Thursday, December 14, 2023

There is No "Science of Learning"

Anthony James

Our theories of education generally rely upon the idea that learning is built upon learning; that we start with simpler things, foundational things, then, like with a building we construct learning brick upon brick.

I'm sure that learning happens in that way some of the time for some of us, but there is very little empirical evidence that this is how it works for most people most of the time. Indeed, despite marketing assertions to the contrary, there really is no "science of learning." Or rather, we are far from any kind of consensus on how humans learn. Any school that claims to be following the science doesn't understand science.

Science is an ongoing process, one that starts with a question to which there is not yet a satisfactory answer. We then form a hypothesis, test that hypothesis, draw conclusions, then send it all out into the world for others to test for themselves. There is no such thing as settled science. Sometimes, on some questions, there is a scientific consensus (for instance, around human impact of climate change or the overarching Theory of Evolution), and it behooves us to heed that consensus, but even that is subject to new theories.

That said, there is nothing even close to consensus around how humans learn and anyone who claims there is some sort of cookie cutter or system or step-by-step approach or scientific way of teaching or learning is a salesperson. Perhaps a well-intended salesperson, but a salesperson nevertheless.

I read extensively about things like the human brain, consciousness, cognitive psychology, physics, history, nature, and philosophy. I also read a lot of fiction and a little poetry. Not long ago, I met the head of neuroscience at a major university, who personally knew many of the authors of the books I've read. When I tried to engage him in conversation, he told me that much, if not most, of what we read about brain theory in books written for laypeople is already at least a decade out of date because the "science moves so fast." 

I love that I can following along with the scientific process book after book, albeit a decade or more behind the professionals.

I read widely because often an idea from philosophy or poetry or physics or history will clarify or amplify or completely contradict what this or that other brilliant mind is proposing in a different area of study. I find myself drawn to scientific writers like Carol Rovelli, one of the world's leading physicists, who can write, for instance, a book about white holes (the theoretical destiny of black holes) while weaving pertinent lines from Dante's Devine Comedy throughout the text. Not long ago, I read a book called Devine Fury: A History of Genius by historian Darrin McMahon in which he tells the story of how our definition of genius has evolved over the eons. It's an ongoing story that if we survive long enough to keep telling, will likely, one day, make future humans wonder what we ever saw in that misguided Einstein fellow.

The great wildlife ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote in his masterpiece A Sand County Almanac, "Education, I fear, is learning to see one thing by going blind to another." It's an idea that echoes Socrates' perfectly valid concern about the intellectual blindness that was sure to result from the introduction of the phonetic alphabet.

Nobel Prize winning author Doris Lessing wrote, "That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you've understood all your life, but in a new way." It's an idea that foretold the current theory that the vast majority of our thinking takes place beneath the level of our consciousness.

Many cognitive scientists, echoing the philosophical theories of Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, see long-term memory as the powerhouse of the brain, asserting that expansion of our long-term memory leads to an enlargement of our intelligence. Others point out that our memories tend to be wildly inaccurate and that, indeed, the more often we call upon a specific memory the more likely we are to alter it, often profoundly. This is why eye-witness court testimony can be quite unreliable or why when you meet an old friend after a long separation, you so often remember shared moments so differently.

Educators like Ivan Illich and John Holt assert that learning is "the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful activity" and that "(l)earning is the product of the activity of learners."

Neuroscientist Patrick House says that in the end we might well find that there are as many kinds of minds, as many kinds of consciousness, as there are humans. This would mean that the so-called "science of learning" is unique to each of us, and even that would likely change over time or be dependent upon what exactly is being learned. He writes, "Every brain has vastly more stores than all modern AIs and machines combined. Biology is messy at the level of its atomic and molecular happenings, but contained in all that messiness is a staggering amount of ways to be."

Technology is defined as the application of scientific principles for practical purposes. When someone asserts that their method or technique represents the "science of learning" what they are really saying is that they've invented something that helps some people, some of the time to learn certain things. This does not mean that it is the best way to learn something, just that they have a technology for sale that takes advantage of some narrow, and perhaps temporary, discovery of science. If it were truly the science of learning, it could not be packaged up and sold as a product because it would have to be updated and modified at the pace of not just brain science, but all other human disciplines as well.

At the end of the day, I'm a play-based educator because that is the lesson I've learned so far from science and history and fiction and philosophy. When we play, when we pursue our curiosity, when we ask our own questions and then go about answering them, we are engaging directly the great mystery of existence, playing with ideas for their season, following tunnels to see where they lead, finding ourselves in strange, uncomfortable places, then wiggling out of them again. A life of learning is the scientific process, lived by each individual amongst a universe of individuals who are engaged in their own scientific process.

As for the technologies of learning, engage them as you see fit. Play with them. Maybe you'll learn something from them, but know that there was a time when smoke signals, then the telegraph, was the most up-to-date form of communication. Play with them, learn from them, but never allow yourself to be trapped by them: they are technologies, after all, designed for profit, intended to make natural resources of everyone they touch.

As the late, great folk singer and philosopher said to a class of graduating university students, "They're about to tell you you're America's greatest natural resource . . . Run for the hills!" That's what I find myself wanting to do whenever I hear the phrase "the science of learning."


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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