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The Science of Learning and its Benefits

The science of learning is a relatively new interdisciplinary field that aims to increase our knowledge of how human beings learn by drawing upon evidence from the natural, cognitive and psychological sciences, and through so doing improve educational outcomes. It offers many benefits for education. For example, it has made useful contributions towards showing the effectiveness of certain learning strategies. This is important because our intuitions about the effectiveness of learning strategies are often inaccurate. This is convincingly argued in a recent bestselling book on the science of learning, Make It Stick. The ‘most effective strategies’, the authors write, ‘are most often counterintuitive’ (Brown et al 2014, 2). Some of the counterintuitive claims the authors support with scientific evidence are that learning is more effective when it is effortful and we are bad at assessing the success of our own learning (ibid., 3).

The science of learning can also help debunk untenable scientific theories about learning, some of which have gained widespread acceptance. These include ‘neuromyths’: pervasive beliefs about the brain which are insufficiently supported by scientific evidence. An example is the widespread belief that we only use around 10% of our brain capacity. This neuromyth is often considered fact, but there is no scientific evidence to support it.[1]

There is considerable scepticism in education about the science of learning. A degree of scepticism is healthy, but excessive scepticism sometimes becomes hostility or wilful ignorance. Showing the benefits the science of learning offers for education could help alleviate excessive scepticism towards it. A healthy degree of scepticism involves an awareness of the limits of the science of learning.

The Limits of the Science of Learning

The greatest obstacle facing the science of learning is bridging the gap between theory – scientific evidence – and practice – applying that evidence in education. Crossing this bridge too hastily can lead to ‘scientism’: excessive belief in the power or value of science.[2] An example of scientism would be the view that the natural sciences can encompass those domains often argued to be particularly difficult to exhaustively subsume within the explanatory sphere of the natural sciences: philosophy, intentionality, morality, and the supernatural.

Perhaps education is another domain that is particularly difficult to encompass within science. Teaching and learning could never be completely reduced to or based upon the science of learning. Education is a humanistic discipline, involving human interpretation across a wide range of people and contexts. It is a complex field, consisting of a variety of approaches and methods for teaching many disparate subjects. It involves input from many areas of enquiry; judgements about learning based on a broad set of criteria; and managing human behaviour across age groups where emotional, intellectual, psychological and physical developments are rapid and significant.

A related argument has recently been put forward by Dylan Wiliam, in a discussion of the limits of research in education. Wiliam argues that an expert teacher’s knowledge cannot be explained to another person such that both parties then possess the knowledge. You could not, for example, explain to someone how to ride a bike such that they could ride a bike themselves; even with the most detailed and clear instructions, a person cannot ride a bike until they have learned how to do it themselves. Similarly, Wiliam argues that ‘teacher expertise cannot be put into words’: we can offer detailed training on how to teach, but ‘there is no set of instructions that will be guaranteed to work’ (Wiliam, 2019). Wiliam connects this argument to the role of research in education by arguing that there are many areas of teaching and learning where there is either no research evidence or research evidence is not applicable within a specific context. He argues that while it is important for teachers to know about research in order to ‘make smarter decisions about where to invest their time’, ‘[c]lassrooms are just too complicated for research ever to tell teachers what to do’ (Wiliam, 2019).

In this sense, Wiliam argues, education can be ‘research informed’ but not ‘research based’. Wiliam’s distinction and argument can be applied to the role of the science of learning in education. Education can be informed by scientific research but cannot be a research-based discipline. Medicine is, for example, research-based: medicine is prescribed on the basis of empirical evidence showing that it can prevent or be used as a treatment for a disease. A research-informed discipline is informed by research but need not make recourse to research to justify the employment of its practices, such as teaching and learning practices.

Many teaching methods have been successfully employed for a long time without research showing why they are effective. The lack of research evidence supporting their effectiveness does not, however, imply that we should give them up for methods the effectiveness of which is supported by research evidence; nor should we think of those methods that are not yet supported by research evidence as less pedagogically valuable than those that are.

This is not to say that certain areas of education cannot be research-based; it is, rather, to say that education as a whole cannot be entirely research-based. We can use scientific evidence to give support to and develop the effectiveness of teaching and learning methods, but if we had to base the effectiveness of teaching and learning as a whole on research, much of what takes place in the classroom would lack research support. In some cases, this would be because there is not yet the relevant research; but in others it would be because research in certain areas will not tell us much. This is because education is a complex, humanistic enterprise which involves many aspects, some of which are not reducible to exhaustive explanation in scientific terms.

The greatest problem facing the science of learning is bridging the gap between theory and practice – i.e., between scientific evidence and its practical application in education. Crossing this bridge too hastily can lead to ‘scientism’: excessive belief in the power or value of science.

Examples of what would count as scientism in education

In what follows, three examples are outlined of attitudes towards the science of learning where accusations of scientism are warranted.

1. Assuming that scientific methods and findings can be immediately or straightforwardly applied in educational contexts

Claims concerning the application of scientific methods or evidence in education need to be justified, because their application is not straightforward, for at least two reasons. First, education is not a branch of science. Second, education is a vastly complex field and a humanistic discipline. So, we need to provide clear links between scientific evidence and its application in education.

2. Holding that it is not possible to provide a good education without recourse to the science of learning

An example of this would be holding that education that is not informed by the science of learning is inadequate. The uncontroversial view that the science of learning can improve education does not entail the controversial view that without attention to the science of learning, education is in some way deficient. The latter would follow from the former if (a) the science of learning were shown to improve education to a highly significant degree; or if (b) attention to the science of learning could lead educators to follow much more effective teaching and learning practices, and the effectiveness of those practices were well supported by research from the science of learning.

For instance, concerning (a), evidence suggests that effective feedback improves learning to a highly significant extent, so it would be uncontroversial to argue that education without effective feedback is inadequate. Until a similar claim could be made about the science of learning, one could not convincingly argue that education without attention to the science of learning is inadequate.

Concerning (b), consider the evidence from the science of learning mentioned above which suggests that our intuitions about the effectiveness of learning strategies are often wrong. If attention to this evidence could increase the use of teaching and learning practices that are much more effective, then lack of attention to the science of learning would be among the possible reasons why education in such cases is deficient.

The claim that education that is not informed by the science of learning is inadequate may one day have greater force. Future developments in artificial intelligence in education are among those likely to generate the most significant educational advances. Consider, for example, if technology using artificial intelligence could mark students’ work reliably and thereby substantially reduce the amount of marking required by teachers. Regardless of where the science of learning goes in the future, to hold that the science
of learning has the potential to significantly improve education is uncontroversial.

3. Holding that one cannot be a proficient teacher without an understanding of the science of learning

While knowledge of the science of learning may improve a teacher’s proficiency, it does not follow that a teacher is not proficient unless they possess such knowledge. For that claim to be justified, it would need to be shown that knowledge of the science of learning improves a teacher’s proficiency to a highly significant degree.

The following analogy illustrates what constitutes a healthy approach towards crossing the bridge between scientific evidence and its application in education. One can be an outstanding musician with no formal education in music theory. But it is extremely likely that music theory will improve even the best musicians; and the best musical education includes music theory. Additionally, the most equipped musicians are well educated in music theory. Analogously, while knowledge of the science of learning is not necessary to be an outstanding teacher, it undoubtedly has the potential to be useful, and the most equipped teachers possess the knowledge yielded by the science of learning.

Concluding Remarks

The greatest problem facing the science of learning is bridging the gap between theory and practice – i.e., between scientific evidence and its practical application in education. Crossing this bridge too hastily can lead
to ‘scientism’: excessive belief in the power or value of science. This article has adumbrated some of the limits facing the science of learning, by describing some occasions where it risks becoming ‘scientistic’.

Scientistic interpretations and applications of the science of learning are among the reasons for the mixed reception it has received. Awareness of its limits helps to avoid hazards concerning its application, what we can expect from it, and what educational decisions are made on its basis. Such awareness can help to lessen controversies concerning the science of learning and alleviate excessive scepticism towards it. Awareness of its benefits and limits can help to advance education through its application.

Acknowledgements

This article draws upon my article, ‘Educational Neuroscience and Educational Neuroscientism’, in which I expand on some of the points here and outline indicators of scientism in educational neuroscience and how to avoid them (Beale, 2021). I am grateful to Routledge for permission to draw upon that material.

Notes

  1. See Harrington et al, ‘Introduction: The “BrainCanDo” Approach to Teaching and Learning’ in Harrington et al 2021.
  2. For an account of scientism and an overview of recent literature on scientism, see Beale 2019.

References

Beale, J. (2019). Scientism and Scientific Imperialism. International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 27(1), 73-102.

Beale, J. (2021). ‘Educational Neuroscience and Educational Neuroscientism, in Harrington et al 2021.

Brown, P. C., Roediger III, Henry L. & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Harrington, J., Beale, J., Fancourt, A. & Lutz, C. (2021). The ‘BrainCanDo’ Handbook of Teaching and Learning: Practical Strategies for Bringing Neuroscience and Psychology into the Classroom. London: Routledge.

Dylan, W. 2019. ‘Dylan Wiliam: Teaching not a research-based profession’. TES, 30 May 2019. Available at https://www.tes.com/news/dylan-wiliam-teaching-not-research-based-profession.

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