There’s much much more to the science of learning …

My smarter instincts tell me to shut up. This will blow over much more quickly if nobody fans the flames. As a rabid young academic I wouldn’t have hesitated to go into battle against outrageous claims and muddle-headed arguments. But the 80s were more turbulent, angrier times in which many academics put the truth (as they saw it) and their ego ahead of politeness and collegiality.

Yesterday’s Australian ran an article under the following headline: UQ’s Pankaj Sah says rigorous trials could revolutionise education”. If it’s not hidden behind Rupert’s paywall, you can find the text here.

Pankaj Sah runs the Science of Learning Research Centre at UQ (University of Queensland) and has recently been appointed as editor-in-chief of a new Nature journal: npj Science of Learning. There are press releases from Nature and UQ to announce the event. If you can’t get behind the paywall then the gist of the story is in the press release.

At this point I should declare an interest and say that 10 years ago I helped set up, and have since been co-directing, Australia’s largest and most successful centre for research in the learning sciences. In 2012-13, with an extraordinarily talented team of researchers from Sydney, Monash, Curtin, Griffith, Charles Sturt, Berkeley and London, we bid in the competition for ARC funding that UQ won. We lost. It happens.

Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that UQ runs a “Science of Learning Centre” but I described our centre as researching in “the learning sciences”. These phrases – science of learning, learning sciences – have become increasingly popular since the early 90s when Roger Schank, Roy Pea and others set up the Learning Sciences program at Northwestern. There’s been a Journal of the Learning Sciences for nearly 25 years now and there’s a biennial international conference, which we had the honour of hosting in Sydney in 2012. The second edition of the Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences came out a few months ago. Both it, and the very successful 2006 first edition, provide an excellent overview of the field. A few of the centres overseas that specialize in this area call themselves “Science of Learning”; most opt for “Learning Sciences” (which is what the Australian Bureau of Statistics calls this field: FoR 130309 Learning Sciences).

So is there a difference between the “Science of Learning” and the “Learning Sciences” and should anyone care? Outside Oz, I’d say the two terms mean pretty much the same thing. But UQ and Nature seem intent on forcing a difference. And I think this spells trouble.

npj Science of Learning says it will publish: “peer reviewed research into the neurobiology of learning in experimental conditions and in an educational environment”. SoL = neurobiology of learning. In the Australian article and in the UQ press release, SoL appears to mean a combination of neuroscience and controlled trials.

The learning sciences have become a strong and vibrant area because they (a) recognize the complex array of influences on learning (“from neurons to neighborhoods” is the well-polished phrase) and (b) are developing methods that can connect an understanding of complex, emergent phenomena to the design and management of real learning environments. Controlled trials can be part of this story, but we’ve known for some years that what they can tell us about how to assist human learning in the real world is very limited. Some of the reasons for this are well known, and ought to be familiar to anyone running a Science of Learning centre.

In the Australian article, analogies are made with medicine and drug trialing (and of course Rupert’s flagship paper can’t help but talk about “educational fads”, to get the green ink brigade foaming at the mouth…). Here’s the thing:

  1. Yes, a lot of what gets tried in classrooms is not underpinned by good evidence.
  2. There is no good evidence to believe that significant numbers of teachers will read npj Science of Learning: it would be unscientific to assume that they will, or to assume that reading the outcomes of research on the neurobiology of learning will help them shift to evidence-based teaching in their classrooms.
  3. Copying Medicine does NOT mean jumping to the educational equivalent of large-scale, controlled trialing of drugs. Medicine is itself moving away from a “one best drug suits all cases” paradigm, to a more personalized approach in which deep knowledge of a host of patient attributes is needed to optimize treatment. Moreover, there’s much more to recovery and staying well than getting the right drug. How well a person understands their own health, medical conditions, treatments, diet, etc., and how far they are able to act on such knowledge, are keys to well-being. Medicine is learning from Education too.
  4. Moreover, Medicine doesn’t jump straight to large-scale trialing. Medical research involves subtle work on fundamental physiological and other mechanisms – there is a long, complicated path between bench and bedside, and a growing recognition of the need for special processes and personnel to do the translational work.
  5. Just like Medicine, Education needs to get better at translational work. It needs to invent new processes, and develop new specialist jobs, to help translate research evidence into action-oriented knowledge: for teachers, students, parents and journalists. Translational work of this kind needs to fill the void between basic research on mind, brain and learning and sustainable educational improvement. Understanding how to do this is not trivial – it needs research in its own right, and that research is scientific (orderly, well-grounded). Indeed, one might see it as at the core of most research in the learning sciences.

Professor Sah is a distinguished researcher who has developed a profound understanding of the complexities of the physiology of the amygdala and its role in the processing of emotions. In the Australian, he is quoted as saying:

“In animal models, patterns of reinforcement make a pretty big difference. These are things neuro­science has a lot to say about, and it has not really trickled into education at all.”

It ought not to be possible to make such a statement without reference to B. F. Skinner, Behaviourism and Programmed Instruction. Understanding the rise and fall of Skinner’s enterprise, and of other hubristic ventures, is in the DNA of most learning scientists, one might say.

“Sah says that in five or 10 years educationalists could dismiss the approach as harebrained.”

My worry: apart from the loony few who are seduced by the neuromyths, educationalists and educators are dismissing it already. Part of the challenge of the learning sciences is to take a scientific approach to understanding why this is so – and developing, credible, evidence-based strategies for doing something about it. Now.

(By the way, I’m well aware that a significant number of projects being run under the auspices of the ARC Science of Learning Centre are not narrowly neuro. Many of them are just the thing one would expect to find in the portfolio of a broad-based learning sciences research centre anywhere in the world. The conundrum, for me, is why a Science of Learning research centre would run a Science of Learning journal that uses such a narrow definition of the Science of Learning that it would exclude many of the publications emanating from the Centre’s own projects.)

Photo credit: Tim Parker

3 thoughts on “There’s much much more to the science of learning …

  1. treevesblog February 7, 2015 / 3:44 am

    Thank you for this excellent and thoughtful critique. There is a constant tension in educational research (as well as other social sciences) between rigor and relevance. It appears that those involved in UQ’s new “Science of Learning Centre” and the forthcoming Science of Learning journal are over-emphasizing rigor to the detriment of relevance. We have similar advocates of rigor over relevance here in the States, a trend that leads to numerous publications added to the CVs of the proponents of such approaches, but little positive impact on how teaching and learning actually occur in schools. As you well know, one way to attain both rigor and relevance involves engaging in educational design research (also known by other names such as “design-based research”) (McKenney & Reeves, 2012; Plomp & Nieveen, 2013). All too often, educational researchers have focused primarily on the question “What works?” in regard to teaching and learning with dismal outcomes (Biesta, 2007). Educational design research fundamentally shifts the focus of educational research from “what works?” questions to “what is the problem and how can we solve it?” intentions. It is worrisome that ARC funding would be awarded to such a shortsighted perspective as the one that appears to be predominant at UQ’s “Science of Learning Centre” and even more alarming that a publication as important as Nature would invest in a seemingly misguided Science of Learning journal.
    Biesta, G. (2007). Why “what works” won’t work: Evidence-based practice and the democratic deficit in educational research. Educational Theory, 57(1), 1-22. Retrieved from
    McKenney, S. E, & Reeves, T. C. (2012). Conducting educational design research. New York: Routledge.
    Plomp, T., & Nieveen, N. (Eds.). (2013). Educational design research. Enschede, NL: The Netherlands Institute for Curriculum Development (SLO). Retrieved from

  2. Mike Sharples February 6, 2015 / 12:38 am

    Thank you Peter for that enlightened and informative posting. My first reaction would be to say ‘let it pass’. After the first flurry of publicity,attention will die down. Learning sciences researchers will continue with their translational research, and the best will publish in journals such as JLS and Science. But there is a deeper issue of claiming territory. I recall Roger Schank speaking at the AIED conference, denouncing all previous work with learning and technology as misguided and calling us to join his learning sciences enterprise. So I read what you say with a feeling of deja vu. So I suggest the way forward is for learning scientists to embrace the new, including neuroscience, and to reject the outmoded, including naive behaviorism and RCTs as the only rigorous method of educational advancement. The strongest argument is your point 4 – which is that in medicine there is a long and complicated path from bench to bedside, requiring deep insight, theoretical and practical modeling, design studies, and trials.

  3. Lina Markauskaite February 5, 2015 / 4:13 pm

    Thanks, Peter, for an excellent response! I am one of those academics that would be classified as “young”, thus perhaps would be smarter to shut up before even trying to think (let alone saying and even writing what I think) But it is difficult to do this. Simply, it feels irresponsible to accept the interpretation of “Science of Learning” offered in this article.
    I feel that some people may read your (and my) response like this: “Well… they come from a different camp and they (us) are ignorant about the neuroscience.”
    Thus, I will be direct. I appreciate and value the potential of modern neuroscience to inform learning. But there are two problematic issues: 1) a version of neuroscience; and 2) a version of learning.

    1. A version of neuroscience.
    I am happy to accept various interpretations of the Science of Learning. I am very happy to accept that the established version of “the learning sciences” (in which I locate my research) could benefit enormously from embracing neurosciences, particularly cognitive neurosciences. Indeed, I think, a lot of valuable (for learning) neuroscientific studies have been underway already for a while. See, eg:
    – Old UCLA Center for Culture, Brain, and Development
    – USC Brain and Creativity Institute
    – Interpersonal neurobiology, with Dan Siegel’s 3Rs (despite all neuro fads and fashions)
    – Even the classical versions of “Educational neuroscience” or “Neuroeducation”:

    Have you noticed a stunning differences between the versions of neuroscience above and the SLRC version of neuroscience? And this, for me, is the biggest issue. The SLRC version of neuroscience starts and stops at the level of neurobiology. Culture, language, creativity, higher order cognition, skilful behaviour, human relationships,… and, ultimately, LEARNING are far away from the studies that have been conducted by SLRC from the “neuro” perspective. See
    My conclusion. The problem is not neuroscience, but the problem is this narrow version of neuroscience. And it is not about the “translation” of neuroscientific evidence, it is about the “translation” of neuroscientific research in the first place.

    2. A version of learning.
    Now a simple test. Remove from SLRC’s publication list ( those papers that have been written by Robyn Gillies (maybe 1-2 others), and what remains will be most classical (behavioural) neuroscience plus some classical psychometrics and testing. (I can’t easily see even if there is connection between these two directions.) But most importantly, I would not confuse testing and measurement with learning. I am not saying that this research is not valuable (It is), but does it really study learning?
    Thus, you are right, it is very unlikely that this research could solve learning challenges or appeal to teachers, just because it is not really studying learning or teaching.

    This kind of research actually should be funded by NHMRC and educational testing services, not from the budget that is allocated to study learning

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