Great enthusiasm for the science of learning

Teacher buy-in bolsters research efforts and promises quality engagement
Published in Neuroscience
Great enthusiasm for the science of learning

I just got back from some time well spent at the International Science of Learning Conference held in Brisbane, Australia earlier this week. As someone who comes from a science background (and so is only gradually overcoming my naivety re: Education), I’ve been to a bunch of scientific conferences and symposia before. This was, however, my first in the Science of Learning space, and it felt distinctly different from anything I’ve attended before. The reason? Incredible enthusiasm and engagement from non-academics, in particular teachers and school leaders.

To be clear, this conference was intended for academic audiences, albeit with the final day set aside for a public forum. Yet a full 40% of conference attendees was non-academic. The message is clear: teachers want to improve their craft, and they see the Science of Learning as a great way to do this.

This is an incredible opportunity to grow the kinds of collaborations that the Science of Learning needs for its success. Coming through loud and clear from a number of sessions was the need for Education and Science of Learning researchers to listen to the teachers, to consult with them, to understand their world: it’s all well and good to find something that works in the laboratory, but is it relevant to the classroom? The only way to really know this is through teacher–researcher consultation, and not just of the one-off variety, but through sustained, respectful engagement.

One session of the conference was devoted to something that the Science of Learning Research Centre (an Australian Government-backed initiative) has recently implemented, called the Network of Schools. In short, this is a program that provides researchers and educators with exactly the sort of collaborative opportunities outlined above. To my knowledge there are no quantifiable outcomes from this pilot program yet, but attendee after attendee voiced their desire for their school, or their child, to be part of the program. So the enthusiasm for the Science of Learning is palpable from all sides, and with this weight of support, it’s a great opportunity to make headway in the political sphere to ensure there are sustainable outcomes.

This does all come with a caveat, and that is that this conference was primarily an Australian affair, albeit with some international guests. Other countries like the US and the UK may be further along in their efforts to make the Science of Learning the transformative discipline it could become. The question I have—and it’s undoubtedly the same one we all have—is will it work? It’s still too early to tell, but I’d just like to know if this enthusiasm is well-placed.

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Go to the profile of Will Thalheimer
over 6 years ago

Thanks Alan for the on-the-ground reporting. Appreciated!

I work in the workplace learning field in the United States and I've been doing research-to-practice work for almost 20 years, attending and speaking at conferences, and paying attention to how much uptake there is for science-of-learning notions.

I'd say the results are mixed. Some folks are very interested and follow the research-to-practice professionals who regularly translate science for practitioners. Others dabble. Some are untouched by scientific notions.

There are also the opinion leaders in the workplace learning field to discuss. There are a small but not unsizeable group that follows the research and advocates for research-based practices. But many or maybe most of our opinion leaders are agnostic to research, some have a take-it-or-leave-it approach, some would rather trust their gut or tradition or ensure that whatever they advocate helps bring in revenue. A large number of vendors and consultants engage in confirmatory research outreach, looking specifically for scientific evidence for doing whatever they're already doing. I'd be rich if I had let myself by hired by vendors to do this kind of confirmatory research.

Then there are the trade organizations. Some are very good in advocating for research-based approaches (ISPI Others are lukewarm. Some are almost hostile, burying research reports that show that the industry is generally doing things wrong.

I'm heartened to know that you've seen an interest from practitioners in the science of learning.

I suppose now our job is to help these folks become opinion leaders in their communities.