Why The Science of Learning?

The Science of Learning is a blend of scientific knowledge. There is a wealth of scientific knowledge that has been accumulated about how people learn. The knowledge is spread across a number of disciplines and is brought together under the umbrella term The Science of Learning. The Science of Learning is the application of this body of scientific knowledge to formal teaching.

Although you would think that this is exactly what the field of education does, it is not. Education is a discipline that is not founded on scientific principles but is presented as an art and a skill based on traditions that date back centuries. I had a schoolteacher friend who, while discussing The Science of Learning informed me that he had taken a class in how people learn. I was excited by this prospect and asked him what texts, papers, and other resources had been used. He calmly informed me that I had misunderstood him. The class was a three-hour lecture embedded in some other module of learning that taught him how to be a teacher.

Although much of the Science of Learning can be used as individual tidbits to improve a teacher’s ability to foster better learning in a classroom, for me, the Science of Learning is about teaching higher education students how to think, how to engage in higher order thinking skills. Why is this important?

We currently do an abysmal job of teaching our students to think. The research shows that 40% of our graduates show no improvement in any of the skills that we would think a graduate of a higher education institution should possess. They are no better at writing, reading, creative thinking or any other higher order thinking skills than when they entered higher education. Of the remaining 60%, there is a gradient of improvement in these skills with a few really learning how to think, while the majority improve in some aspects to some degree and not at all in other aspects. We are ignoring the higher (thinking skills) part of higher education.

This is not new. This has been the case since the massification of higher education in the 1960s. The methods of teaching have remained the same without taking into account the enormous increase in the number of students entering the system. More recently, new methods have been adopted by a small minority of teachers to try to address this lack of learning to think. However, these newly adapted methods have been based on educational philosophies that are based on teaching without being informed, in any way, by The Science of Learning. What we end up with is the case where hundreds of millions was spent on installing the latest tech (at the time), interactive whiteboards, by the Greater London Educational Authority in an effort to increase interactivity between the students and their studies only to find, once the research had been done when the project was finished, that the expected interaction actually decreased. Some tech firm made a killing, but the losers were the teachers, students, and the taxpayers.

So, why do we now need graduates who have higher order thinking skills when the skills that we have equipped them with in the past have been adequate?

From Ross Mayfield’s The Coming Tech Backlash, we read:

“Fifty percent of the jobs will be gone in ~20 years. Not from the great sucking sound of jobs to Mexico that can be stopped with a wall. Not from moving offshore to China. From automation that is moving quickly from blue collar manufacturing to white collar information work. Second only to climate change, this is the greatest disruption of our time, and I don’t mean that word in a good way.

A recent study found  50% of occupations today will be gone by 2020, and a 2013 Oxford study forecasted that  47% of jobs will be automated by 2034. A Ball State study found that  only 13% of manufacturing job losses were due to trade, the rest from automation. A McKinsey study suggests  45% of knowledge work activity can be automated.”

How can we pretend that we are preparing our graduates for the careers of the future while all we are doing is preparing them for the careers of the past? Fifty percent of our graduates, in five years, will be working in jobs that haven’t even been thought of yet. How do we prepare them for this? We can teach them higher order thinking skills. With these kinds of skills, people are flexible and can adapt to whatever the future throws at them. They will not be the coal miners or plant workers whose jobs disappeared years ago. They will not be the white-collar workers whose jobs are being replaced by algorithms and automation.

Besides the disruption of technology that we are currently facing, we are on the cusp of the most disruptive times in our society. Most of you will have seen the following figure:

This cycle of societies has not exempted our current society. There is not even much disagreement as to where we are in the cycle – just over the stagflation hump. The argument today centers over the number of years that our society will be in crisis before we enter the intercycle stage that precedes something new emerging. Experts can’t agree on how many years the crisis will exist because of the technology available to hyperdrive virtually everything in our society (communications, transportation, military etc.). There is no one suggesting that we will see 50 years of crisis. The time will be much shorter, and we all know how academics argue. Right now the argument is centered around the number of years – virtually all agreeing that it will be less than 20 before we enter an intercycle period. One of the hallmarks of the start of a crisis period is the polarization of the ruling elite into opposing camps with no compromise from either side. Another is an extreme disparity in wealth between the wealthy elites and the rest of society. I hope we don’t see either of these for a few years.

Why am I writing about something that none of us want to really consider? I believe that the kind of people who will be functional in both the near future of technology-driven disruption and the longer time of crisis are people who possess higher order thinking skills. Others will argue that strong physical workers will best fit the challenges of the future, but just because someone can think doesn’t mean they can’t work as well. I believe that the length of the intercycle period can be shortened considerably if we have millions of people with higher order thinking skills. The optimist in me wants to believe that if we stop teaching people to pass tests in order to gain qualifications and start churning out millions who can really think that we can somehow avert a crisis altogether.

We need to be in the front, preparing our students to weather the turbulent times ahead. We need to be using The Science of Learning to give our students a chance. We need to change what we are doing in order to make a difference. Each one of us needs to immerse ourselves in future proofing our young people.

I will be shortly starting a continuing professional development event that will focus exclusively on The Science of Education. Have a look at my website and register and we’ll begin next week.

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