Principles of Learning

The Principles of Learning are a set of features that are present in classroom and schools when students are successful. They summarize decades of learning research. These theory and research-based statements form the foundation of the IFL's work and are designed to help educators analyze and improve teaching and learning for all students.

Learn more about the IFL's Principles of Learning Self-Study Tool.

Organizing for Effort

An effort-based school replaces the assumption that aptitude determines what and how much students learn with the assumption that sustained and directed effort can yield high achievement for all students. Everything is organized to evoke and support this effort, to send the message that effort is expected and that tough problems yield to sustained work. High minimum standards are set and assessments are geared to the standards. All students are taught a rigorous curriculum, matched to the standards. They receive as much time and expert instruction as they need to meet or exceed expectations.

Clear Expectations

If we expect all students to achieve at high levels, then we must define what we expect students to learn and do. Schools promote clear expectations by communicating them in ways that get them "into the heads" of school professionals, parents, community members, and, above all, students themselves. Descriptive criteria and models of work that meet standards should be publicly displayed. Students should refer to these displays to help them analyze and discuss their work. With clear and visible learning targets, students can participate in evaluating and setting goals for their own work and effort.

Fair and Credible Evaluations

If we expect students to put forth sustained effort over time, then we must use assessments that students find fair, and that parents, community members, and employers find credible. Fair evaluations are ones that students can prepare for; therefore, tests, exams, and classroom assessments must be aligned to the curriculum and standards. Fair assessment also entails grading against absolute standards rather than on a curve so that students can clearly see the results of their learning efforts. Assessments that meet these criteria provide parents, colleges, and employers with credible evaluations of what individual students know and can do.

Recognition of Accomplishment

If we expect students to put forth and sustain high levels of effort, then we must motivate them by recognizing their accomplishments regularly. Clear recognition of authentic accomplishment is a hallmark of an effort-based school. This recognition can take the form of celebrations of work that meets standards or intermediate progress benchmarks en route to the standards. Progress points are articulated so that, regardless of entering performance level, every student can meet real accomplishment criteria often enough to be recognized frequently. Recognition of accomplishment can be tied to opportunities to participate in events that matter to students and their families.

Academic Rigor in a Thinking Curriculum

Thinking and problem solving are the "new basics" of the 21st century. We must abandon the misconceptions that we can teach thinking without a solid foundation of knowledge, or that we can teach knowledge without engaging students in thinking. Knowledge and thinking are intimately joined. In an effort-based school curriculum is organized around major concepts that students are expected to know deeply, and teaching must engage students in active reasoning about these concepts. In every subject, at every grade level, instruction and learning must include commitment to a knowledge core, high thinking demand, and active use of knowledge.

Accountable Talk® Practices

Talking with others about ideas and work is fundamental to learning. But not all talk sustains learning. For classroom talk to promote learning, it must be accountable to accurate knowledge and to rigorous thinking. Accountable Talk practices ask students to respond to and further develop what others in the group have said. They put forth and demand knowledge that is accurate and relevant to the issue under discussion. Accountable Talk practices require that students use evidence appropriate to the discipline (e.g., proofs in mathematics, data from investigations in science, textual details in literature, documentary sources in history) and follow established norms of good reasoning. Teachers should intentionally create the norms and skills of Accountable Talk practices in their classrooms.

More information on Accountable Talk®.

Accountable Talk® is a registered trademark of the University of Pittsburgh.

Socializing Intelligence

Intelligence is much more than an innate ability to think quickly and stockpile bits of knowledge. Intelligence is a set of problem-solving and reasoning capabilities along with the habits of mind that lead one to use those capabilities regularly. Intelligence is equally a set of beliefs about one's right and obligation to understand and make sense of the world, and one's capacity to figure things out over time. Intelligent habits of mind are learned through the daily expectations placed on the learner. By calling on students to use the skills of intelligent thinking—and by holding them responsible for doing so—educators can "teach" intelligence. This is what teachers normally do when they have high expections for a student. In effort-based schools, it is standard practice with all students.

Self-management of Learning

If students are going to be responsible for the quality of their thinking and learning, then they must develop—and regularly use—an array of self-monitoring and self-management strategies. These metacognitive skills include noticing when one doesn't understand something and taking steps to remedy the situation, as well as formulating questions and inquiries that let one explore deep levels of meaning. Students also manage their own learning by evaluating the feedback they get from others; bringing their background knowledge to bear on new learning; anticipating learning difficulties and apportioning their time accordingly; and judging their progress toward a learning goal. These are strategies that good learners use spontaneously and all students can learn through appropriate instruction and socialization. Learning environments can be designed to model and encourage the regular use of self-management strategies.

Learning as Apprenticeship

For many centuries most people learned by working alongside an expert who modeled skilled practice and guided novices as they created authentic products or performances for interested and critical audiences. This kind of apprenticeship allowed learners to acquire complex interdisciplinary knowledge, practical abilities, and appropriate forms of social behavior. Much of the power of apprenticeship learning can be brought into schooling by organizing learning environments so that complex thinking is modeled and analyzed, and by providing mentoring and coaching as students undertake extended projects and develop presentations of finished work, both in and beyond the classroom.