Applying the science of learning to education: Two structural requirements

Applying the science of learning to education: Two structural requirements
How does learning change over the lifespan? What cultural and biological mechanisms underpin learning? How can learning be fostered in formal and informal educational contexts?
Professor and Canada Research Chair in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, Department of Psychology and the Brain & Mind Institute, University of Western Ontario, Canada

Answers to such fundamental questions require collaboration between researchers from different fields, such as Education, Psychology, Neuroscience, and Cognitive Neuroscience (Meltzoff, Kuril, Movellan, and Sejnowski, 2009).

Over the past three decades, a new, interdisciplinary field referred to as the “Science of Learning” has gained increasing traction across the globe. At the beginning of the 21st century, the US National Science Foundation invested in six “Science of Learning Centers” across the US. Since then, Science of Learning initiatives have sprung up across the globe.

While it is abundantly clear that there is great enthusiasm for the Science of Learning, there is still a significant gap between the latest research on how we learn and the application of that research to teaching and learning across the lifespan. Why does this research–application gap persist despite significant global enthusiasm and research funding?

Some of the reasons may be philosophical in nature, such as resistance to the application of empirical research to human development and learning (Cohen and Lagemann, 2007). I contend that the main obstacles to the application of the Science of Learning are practical in nature and require new educational policies. In what follows, I discuss two structural issues that need to be addressed urgently by educational policy makers in order to facilitate the impact of the Science of Learning on learning and education across the lifespan.

1. The Science of Learning needs to be part of pre-and in-service teacher training

At present, the Science of Learning is not something that is systematically covered in teacher training programs across the world. Teacher training programs may cover some aspects of human development and developmental psychology, but these, in my experience, tend to be, at best, outdated and, at worst, fundamentally wrong. I frequently hear from teachers that the only exposure they had to cognitive development research in their training was a brief discussion of the work of Jean Piaget. While Piaget’s contribution to our understanding of how children acquire knowledge is immense and foundational, it is also clear that our understanding of human development has changed significantly since Piaget and many of his theories have been questioned by more recent evidence.

Currently, pre- and in-service teachers are only exposed to the Science of Learning by chance, or if they actively seek it out in their own time. In my view, this is problematic. Why are teacher education programs depriving future teachers of knowledge that could inform their practice? In order for research in the Science of Learning to have an impact on education, educators need to have the opportunity to learn about it and reflect on how they may apply it to their practice from the start. Therefore, it is necessary for teacher training programs to include courses (or units within existing courses) that cover research on how children learn to read, write, calculate, and interact with others in the world around them. Such knowledge would help teachers understand, for example, why systematic phonics instruction is so critical for young readers (Castles, Rastle, and Nation, 2018) or why it is critical for children to learn numerical symbols (Merkley and Ansari, 2016). For in-service teachers, opportunities to enact principles derived from the Science of Learning in their own classrooms should be provided.

Beyond learning about principles from the Science of Learning, teachers deserve to have some training in how to evaluate whether popular claims about how children learn and should (or should not) be taught are evidence-informed. This requires some basic training in the scientific method and how to determine whether a particular educational claim or product has been informed by scientific evidence. Some argue that the Science of Learning is not directly applicable pedagogy. In other words, learning about the Science of Learning does not tell teachers how to teach. In my opinion, this view reflects a very narrow conceptualization of teachers and effective education. According to this view, teachers are there to execute a curriculum and do not have any choice or agency when it comes to the way they teach. While this may be true in some jurisdictions, this is certainly not the case in many educational systems around the word where teachers have autonomy (within constraints) and need to make choices about how to teach.

Should these choices not be informed by what we know from empirical research regarding how humans learn? Research into the cognitive mechanisms that underpin human learning has revealed many principles that are directly applicable to education. For example, new studies challenge the view propagated by Piaget and others that discovery learning is superior in all contexts (Dean and Kuhn, 2007; Klahr and Nigam, 2004). There are many other examples of principles of learning and teaching that have been well-supported by empirical evidence from the Science of Learning (Weinstein, Madan, and Sumeracki, 2018).

A way of demonstrating the importance of integrating the Science of Learning into teacher preparation and in-service teacher professional development is to consider the known consequences of not doing so. For example, teachers (including those who become administrators in their boards and schools and have decision-making authority) who are not exposed to the Science of Learning are not sufficiently informed to evaluate the veracity of claims about how children learn. Neither are they equipped to evaluate whether the latest educational program that their school has adopted is actually effective.

This state of affairs has detrimental consequences. Consider the recent hype around working memory training (working memory refers to the ability to hold information in mind while carrying out another task). Many schools around the globe purchase programs that claim to train the working memory of students with difficulties (such as those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; ADHD). Critically, these programs claim that if students train their working memory their overall learning will be improved. In other words, following training, students will not only have improved working memory but also improve their academic achievement in, for example, math and reading. This promise is, of course, very attractive and offers a simple solution to a complex problem.

Alas, simple solutions to complex problems are most often too good to be true. A large body of research has shown that working memory training does not lead to the kind of outcomes that have been promised. Large-scale studies have shown that while training with working memory games makes students better at those games, such training does not improve their learning of other subjects (Melby-Lervåg and Hulme, 2013; Simons et al., 2016). Yet, money is still being wasted, on programs, such as working memory training. This represents a clear example of how not having training in evaluating programs and the evidence that underpins them leads to wasteful use of funds and ineffective use of instructional time.

It is well established that many educators across the globe hold beliefs about learning and education that have been proven to be unsupported by evidence (e.g., Howard-Jones, 2014). Sometimes such claims are referred to as “neuromyths” and include false claims about some students being more “left-brained” while others are more “right brained”. Another example is the notion that students differ in terms of their so-called “learning styles”. According to the learning styles theory, some students are better at learning information when it is presented in their preferred modality for learning, including visually, verbally, or kinaesthetically. Learning styles can be found in many educational materials and even curricula, yet empirical research in the Science of Learning has conclusively shown that: a) the assessment of learning styles; and b) the tailoring of instruction to learning styles are not effective; and c) the concept itself is not consistent with the Science of Learning (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork, 2009; Willingham, Hughes, and Dobolyi, 2015).

2. Training and embedding “Science of Learning Translators”

It will not be enough simply to train pre- and in-service teachers in the Science of Learning and how to apply it to their practice. We cannot expect teachers to become researchers. We should not develop policies that take teachers away from working with their students. Thus, in addition to the changes in teacher training discussed above, there is a pressing need for individuals that have crossed the research-education divide to be accessible to classroom teachers and, most critically, to understand the position of classroom teachers. In a perfect world, each school district/board/division should have at least one individual who was a) trained to be a teacher; b) has had experience teaching; and c) has been trained (at least to the Masters level) in the Science of Learning (broadly defined). Such individuals will be ideal translators between research and practice. Their role will be a) to help teachers and administrative leaders select teaching and assessment approaches that are grounded in the Science of Learning; b) to help teachers and administrators to make evidence-informed decisions; and c) to vet the evidence base of programs that schools are considering adopting.

Imagine a world in which teachers can access such “Science of Learning Translators”. A teacher being confronted with a claim about how children learn or a product that promises to advance students will be able to consult with such translators. I predict that the effects of this would be tremendous. Teachers would be able to speak to somebody who fully understands their role, their constraints, their struggles and, simultaneously, be able to consult them on what is evidence-informed and what is not. Beyond teacher-driven consultation, such individuals would also be able to suggest evidence-informed approaches to teachers. Furthermore, beyond single individuals, one could imagine “Science of Learning Translators” forming networks to provide advice and knowledge translation that would be greater than the sum of its parts.

The Science of Learning is a growing interdisciplinary field across the globe. For it to truly have an impact on education systems, structural changes of the kind I have described above are sorely needed.