Higher Education, The Science of Learning

The Science (Opinion) of Learning

On a number of occasions, I have written about the scientific principles underlying The Science of Learning. Scientific principles based on decades, stretching to a century and a half, of empirical research. Robust empirical research into how people think, how memory works, what motivates people, how children develop into adults, how the brain processes information; empirical research into how people learn.

This basic research is what is brought together to make up the principles underlying The Science of Learning – applying science to teaching. I have alluded to this challenge in the past, but here I am writing about one of the most frustrating aspects of my scholarship.

At least four times in the last month, and many, many times in discussions here on LinkedIn over the last year, I have heard these words, almost verbatim, “…well, that’s your opinion and I have my own opinion. Everyone has their own opinion about how people learn and everyone’s opinion is valid.”

I don’t get it!

Take, as an example memory. Research demonstrated, at least 60 years ago, and has been reinforced by countless studies since, that short-term memory can hold between 3 and 7 items (5±2), depending on other conditions. This is not a controversial finding. There is nobody in the world of cognitive science or cognitive neuroscience who would argue with this principle. If anyone, whether in or out of the field were to suggest that this number is wrong, every cognitive or neurocognitive scientist in the world would look puzzled and ask, “What do you think it is?” and then ask, “What do you base your ideas on?”. This is a given. It is the basis (along with chunking) for the length of telephone numbers.

Five ± two is simply the number of items that short-term memory holds – until it comes to The Science of Learning. When this simple fact is used as a principle of learning that should inform teaching practice, it simply becomes an opinion. And, everyone has an opinion that is just as valid. I hear this over and over again and just shake my head in disbelief. Keep in mind that this “opinion” attitude always comes from someone who is steeped in educational traditions. The only way I can figure this one out is that, because someone teaches they automatically know how someone learns and his or her experience in teaching allows them to dismiss the scientific principles that underlie The Science of Learning. That is akin to me saying that because I breathe air, it is okay for me to say to a chemist “…you have your opinion about the composition of an oxygen molecule and I have mine. Everyone has their opinion about the composition of oxygen molecules, and everyone’s opinion is valid.”

I just don’t get it!

I actually had this conversation about the limits of short-term memory and its effect on teaching with two people in higher education, one of them was a research scientist, and this is exactly the response I got, “…well, that’s your opinion and I have my own opinion. Everyone has their own opinion and everyone’s opinion is valid.”


And then there is the transference of information from short-term memory to long-term memory (not episodic memory). We know how this works. Information must be connected to existing memories that are already embedded in long-term memory, and then the information can be said to have been both encoded and stored in long-term memory. Retrieval is another aspect of long-term memory, but for this example, I’m only going to talk about encoding information.

When you are trying to remember a telephone number for a minute or so, in order for you to be able to dial it properly, you keep the information alive in short-term memory. We do this by repeating it over and over. Because repeating information over and over is the subjective experience that for keeping something in memory, for many years repeating things over and over (rote learning) was thought to be the way information is transferred from short-term memory to long-term memory. In fact, there are still teachers (and students) whom both believe this and practice it. How often do we see students reading the same information over and over the night before an exam in order to pass an exam (cramming)? Cramming does not put information into long-term memory, it puts information into episodic memory – memory that isn’t supposed to be around for more than a day or two.

This information about memory is not controversial in the cognitive and neurocognitive world. This is just how the brain works. This is how memory works. The only controversy about this comes from those who teach in education, and then the old, “…well, that’s your opinion and I have my own opinion. Everyone has their own opinion and everyone’s opinion is valid” comes out.

I still don’t get it!

I could use the principles of academic motivation, developmental psychology, deep or surface encoding, restructuring memory for understanding. The list goes on and on. We know how this works – how recursive, evidence-based discussions teach critical thinking. How hearing information once is a poor way to encode information into long-term memory. How reading information once leads to very poor recall. We know how people learn. Experts in these various fields don’t argue about these basic principles.

This begs the question, ”Why is it that when we suggest that the scientific principles of learning should underlie and inform teaching practice?” the response is almost always, “…well, that’s your opinion and I have my own opinion. Everyone has their own opinion and everyone’s opinion is valid.”

I guess that in our modern world of fake news and alternative facts, this should be expected. In fact, the rejection of using The Science of Learning to inform teaching long predates the current trend to present alternative facts. Maybe the alternative facts thing has been around longer, but it is not something that is usually associated with professional academics, especially those with backgrounds in the sciences and even those with backgrounds in cognitive and neurocognitive science, human developmental science, the scientific study of human motivation and on and on. Even if you study the underlying principles of The Science of Learning in isolation, rarely are these principles used to inform teaching practice. Especially when a large number of these principles are brought together, through the process of complex inductive reasoning, to form The Science of Learning – taking what we know about how people learn and use it to inform teaching.

If you get it, please help me understand.

This is why I believe that we are going to have to rely on business and commercial interests to build an educational system based on science. The professionals who teach in the current higher education system already know all they need to be know about teaching.

More on why government and current educational institutions are not going to change tomorrow.

One thought on “The Science (Opinion) of Learning

  1. Pingback: Continuous Learning and Social Herding – Socelor

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