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Towards a science of learning : better knowledge for better learning

10 April 2019

At the occasion of the publication of Developing Minds in the Digital Age. Towards a Science of Learning for 21st Century Education

In developed countries, education systems are now huge, in terms of numbers of people involved, institutions and budgets. And emerging nations are rapidly catching up by expanding their educational infrastructure. Such large systems not only run on money. Knowledge is probably the most important resource education systems need to turn money and infrastructure into the outcomes that societies expect them to deliver. Modern societies no longer tolerate putting large amounts of money into the education system without education to deliver. But without knowledge education risks to become another black hole in the public infrastructure. At every level – from policy makers at the top to the teacher in a small village school – education systems are asking for more and better knowledge. This is not a new phenomenon, but since the turn to evidence-informed policy and practice which also came to have an effect on education in the past years, the demand for reliable knowledge is increasing exponentially.

To be honest, educational science is not in a very good position to provide an adequate answer to this need. The knowledge and evidence base of education in most countries goes back to philosophical traditions in pedagogy, complemented by evidence from supporting disciplines such as sociology and psychology. Only relatively recently, educational researchers have moved to state-of-the-art research approaches that would stand the test of rigour in other disciplines. But – as we often hear from education ministers – educational research has both a quantity and quality problem. Quantitatively, the amount of resources available to educational research by far does not match the needs. Compare with the health system, which consumes a more or less similar share of taxpayers’ money, but which can rely on a very extensive infrastructure of biomedical research. Nothing comparable to this exists in education. Qualitatively, many peers in the scientific domain will agree that educational science relies too heavily on pre-scientific views, often based on romanticist belief systems about children and their learning or on practical knowledge transmitted from one generation to another. Again, things are improving recently with trained researchers turning to scientific research methodologies.

In this context, it is remarkable that other disciplines, often relatively new ones such as neuroscience, and based on new technological opportunities, such as non-invasive brain research, turn their focus to human learning. Neuro- and brain researchers join cognitive and social psychologists, colleagues working in computer and information science, specialists in artificial intelligence and machine learning and even engineers in a shared endeavour to unravel the mysteries of human learning. This cross-disciplinary effort is very welcome and starts to generate fascinating new perspectives. Old pedagogical questions, often stuck in sclerorised ideological positions, come in a completely new light. The fundamental building blocks of human learning, such as the origins of language learning and numerical representations, no longer are unchartered territories.

But then the next question is how to transmit and translate this emerging body of research evidence into the knowledge channels in education. There are very powerful barriers to new knowledge within the education infrastructure because of established, generally accepted forms of ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’, professional knowledge among teachers and age-old codified knowledge in teacher training. Confrontating these knowledge bastions will not be helpful. A careful and patient approach of translating and transmitting new research evidence is needed. That’s why an effort by the OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation in partnership with the US National Science Foundation’s Science of Learning Centers to present research findings by leading research teams in such a way that it is understandable by the professional educational community, is so important. The recently published Developing Minds in the Digital Age. Towards a Science of Learning for 21st Century Education fills a huge gap, in its content but also in the way it tries to translate research to policy and practice.

A cross-disciplinary science of learning is in the making and that’s probably the best news for education since long. It holds enormous promises for future improvements in the way we institutionally and professionally organise environments where humans learn. But connecting the worlds of research and educational policy and practice will take time and tedious effort.

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