UMass Amherst Physicist Helped Prepare National Report On How People Learn

February 17, 1999


AMHERST, Mass. - Jose Mestre, professor of physics at the University of Massachusetts, is part of a 15-member panel that spent two years synthesizing 25 years of research on how people learn. Mestre is one of several UMass faculty members in the forefront of changing the way science is taught, through the study of how people learn.

The panel was named by the National Research Council (NRC), which recently released its findings in a book, "How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School."

"The book focuses on the emerging science of learning," said Mestre. "We documented what researchers know about learning, and offered ideas on how those findings can be applied to teaching." The publication will be of interest to teachers, education policymakers, and administrators, Mestre said.

"Learning research suggests that lecturing to large numbers of students, a common practice at the university level, may not be the most effective method for helping students learn and apply scientific concepts, since students are often inattentive or passive during lectures," Mestre said.

"The research indicates that instructional approaches in which learners are actively engaged, are assisted in organizing new knowledge, and are coached in developing transferable problem-solving techniques, are better than traditional ''chalk-and-talk'' approaches." Mestre has particular expertise in learning and problem-solving in science and mathematics, and has served on numerous national panels aimed at improving math and science education.

Other members of the committee included specialists in areas ranging from cognitive psychology, to cultural anthropology, to math and science education. New evidence from many branches of science has significantly added to the understanding of what it means to know, Mestre said, from the neural processes that occur during learning, to the influence of culture on what people see and absorb.

The NRC report examines these findings and their implications for what is taught, how it is taught, and how to best assess what children learn. The book also offers examples of exemplary teaching.

Among the other topics discussed in the book are: how learning actually changes the physical structure of the brain; how existing knowledge affects what people notice and what they learn; what the thought processes of experts tell us about how we should teach; the tremendous learning potential of infants; the relationship of classroom learning to everyday settings of community and workplace; learning needs and opportunities for teachers; and a realistic look at the role of technology in education.

In conjunction with the report on how people learn, Mestre is participating in a second project which will provide the NRC with recommendations on a research agenda for how learning research can advance educational practice. Mestre is a UMass alumnus, having earned his bachelor''s degree in 1974, and a doctorate in 1979. He joined the University''s faculty in 1981.

The book''s findings, as well as recent developments in the science of how people learn, will be highlighted at a major conference at UMass in March.