Understanding Learning Science and Its Value to Educators


In a world where we are constantly barraged with product claims about “learning science,” most educators have very little sense of what that really means and how it is relevant to what they do. I was lucky enough to be able to hear from and interview some actual academic learning sciences last year at Carnegie Mellon University’s Simon Initiative. The trip itself was paid for by CMU—I was part of a group of “media fellows”—and the video production was paid for by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The result was a trio of interview videos that I’m particularly pleased to share.

In the first video, “What is Learning Science from an Educator’s Perspective,” we talk about what learning science really is in terms that should make sense to most educators, how it is similar to what they do, and how it is different:


What I like about what both Ken Koedinger and Marsha Lovett have to say here is they make it clear that all decent educators are empirical, whether they are consciously aware of it or not. The heart of learning science is making that empericism conscious—thus Ken talking about Sir Isaac Newton thinking about the apple and slowing down that apple falling to study his own intuitions—and, as Marsha describes at the end, looking at insights across many different classroom contexts to see how generalizeable those intuitions about good teaching are. Framed in this way, I think any conscientious classroom instructor would find the idea of learning science interesting and relevant.

The second video, “How Can Learning Science Improve Teaching?“, the interviewees reinforce the idea of the empirical educator while calling out areas where being unconsciously empirical can lead to classroom failures:


As I wrote in my related Inside Higher Ed piece “Beyond Teaching by Instinct,”

[E]ven as we help students learn to see, grasp, and manipulate the building blocks of our respective disciplines every day in the classroom, many of us cling to the belief that what we do as teachers is somehow different. Sometimes we think of it is as trivially straightforward. Other times we think of it as ineffable art. In either case, it is outside the realm of that which can be studied. There is very little sense among the professoriate that teaching is a discipline that advances and of which, as practitioners, they should also be scholars.

This is a problem that we need to solve if education is going to reap the benefits of what we are learning in the lab about how people learn.

Finally, in the third video, “What Learning Science Tells Us About How to Use Educational Technology,” we see that talk about product efficacy only makes sense within a particular educational context as evaluated through the lens of the empirical educator.


This is why Phil and I are so careful to distinguish between “personalized learning,” a set of teaching strategies and “adaptive learning,” a product cateogry. As I wrote in my related EdSurge piece “When Personalized Learning is a Logical Fallacy,”

Distinguishing between talk about a product and talk about a teaching intervention matters because we care about understanding how well what we try will work with an actual set of students in an actual classroom. To evaluate the efficacy of a product independently of the actions taken by students and teachers in the context in which the product is used is to commit a logical fallacy. Specifically, it is a category error. It confuses the properties of the whole with the properties of a part.

Taken together, these videos make the educator’s case that education should be thought of as a discipline and at least partly an applied science. Our strides toward improving higher education will be limited until academics (and the people who design their compensation packages) embrace the idea of the empirical educator as core to the mission of academia.


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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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