Toward an Education Science

A group known as Deans for Impact recently released this document, called “The Science of Learning,” as a very public beginning of an initiative to improve university teacher preparation. If you have a moment, take a look—it is an eminently brief and readable set of answers taken from cognitive science to questions about student learning. The appearance of the report also marks something of a beginning in building a true education science. I wrote about it nearly a decade ago and have been advocating for this beginning ever since.

The timing of DfI’s announcement also helpfully coincided with my revisiting David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity, which readers will discover places near-fatal pressure on the common notion that the goodness of science is to be found ultimately in its oft-emphasized characteristics of testability, falsifiability, transparency, rejection of authority, openness to criticism, and empirical orientation. Rather, as Deutsch persuasively argues, the desire for good explanations—those that are “hard to vary”—is the real foundation for all of these characteristics, and is what has fundamentally made Enlightenment science so effective at allowing us to both control and make sense of the universe.

Consider, for example, the ancient Greek myth for explaining the annual onset of winter. Long ago, Hades, god of the underworld, kidnapped and raped Persephone, goddess of spring. Then Persephone’s mother, Demeter, goddess of the earth and agriculture, negotiated a contract for her daughter’s release, which specified that Persephone would marry Hades and eat a magic seed that would compel her to visit him once a year thereafter. Whenever Persephone was away fulfilling this obligation, Demeter became sad and would command the world to become cold and bleak so that nothing could grow. . . .

Now consider the true explanation of seasons. It is that the Earth’s axis of rotation is tilted relative to the plane of its orbit around the sun . . .

That is a good explanation—hard to vary, because all its details play a functional role. For instance, we know—and can test independently of our experience of seasons—that surfaces tilted away from radiant heat are heated less than when they are facing it, and that a spinning sphere in space points in a constant direction . . . Also, the same tilt appears in our explanation of where the sun appears relative to the horizon at different times of year. In the Persephone myth, in contrast, the coldness of the world is caused by Demeter’s sadness—but people do not generally cool their surroundings when they are sad, and we have no way of knowing that Demeter is sad, or that she ever cools the world, other than the onset of winter itself.

What’s the connection? Well, a somewhat out-of-focus constellation of legitimate worries appears whenever “education science” gets said a little too often in relation to classroom teaching. And just one star in that constellation seems to be the worry that “education science” doesn’t know what it’s talking about when it comes to teaching—that its methods ignore, among other things, the powerful effects of the relationship between teachers and students, and that the environments it sets up to test its hypotheses are far removed (environment and hypothesis both) from classroom realities.

And this worry has predictably resurfaced again following the release of the “Science of Learning” document and announcement.

What Deutsch’s argument can offer us in the face of this worry is the beginning of a convergence—away from feel-good unjustified assertions on the one hand and beating people over the head with stale research methods terminology and evidence mongering on the other—toward a shared desire for good, hard to vary, explanations: those that are functional (does it explain how it works?) and connected (does it help explain other things?).

A good, and necessary, first step toward an education science is not to arrogantly demand that science heed the “values” of practitioners nor to expect those practitioners to become classroom clinicians; but it will be to hold one another and ourselves accountable for better and better explanations of effective teaching and learning.

Image mask credit: Siyavula Education.

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Josh Fisher

Instructional designer and editor for K-12 mathematics. My research interests center mostly around mathematics education.

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