The Science of Learning

US-based Deans for Impact are not only one of the leading organisations driving evidence-informed teacher training, but also ground-breaking communicators of evidence-informed education. And one of their most successful publications, The Science of Learning, is part of that success. Benjamin Riley and Charis Anderson explain what it is, and why it has proven such an international success.

Benjamin Riley and Charis Anderson

When Deans for Impact launched in 2015, its members – all leaders of US educator-preparation programmes – wanted to chart a new course in education that pushed for the broader use of scientifically supported learning principles within programmes that prepare future teachers. At the same time, we wanted to make sure whatever we did would resonate with practising educators in the field. Could we create a resource to do both?

From this question, The Science of Learning – a short, six-page summary of principles of cognitive science and their application to teaching practice – was born. Three years after its publication, it remains the most widely used resource Deans for Impact has developed, with ongoing international interest. And we think the reason for this stems in part from the fact that the main authors of The Science of Learning – Daniel Willingham and Paul Bruno – spanned the ‘research to practice’ divide that so often creates a barrier to improving education.

Willingham, a professor at the University of Virginia, is a cognitive scientist. Earlier in his career, his research focused solely on the brain basis of learning and memory, but since around 2000, he has focused on the application of cognitive psychology to K-16 education. The Science of Learning offered Willingham another opportunity to bring information about cognitive psychology to educators in a useful way.

By contrast, when Bruno started working on The Science of Learning, he was fresh out of the classroom after spending five years teaching middle-school science in Oakland and Los Angeles. Bruno’s own teacher-preparation experience had left him with relatively little understanding of the science of learning, and much of what he did know he learned on his own. Based on his own experience, Bruno thought there was an enormous need to help make learning-science research accessible for educators.

‘I think it’s great when teachers take the initiative and want to dive into the research themselves,’ said Bruno, who is now a PhD student at USC Rossier. ‘But I think it is pretty unfair, for most teachers, to demand that they do that proficiently: that’s not their job.’

There’s a distinction between being a practitioner and being a researcher of how the mind works, according to Willingham. ‘Knowing what the mind does is not identical to knowing how to put those principles into practice in a classroom,’ Willingham said.

The Science of Learning focuses on the cognitive view of learning in order to focus on those principles that are most applicable to what teachers do in classrooms, such as helping students understand new ideas or motivating students to learn. The principles are organised through six framing questions – e.g., how do students understand new ideas? – and are paired with specific, concrete implications for instruction. Above all, The Science of Learning makes the research accessible.

The field of education often lacks clear paths to keep practitioners up to date on the latest relevant research. This stands in contrast to other professions, such as the medical field, where the American Medical Association takes an active interest in continuing education for physicians, according to Willingham. But in teaching, ‘I would say that most teachers feel they’re sort of on their own in navigating the research world and figuring out what’s new in research and what’s quality,’ Willingham said. Bruno agreed. ‘Particularly for a new teacher, it can be very helpful to have something like The Science of Learning that you can get your arms around and is relatively digestible,’ he said.

The lack of specificity or clarity in standards and other guidance given to teachers – both novice and more experienced – is also a real problem, in Bruno’s eyes. For example, teachers are told that it’s important for their students to have foundational knowledge as a precursor for critical thinking – but what is meant by ‘having foundational knowledge’? And what specific things do teachers need to do to help their students gain that knowledge?

‘A lot of times, educational advice can sound very aspirational, and watching teachers who are good can often seem like you’re watching something that’s indistinguishable from magic,’ Bruno said. A novice teacher who is told to differentiate her instruction, but isn’t given clear directions on what that means or looks like – or even on what basis instruction needs to be differentiated – will be left fishing for plausible ways of achieving the objective.

It’s in these types of situations where neuromyths like learning styles can easily take hold, Bruno believes. ‘Learning styles seems to offer some of this concreteness: take the activity you were doing, and turn it into something visual, or something kinesthetic,’ he said. ‘That seems actionable, and it’s something to latch onto.’

Empowering individual teachers with knowledge of learning science principles can change the way instruction is delivered in individual classrooms and contribute to changing the norms of the profession. Indeed, while we originally conceived of The Science of Learning as a tool to support individual learning, at Deans for Impact we’ve increasingly come to see the principles of learning science as central to organisational learning as well. We’re now using The Science of Learning to undergird a vision of change within educator-preparation programmes that prioritises candidate learning above all else.

In our most recent publication, Building Blocks, we laid out a vision for effective educator preparation that connects learning-science principles with practical considerations about how teacher preparation should be designed. In this vision, not only do teacher-educators teach and model behaviours that are aligned with our best scientific knowledge, but programmes themselves are designed with that knowledge at their core.

When teacher-educators model effective pedagogy, for example, it gives aspiring teachers ‘worked examples’ – step-by-step demonstrations that break down a teaching practice into its component parts – that reduce their cognitive burdens and help them see and understand the underlying concepts.

Interleaving practice opportunities throughout teacher-candidates’ preparation experience helps them better learn content and understand theory and practice as interrelated concepts. Pairing those practice opportunities with feedback that is targeted toward developing a specific skill and given as soon as possible after the skill is practice – and giving teacher-candidates another opportunity to practice the skill – make them powerful levers for improvement.

Finally, designing the arc of the preparation process to build teacher-candidate knowledge, skill, and understanding over time helps align theory to practice and creates a coherent experience for all candidates. This approach to program design is based one of the bedrock principles of cognitive science: that we learn new ideas by referencing ideas we already know.

Three years after Deans for Impact first conceived the idea for The Science of Learning, it continues to guide much of our work. We believe that cognitive science can drive improvements within individual teachers’ classrooms and within the organizations that prepare those teachers – and researchED is playing a pivotal role in helping spread these ideas across the globe. We have made a great deal of progress – and our best work lies ahead.

You can download all Deans for Impact publications (including The Science of Learning and Building Blocks) for free here:

Download a PDF version of this issue.

Founded in 2015, Deans for Impact is a US nonprofit organisation that empowers, supports, and advocates on behalf of leaders at all levels of educator preparation who are committed to transforming the field and elevating the teaching profession.

Benjamin Riley is the founder and executive director of Deans for Impact. Prior to founding Deans for Impact, Ben conducted research on the New Zealand education system, worked as the policy director for a national education nonprofit, and served as deputy attorney general for the State of California. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington and JD from the Yale Law School.

Charis Anderson is the senior director of communications at Deans for Impact. Prior to joining Deans for Impact, she was the director of publications for a Boston-based national education nonprofit. Charis also worked as a reporter at a local newspaper in Massachusetts, for an independent high school in San Francisco, and at a management consulting firm. Charis received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Williams College and her master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.