The Science of Learning is an interdisciplinary science drawing not only from the educational subjects like language and Maths, but also fields like psychology, sociology, Artificial Intelligence, neurosciences and linguistics to answer the question ‘how do we learn?’. Though based deeply in research, its purpose is to find answers that solve real life problems and help significantly improve the quality of learning. It is an evidence-based discipline and a design science like engineering or computer science – meaning that it is closely linked to data as well as experiments on the field. A Science of Learning researcher would spend a lot of time a classroom or with individual learners interacting with them, both to get the inputs for her research as well as to test her findings.
The Science of Learning is sometimes referred to as the Learning Sciences. It has a Wikipedia page and journals devoted to it, however the field is nascent enough for the definition itself to be still evolving.
The Science of Learning has the potential to transform education the way healthcare was transformed by the science of medicine as we saw in part 1. Today, if we ask teachers or researchers questions like ‘how much time does it take children to learn the concept of fractions in class 4?’ or whether it is better to teach children in Indian context in English medium in the primary years, the answers obtained are neither very specific nor scientific. The Science of Learning will put together research and ground-based experiences and provide verifiable answers to questions like these.
We saw in part 2 that seemingly easy concepts may be quite complex to learn or teach. Understanding this complexity and determining some of the simplifying patterns behind it would be one key focus of this new science. Another would relate to documenting and determining the efficacy of different learning and teaching methods in a more scientific way than it happens at present. For example, Doug Lemov has compiled and documented a set of techniques that he felt effective teachers intuitively practice or learn over time. (One example was that while a few teachers manage to distribute a worksheet to their 30 odd students in 2-3 minutes flat – using techniques they may have trained students to practice – the average teacher may lose 10 minutes or more of valuable class time for the same thing!) Simply focussing systematically and in a research-based manner on ways to improve learning is the focus of the Science of Learning. As emphasised in part 3, there is nothing esoteric about this idea.
Management Studies as an interdisciplinary field was created in 1908 with the setting up of Harvard Business School. How is the discipline more than the sum of its parts – Economics, Psychology, Quantitative Studies, Computer Studies, etc?
I find that many people understand the need for this science better when we talk about another discipline most of us understand – Management Studies. The field of Management was ‘invented’ in early 1900s with the setting up of colleges like the Harvard Business School.
What does a student learn in a management course? A student learns about what motivates people, but that is psychology. A student learns about the economy, GDP and its growth, that is economics. A student learns about how manufacturing processes can be optimised, and that is Operations Research… and so on. One can conclude that there is nothing novel one is learning in Management, it is merely what people studied in these other disciplines. The same objection may be raised for the Science of Learning as well.
However, just as the management student studies all these different aspects with a focus on improving the management of an institution or organisation, in the same way, the Science of Learning focusses the work from other disciplines towards the goal of improving student learning.
Finally let me close this part with a question – what profession(s) can you think of in which the practitioner does most of his most critical work alone – without the benefit of a mentor or a support? In most professions, say that of a doctor or an engineer, key colleagues or support staff are always available when we are doing our main work. Some years back when we asked this question, my colleagues and I could think of only 2 professions – that of the pilot and the teacher. And among them, the pilot is not only rigorously trained (including as a co-pilot for many hours before being allowed to captain a flight), but is also backed by years of research and technology working to serve him or her.
Is it not then our responsibility to ensure that teachers too are similarly supported with tools, ideas and techniques that are being continuously invented, tested out and improved to help them teach children better? Isn’t the Science of Learning something society must invest on, today?
By Sridhar Rajagopalan – Directors Desk