nathan, L. (2018). BACKTALK: The new How People Learn: Culture matters. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (4), 72.

LINDA NATHAN ( is executive director of the Center for Artistry and Scholarship in Boston, Mass.  

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