What if Educational Policy Was Shaped by the Learning Sciences? (Part 1)

May 9, 2018 by

When a school starts to make the move toward competency-based education, they start to get serious about what the most effective strategies are to help students learn. This of course gets folks thinking about what the learning sciences can tell us about how to engage and motivate students to put their best efforts forward and how to make sure we are optimizing how our wondrous brains work. But are our policymakers at the state and federal levels who want to improve education doing the same thing? Are they digging into what the learning sciences might tell us about effective policy?

Drawing from Two Pools of Research

It isn’t always easy to figure out how to use the learning sciences. The research seems to be kept in little boxes that you can open and look at, but it’s messy when you take all the findings about how we learn and put them on the floor to try to build a system based on the research. (Think of a giant Lego project.)

During the Technical Advisory Group for developing a logic model for competency-based education (coming this month!), we had really rich conversations about the learning sciences. We started with the section in Chapter 3 on the cognitive perspective of learning in the OECD report Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice and then added in the psychological or social & emotional perspective on motivation and engagement. This caused a few ripples. One of the researchers in the TAG seemed quite shocked that we were trying to integrate the knowledge on the sciences of learning. But we moved forward because one of the findings of the learning sciences is that learning results from the interplay of cognition, emotion, and motivation.

It ends up that these different domains of learning are treated as very separate sets of research. Amelia Peterson generously wrote an article, The Learning Sciences: Two Perspectives, (a must read!) explaining the different perspectives to make it easier for the rest of us without a PhD by our name to understand. I’ve certainly come across a few people who seem to suggest that the only research on the learning sciences is that which is related to cognition. This always rubs me the wrong way as it seems to have just a hint of sexism in it: the cognitive learning sciences being more important than all that stuff that rests in the emotional world.

At a meeting on the learning sciences earlier this year, a researcher was honest in declaring that the folks doing the research have deep understanding of their area of expertise but not how it interacts with the other areas. This means that the burden – or perhaps it is an opportunity – for making sense of the learning sciences lies with users such as educators and policymakers. It also means that we must be kind to the researchers when we demand that the research on the learning sciences be integrated because suddenly they are no longer experts, but learners just like the rest of us.

In the next article, I’ll dive into an exploration of learning sciences and the policy.

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