Sign up for our newsletter

The 180 Podcast: Linda Darling-Hammond

Linda Darling-Hammond: Out of the Lab and into the Classroom

As the Science of Learning and Development becomes better understood – the discoveries that connect how children develop and learn and how their environments can make or break their progress – a next challenge becomes clear: Turning that research into practice. So what exactly will it take from schools in communities and through public policy to make education work for every child in America? Linda Darling-Hammond, to put it mildly, has some ideas.

Linda is president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute and President of the California State Board of Education. She also is Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education Emeritus at Stanford University. With many other leadership roles, award-winning books, more than 500 publications and education experience from preschool through higher ed, Darling-Hammond is simply one of this country’s leading thinkers and doers in the field. In fact, in 2006 she was named one of the nation’s 10 most influential people affecting educational policy, and in 2008 she headed President Obama’s education policy transition team.


Complete Transcript

Chris Riback: I’m Chris Riback. This is The 180, our podcast that explores how to transform 21st century education, how to turn it around using 21st century science.

As the Science of Learning and Development becomes better understood – the discoveries that connect how children develop and learn and how their environments can make or break their progress – a next challenge becomes clear: Turning that research into practice. So what exactly will it take from schools in communities and through public policy to make education work for every child in America? Linda Darling-Hammond, to put it mildly, has some ideas. Linda is president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute and President of the California State Board of Education. She also is Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education Emeritus at Stanford University. With many other leadership roles, award-winning books, more than 500 publications and education experience from preschool through higher ed, Darling-Hammond is simply one of this country’s leading thinkers and doers in the field. In fact, in 2006 she was named one of the nation’s 10 most influential people affecting educational policy, and in 2008 she headed President Obama’s education policy transition team. What will it take to redesign our education delivery system? Here’s my conversation with Linda Darling-Hammond. Linda, thanks for joining me. I appreciate your time.

Linda Darling-Hammond: Great to be with you.

Chris Riback: I thought we should start with what I think is the hardest question. How do you describe yourself? Among other roles, you’ve been a public school teacher, a co-founder of a preschool and a charter high school, social scientist, professor, nonprofit launcher, and as of March, President of California’s State Board of Education. I mean, what’s on your business card? Something like, “All around force of nature?”

Linda Darling-Hammond: Well, I do think that it’s really important to connect all of those dots if we’re going to move things forward. And my driving interest, I will add to your list of descriptors, “Parent of three, and now grandparent of two more.” And so all those things inform and motivate the work that I do, which is really to try to help connect the dots, because we have a very fragmented system. We often have policies made that are not very well connected to what we know as practitioners or what we know from research. And similarly, we often have research that doesn’t address the problems of practitioners and policymakers. So the Learning Policy Institute, which is what I am currently heading and recently founded, is intended to bring those things together so that we can help use evidence and the knowledge of practitioners to inform policy and the evolution of practice at scale.

Chris Riback: Is connecting those dots harder today than previously, or is it perhaps more important?

Linda Darling-Hammond: Yes. I think it is both harder than it once was and more urgent than it has been in the past, for a couple of reasons. One, we did used to have quite a bit of conversation among researchers and policy makers at the federal level, at the state level. State departments of education were funded under the Early Elementary and Secondary Education Act, through Title V, to have research departments and data and technical assistance providers who knew a lot about curriculum. That money went away in the 1980s and made it harder for both state agencies, and politics has made it harder for federal agencies and policymakers to connect to solid evidence that is not driven by ideology, but about what we know about learning and practice to make good policy.

In addition, we’re making more policy about education than we used to make. There used to be a lot of sort of white space in the field for local practitioners to make decisions and to guide their schools. That was not always a great thing. It didn’t always result in equity and excellence, but now there is quite a lot of state and federal involvement. We are also under-resourcing children in this country, so there’s quite a lot of challenges associated with the levels of poverty and homelessness and food insecurity that need to be addressed by schools. So for all those reasons, it’s very, very important for us to connect those dots, to connect those communities so that we can make good decisions about how to [develop our children and help them learn.

Chris Riback: Let’s start with the baseline. How would you characterize the importance of the recent science of learning and development research?

Linda Darling-Hammond: I think it’s tremendously important, and much of what’s going on in trying to understand and communicate the Science of Learning and Development is an integrative, synthetic activity to draw from many, many fields of science: Neuroscience, learning science, developmental science, anthropology, sociology, psychology. We have a lot of fields that have learned a great deal about how people develop and learn, but they exist often in a fragmented state. That’s how they are represented in universities and their journals and so on. And when you the threads together, again, this is connecting the dots, and look at what we know from all of these sciences about how people learn and develop, first of all, you can tell a very compelling, coherent, compatible story about learning and development that leads you to much more powerful implications for practice and policy than if you just take little pieces of information one at a time.

And of course, with neuroscience being the most recent set of breakthroughs, we are seeing a lot of reinforcement of ideas that had come through other what people might think of as softer sciences, which were based on observation and experimentation, about the ways in which relationships matter for learning, the environment shapes learning and development, and the ways in which changing experiences in the environment can really strengthen development and learning, and even repair adversity effects that may have occurred. So it’s extremely important, and it’s in some sense even more important to be translating that understanding into practical ideas for what we do in schools.

Chris Riback: Do you feel like the science is catching up with what teachers, or practitioners, or educators, or maybe even parents on some level knew all along?

Linda Darling-Hammond: Yes. I think that thoughtful observers of children and childhood development for many, many centuries actually have understood some of the big principles that are being reinforced today. You can go back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Maria Montessori, and John Dewey, and Rudolph Steiner and lots of people who created schooling strategies that really looked at the whole child, developed the ideas of disciplinary learning, which sort of helps various parts of the brain develop, and the idea of social and emotional aesthetic, and artistic, and other supportive strategies in the learning environment. But while there may be some consensus among progressive educators and enlightened parents about these ideas, and those have existed for a long time, there’s also been a lot of dispute and strategies and approaches that have been antithetical to what we now know about learning and development. So it is new to have this degree of clarity and consensus emerging about these practices.

Chris Riback: It’s got to be very helpful for someone like you who has kind of seen it throughout the years, but has run up from time to time, I’m sure, against obstacles, and now you’ve got the scientific side as well.

Linda Darling-Hammond: Absolutely. You could list off any number of practices that are commonplace in schools that are harmful to child development and to learning, so really being able to be clear about the ways in which we organize schools for long-term relationships … Take the American public school system’s tendency, which we adopted from Prussians in the early 1900s, to hand off kids to a new teacher every year, and in middle and high school, to a new teacher every 45 minutes. Those school structures really stand in the way of developing the deep knowledge of children, and how they learn, and the deep relationships that allow more optimal learning to go on.

Now we have evidence, and we’ve had evidence for a long time about how things like looping teachers to stay with the same kids for a period of time, creating longer grade spans in schools, reducing transiency and mobility of children among settings, do inform better learning and better development, but most districts and states have not acted on those findings for a very long time, so there is a set of new implications of this research. I just gave you one example of perhaps dozens or hundreds that ought to shape a 21st century approach to schooling.

Chris Riback: Let’s talk about those implications, and let’s talk about a 21st century approach to education, because listening to you, it makes me wonder exactly how many other aspects of American life today are based on frameworks from Prussians 100 plus years ago. I can’t imagine that we’re building many structures of American life around those types of frameworks. So you released your own paper in February, and I should put an asterisk there, because I think you seem to release a new paper hourly, so I’m talking about the one back in February, Implications for Educational Practice of the Science of Learning and Development. You’ve started to talk about it just slightly, but what was your goal overall in putting those implications all together in one paper?

Linda Darling-Hammond: Well, there had been two papers written before the one I developed, by Pamela Cantor, David Osher, and a slew of other authors from AIR, and Turnaround for Children, and Harvard University that tried to synthesize the science in very succinct and powerful ways, and those papers were published in the Journal for Applied Developmental Science. Our task was to take that wonderful synthesis of the sciences of learning and development and add to it the knowledge we’ve gained through educational research about the effectiveness of different practices that are responsive to the principles that emerge from the science, and try to explain those. And so the paper on implications for practice is really building on the science papers and bringing in the lens of educational research as well.

Chris Riback: You set the paper’s framework by noting the importance of mutually influential relations between individuals and contexts, and you add a quote, and I’m quoting you here, “Our society and our schools often compartmentalize these developmental processes and treat them as distinct from one another, and treat the child as distinct from the many contexts she experiences.” Why is it so key to recognize the importance of those mutually influential relations between individuals in context? Is our approach to education today built to deliver that process?

Linda Darling-Hammond: Well, it’s really important to understand those interactions, because the implication of that is that if each of us is shaped by the many contexts we experience in our homes, in our communities, the way in which we emerged and evolved in terms of physical health as well as cognitive experiences. It, number one, makes it clear that you can’t standardize education. If each of us learns and develops and is on different developmental pathways or trajectories because of those experiences, it’s important to understand what each of us brings to the table in order to connect what learning desires us to know with what we already understand to be the case and what we’ve experienced. So it really flies in the face of standardization. And yet in many schools, we still have a reversion periodically to this idea of a standardized curriculum with pacing guides, and everybody’s on the same page on the same day, and it assumes that everyone is going to learn exactly in the same way and at the same pace, which of course is flawed. And when we implement that kind of an approach, we leave a lot of kids behind. We also fail to develop the potential learning of other kids who could move ahead in one regard or another.

The other thing about that understanding of contexts and individuals is that a single person may be very advanced in one area of development and be a novice in another area, because their experiences have not given them the opportunity to learn those things. So we also have had this history of kind of categorizing people as sort of smart, average, and dumb, or something like that, which again makes a bunch of assumptions about the stability of development, as though you’re born a certain way and you fit in a category for all your years of school and the rest of your life, and that you don’t have differential talents and abilities and development.

The other thing we know about contexts is that when we have rich environments for education and supportive environments for education, we develop much faster throughout our entire lives. So intelligence is malleable; abilities are malleable. They grow and they develop, and we can create contexts and environments that accelerate learning and development by making sure that those provide the rich experiences that people need, and that those are made to be responsive to what individuals need at a moment in time. So this really opens up a pathway for educating to individuals’ full potential that is closed off by some of the dysfunctional practices we’ve had dominating schools.

Chris Riback: What you’re describing takes continual effort, I assume.

Linda Darling-Hammond: It takes effort. It takes a tremendous amount of knowledge, and that’s why we’ve got to design preparation for educators, so that they have access to this knowledge. We are not very good in this country on ensuring that every educator gets access to high quality preparation and professional development programs that allow them to do this work. But you can see how wonderful that practice is, if you go, for example, into a classroom taught by a teacher trained at Bank Street College in New York City.

I had that experience when I lived in New York, and you’ll find that these early childhood teachers, quite often preschool and kindergarten have clipboards with notes about every child. They’re watching them in every area of their development. They’re recording what the child can do without assistance, and what they are ready to do with assistance in different areas of development both by subject areas, math, and reading, and writing, and so on, but also social emotional development and other kinds of cognitive development. And they’re trained to understand deeply the learning process, the developmental process, to be good observers of children and then to create learning environments skillfully. They give children the experiences that they need to develop to maximal effect, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.

I was once told by one of my graduate school students, who meant it as a compliment, that I was teaching like a high school teacher. I thanked him very much. I said, “But when I get good, I’ll teach like a preschool teacher.” And I think that’s often where we see very well prepared, developmentally sensitive and knowledgeable early childhood educators have a lot to teach people all the way throughout the education system, because as we get further into the system, by the time we get to high school, quite often the system is designed for selecting and sorting and labeling rather than for developing and ensuring growth for every child.

Chris Riback: In your paper, Implications for Educational Practice of the Science of Learning and Development, you outline four areas that need to work in harmony: Supportive environmental conditions, productive instructional strategies, support for the development of social emotional and cognitive skills, habits and mindsets, and then four, a system of supports. I think it’s useful to run through each one of those quickly with you, how you explain it, and then if you could, and I’ll ask at the end, describe how they can work in concert. So first, supportive environmental conditions. What are those?

Linda Darling-Hammond: Well, first of all, they have strong, positive, responsive relationships, where from babyhood, when children are held and nurtured. And there’s an interactive approach to communication with the child and so on that is developing their brain architecture in a productive way the many, many neural connections that we need. And that needs to continue through preschool and into K through 12 environments where kids are in a supportive community, teachers know how to create a community in the classroom where every child feels they belong, where everyone has roles, where the teacher knows them and their families and their needs. That’s even strengthened further if the teacher gets to stay with the same children for more than one year. In many countries it’s two, three, four years that teachers stay with the same children, and that allows them to build this deep understanding of the learning process and really carry them along a developmental trajectory in many domains.

The relationships between and among adults in schools are important for supportive environmental conditions, because you need all of the adults to be on the same page. Seeing children through a developmental lens in the playground, in the hallways, at recess, in the classrooms, across the grade levels, so that creates that environment, and then connecting to parents. More and more schools are involving teachers in giving them the time, paid time for them to do home visits, for them to involve parents in the school at times that are convenient for the parents to be connecting to the adults, so that we can see the child as you being jointly raised by parents and school together. When the environments are in sync with one another, when adults are supporting children in similar ways, again, that really nurtures development and learning in ways that don’t occur if you’ve got environments that are at odds with one another.

Chris Riback: Productive instructional strategies. What are those?

Linda Darling-Hammond: We know now a lot about how to teach so that children learn. One of the things we know from brain science is that children learn by interacting, even more than they learn just by listening. And they learn through experience more deeply than they learn just by reading or listening. So classrooms that are productive instructionally have children engaged in inquiry of various kinds. For young children’s classrooms, there may be water tables and sand tables and blocks and mathematical manipulatives where kids are using tools to explore and learn and make judgments. And they’re supported by teachers who can help them with direct instruction where they need it, but inquiry that allows them to deepen their understanding, and they are in conversation with one another and with the teacher.

There was a great study from Harvard recently which found that the amount of linguistic capacity that children have is not a function of how many words they hear. It’s a function of the number of turns of conversation they have with others, and so that interaction is essential. If you’re in a classroom where the kids are quiet and the teacher is teaching, talking, there’s a lot less learning going on than in a classroom where kids are having instructional conversations about the material themselves as well as hearing from the teacher.

Metacognition is very important. Giving kids learning strategies so that they understand and reflect on how they’ve learned something and they develop strategies for how to learn the next thing, and how to learn from their learning process, very, very important. And we now know that having those kind of cognitive strategies dramatically improves the learning process for people.

Chris Riback: Area number three: Support for the development of social, emotional and cognitive skills, habits and mindsets. Describe that for me.

Linda Darling-Hammond: Well, one of the things that comes out of the Sciences of Learning and Development is that learning and emotions are completely connected. They’re not separate. If you feel positively about your teacher, if you feel good and interested in the task, if you feel confident in your own ability, if you don’t feel like you are being stereotyped or stigmatized or threatened in the classroom, but feel safe psychologically, your learning is greatly enhanced. And so creating those settings where one can be emotionally safe and socially safe is very important for learning.

That means you have to teach kids how to be socially responsible and productively interacting with one another. That’s something that can be taught. Teaching young people how to recognize their own emotions, get help when they need it. A lot of children live with trauma of various kinds, and need to be able to connect with adults to process what’s going on with them, and sometimes to get serious help around events in their lives, but also to be able to just manage one’s own attention, to be resilient in the face of a setback or an obstacle, to learn how to be persevering, to develop a growth mindset, which comes from having experiences where you see that if you get feedback and you can revise your work or improve your work, that you do get better and you do become more competent. And then that allows you to see that you can always see events as opportunities for more learning, rather than setbacks that mean that you should give up.

All of those things are part of the social emotional habits, skills and mindsets that allow us to be successful human beings. And schools can be designed both to teach those skills explicitly and to infuse them into the way that we do our schoolwork. For example, a teacher might routinely allow children to get feedback on their essays or their projects or their math tests and correct errors or strengthen their work, and then watch it progress, rather than just allocating a grade and sticking in the grade book and saying, “Well, you did that once and now this is how we label you.” All of those kinds of things create a growth mindset rather than a sense of learned helplessness or incompetence.

Chris Riback: And then the last area, the system of supports, which is to help enable healthy development, and respond to student needs, and address learning barriers. This, to me, is so key to the idea that there is talent that does exist or can exist within every child, within every person. And what matters is the ability to create structures, supportive structures around that person, because it seems to me that what you’re outlining here are ways to help folks who historically may have been disregarded or dismissed, or put into one of those labels that you characterized earlier, and just kind of live with that for certainly the rest of their educated lives. So tell me about the system of supports.

Linda Darling-Hammond: The system of supports should operate in a way that whether it’s a barrier to learning that’s academic, or whether it is in some other part of the child’s life, that there are resources readily available that can be easily accessed without a big IEP process or something that takes weeks and months, sometimes years to put in place, so the kids get the supports they need when they need them. Whether that’s something like reading recovery in the first- or second-grade, if you need a boost to lock in your reading skills, or whether it’s something like health or mental health supports that are available so the kids get vision tests and glasses when they need them, and whatever other health supports they might need.

Quite often, schools now are developing a multi-tiered system of supports so that they can be alert to what children need and activate resources. Some of them are creating community school environments where health, mental health, before and after school services, social services are available to clear away the obstacles that might otherwise be present in a country where a growing number are homeless, where there is food insecurity and housing insecurity and so on. We need to remove these sources of adversity, support children and families in dealing with them as well as simply be responsive to the child in the daily experiences of school without a lot of bureaucratic impediments to getting the needs met.

The best place to see this in action, in my experience, is in community schools in the United States, which is how all the schools function in Finland, where kids have all kinds of special needs identified and met immediately throughout school. About 50% of students, for example, get special education type services in Finland as they need them in elementary school, and almost nobody is placed in special education by high school because they learn what they need when they need to learn it without stigma, without bureaucratic impediments, and that supports learning and development.

Chris Riback: Linda, let’s move to public policy. You just talked about some of the obstacles and some of the barriers, and my belief, my assumption, and you correct me if I’m wrong, is that to create a scalable new approach to 21st century education, I assume it will require a mix of local community efforts plus a higher level, whether that’s a state, or regional, or even federal public policy. So first, is that correct? Do you agree?

Linda Darling-Hammond: Yes. I mean, you really need to have policy at every level that is informed by an understanding of how people develop and learn, and you need to focus all of those systems on development so that we are thinking about what we want schools to deliver as including this whole child perspective, so that we are organizing the supports at the federal level, at the state level, at the local and regional level, so that they’re easily available and can be integrated right at the point where children and family need them. We need to think about how every kind of legislation either supports or impedes creating these developmentally supportive settings, and if it’s an impediment, we need to change that legislation. There’s a lot of old policy that sometimes has to be removed in order to create the kind of environments that we need today. And then at every level we have to be thinking about how to support educators in their learning about how to provide the right kind of services, school designs, and supportive relationships that will help children grow and learn.

Chris Riback: On the policy Front, the House Appropriations Committee recently released its fiscal year 2020 Labor HHS Education Funding Bill, and I know that you know the bill includes $260 million for social emotional learning, an initiative on that to support SEL and the whole child approaches to education. Tell me about any efforts or impact or maybe work that you’ve done, and other organizations like yours, that maybe helped educate lawmakers and their staffs. And how significant is that to $260 million of funding that has been earmarked, and how important is it even to just establish that as a baseline?

Linda Darling-Hammond: This is where the synthesis of the research has been so helpful. Learning Policy Institute and many other organizations were able to bring this evidence about the effects of a whole child approach to education, the effects of social emotional and academic development on not only safer schools, but higher academic achievement and stronger outcomes for students, to legislators on the Hill, Republicans and Democrats alike, and to make the argument that if we really want the investments we’re making in education to pay off, we’ve got to listen to this evidence and invest in being sure that these kinds of supports are available in all schools. $260 million in the context of the United States as a whole is a tiny amount of money, but it is an important first step towards establishing the baseline for future growth in building whole child supportive environments across the country. And it will make a big difference as states also step up and match those funds and use them in ways that are more systemic at the state and local level.

Chris Riback: And to close out on the state and local level, and on the personal front for you, you, as of March, are President of California’s State Board of Education. How do you see that opportunity for you?

Linda Darling-Hammond: Well, I think in terms of bringing a whole child perspective to the education system, we began that work when I was at the California Teacher Credentialing Commission as Chair for the last seven or eight years, in infusing these kinds of understandings into the licensing rules and the accreditation guidelines for preparation programs. Meanwhile, at the state level, the previous state board had created an accountability system that looks at many whole child indicators, including positive school climate and engaging in making sure kids are coming to school and that they’re experiencing the right kind of learning there. We now need to put in place a lot of professional development supports, and our new governor has, in his budget, articulated an investment in professional learning around social emotional and academic development and positive school climate. And I think down the road we will also see a lot of effort in California to build the kind of community school supports that should surround the investments in social emotional academic learning from early childhood – big agenda in California – all the way through college and career.

Chris Riback: Linda, thank you. Thank you for your time and thank you for a lifetime of work. You’re a passionate advocate – that doesn’t say enough, but maybe going back to the top, maybe that’ll be just another thing to add to your business card. Thank you.

Linda Darling-Hammond: Oh, thank you so much. Great to talk to you.

Chris Riback: That was my conversation with Linda Darling-Hammond, my thanks to Linda for joining and you for listening. To learn more about how to transform 21st century education using 21st century science, go to I’m Chris Riback. I’ll talk with you soon.