The Design of Learning Environments

In this chapter we discuss implications of new knowledge about learning for the design of learning environments, especially schools. 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. 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. Everyone expects much more from today’s schools than was expected 100 years ago. A fundamental tenet of modern learning theory is that different kinds of learning goals require different approaches to instruction (Chapter 3); new goals for education require changes in opportunities to learn. After discussing changes in goals, we explore the design of learning environments from four perspectives that appear to be particularly important given current data about human learning, namely, the degree to which learning environments are learner centered, knowledge centered, assessment centered, and community centered. Later, we define these perspectives and explain how they relate to the preceding discussions in Chapters 14.


As discussed in Chapter 1, educational goals for the twenty-first century are very different from the goals of earlier times. This shift is important to keep in mind when considering claims that schools are “getting worse.” In

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement