Recommended Reading: Realistic Hopes for a Genuine Science of Learning

Keith Devlin is a professor of mathematics at Stanford who has taken a keen interest in mathematics education. He is particularly interested in how people learn and what constitutes effective teaching. As a side note, e-Literate interviewed Keith as part of the MOOC Research Initiative in 2013.[1] In his response to a question posed by the Edge last year, “2016: What do you consider the most interesting (recent) scientific news? What makes it important?”, Devlin argues that learning researchers are in the early, but momentous, stages of establishing a genuine science of learning. What has made this possible now is the application new research techniques enabled by the internet and online learning technologies:

“The problem that has traditionally beset learning research has been its essential dependence on the individual teacher, which makes it near impossible to run the kinds of large scale, control group, intervention studies that are par-for-the-course in medicine. Classroom studies invariably end up as studies of the teacher as much as of the students, and often measure the effect of the students’ home environment rather than what goes on in the classroom.”

Devlin doesn’t see technology as some kind of silver bullet for education. Rather, the real power is in utilizing technology in conjunction with established cognitive science research practices to develop a deeper understanding of how learning happens, in effect a science of learning. If Devlin is right, education could be on the cusp of transformation similar what took place in medicine a century ago.

“The education field today is much like medicine was in the 19th century—a human practice, guided by intuition, experience, and occasionally inspiration. It took the development of modern biology and biochemistry in the early part of the 20th century to provide the solid underpinnings of today’s science of medicine.”

It might just turnout that technology’s ability to transform education has less to do with ed tech per se and more to do with facilitating old fashioned research that requires patience, hard work and collaboration.

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  1. Disclosure: Our e-Literate TV series of video case studies and explainer videos is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. []

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2 Responses to Recommended Reading: Realistic Hopes for a Genuine Science of Learning

  1. Tim Carlin says:

    Might not want to get too excited about medical research as some of Keith’s colleagues at Stanford have reported “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”, and more generally at,

    Another massive challenge in learning science research is operational definitions (discussed by the e-literate team elsewhere) and by Klahr here,

  2. Thanks for your comments, Tim, good insights. Totally agree that developing generally accepted operational definitions is a key component of the new research efforts.

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