Cognitive Enablers, Higher Education, The Science of Learning

Education – The Why?

Formal education has a long tradition going back at least a thousand years if we ignore the formal education that occurred in antiquity. That long tradition has survived upheavals that have destroyed much of what was cherished at the time and has, in many cases, been the root cause of the upheavals. What happened to education?

Somehow, education escaped the rational thinking inspired enlightenment. While much of the world reeled under the new ways of thinking that the enlightenment introduced, education was left out. Education continued with the tradition that has served it for a thousand years (at least). Enlightened thinking has passed mass education by and left it floundering on ancient foundations overlaid with modern fads and cool ideas.


Why has the application of science and rational thinking to education been overlooked? Why has education become all about the perfection of the art of teaching while ignoring how people learn? Why have the basic, scientific principles that tell us how people learn been passed over for foundationless fads that target teaching and pay lip service to learning? Why has the enlightenment skipped education?

We recognize that there is a crisis in higher (and lower) education, and the best we can do is flip the classroom. Based on what principle? Where is the scientific principle that says flipping a classroom is a learning enhancement? Where are the scientific principles that underlie virtually all of the most widely used “teaching innovations” that have been adopted to fix the problems we face?

The Center for Excellence for Learning and Teaching at Birmingham University in the UK was closed recently. Why? Because it didn’t work. Teachers could drop in to find out how to make better PowerPoint slides, use Moodle more effectively, write better MCQs, use stage space while they lectured, flip a classroom, and on and on. What they didn’t learn is how people learn and how that could be applied in a formal classroom setting. How long would a modern, scientifically based medical clinic support an alternative, faith-based, medicinal unit that eventually proved to have no value-added when it came to actually healing people?

There is brilliant research that has been done over years and years – well over a century – that tells us the basic principles that underlie how people learn, but those principles have been almost completely ignored in favor of educational fads and trends. Why is there no enlightenment? Why is there no solid foundation?

The enlightenment has brought us electric lights, telephones, nylon, fibre optics, the internet – the enlightenment put a man on the moon! The enlightenment has changed our world in almost every way imaginable but hasn’t happened in education.

Education has become a sacred institution. All that is education is good. The enlightenment itself emerged from education. Education has become our new universal religion. The hierarchical clerical organization expends enormous amounts of energy stamping out heresy. Faithful followers zealously defend the dogmatic orthodoxy that is regurgitated by the ordained ministers of education. Fads and trends are adopted and celebrated in the rituals of education as a way forward while the core traditions are faithfully guarded by the defenders of the truth.


The world of education doesn’t even pretend to be built on principles of science. The science of how people learn is not the part of any educational training that I am aware of. And, when I try to talk to adherents of the religion, I am treated worse than if I were a zealot from a real religion. Educational tradition has no room for science. Evidence-based learning is almost always focussed on teaching, and when it does focus on real learning, it is almost universally ignored. I am not aware of any scientific principle of learning that has been universally adopted by the catholic educational establishment.

The orthodoxy and dogmatism is growing like a cancer in the system. It is no secret that graduates from every type of higher educational institution, from the most select to the pay your cash and get a degree website, are not preparing students to think, not preparing students for the world, and not really preparing students for anything but passing tests. As a result, the ordained ministers at the top of the hierarchy is looking for ways to deflect the blame from the traditional dogma and lay it elsewhere.

Although sold as a measure of learning, standardized testing is all about finding out which teachers and schools are not conforming to the orthodoxy of teaching. This is at lower levels of education with whispers of standardized testing in higher education growing louder. However, currently in higher education, the blame is laid squarely on the shoulders of the (entitled) students. They are not here to learn so the responsibility for them not being prepared for anything is entirely their own fault.

The system is sacred, so it must be the students, the parents, the teachers, the individual institutions, the state funding, the whatever. Anything but the system of education itself. And, what I find unbelievable is the lengths that the individual practitioners, the faithful, defend the system – as though they are solely responsible for having designed it.


When is there going to be an educational enlightenment? When are the scientific methods that have transformed our world going to be applied to education? When is the plethora of tomes of scientific findings of how people learn going to begin to replace the dogma of teaching?

We know how people learn. We know how they can learn to think critically. We know how they can effectively memorize material. We know how to academically motivate them. We know how to build environments that foster creativity. We know how to build higher order thinking skills in students. We know how people learn.

As a scholar in The Science of Learning – how we take these principles and apply them to formal learning environments – I find myself dismissed and marginalized by faithful practitioners who are in positions of influence. After a long talk with the head of the teaching support unit at the local university, I left with the sentiment ringing in my ears that I have nothing to offer them because their methods are enlightened and working to maximize student learning. As far as the Science of Learning goes, he has a member of his team with an (undergraduate) science background who would know all about The Science of Learning. Funny that, since when I was going over a couple of basic principles, he dismissed them off hand because they didn’t mesh with current best practice in education.

I find myself getting tired. There are only so many years that a person can knock at a solid wall before thinking of giving up. My scholarship has cost me friendships, professional standing, work opportunities, and institutional recognition for years and years. At some point, I think that it might be best to fade into the sunset and give up on my proselyting.

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