There is No Such Thing As “The Science of Learning”

Nick Covington
Michael Weingarth
November 7, 2023
Nick Covington & Michael Weingarth call for a moratorium on using "The Science of Learning" to describe one aspect of how the brain works in relation to the multiple goals of school.

M-J Mercanti-Anthony’s Hechinger Report opinion piece from November 6th, It’s time to pay attention to the science of learning, was a call to action for educators to educate themselves on the new “science of learning” that has recently gained popularity as a solution to pandemic “learning loss.” We would counter that "The Science of Learning" flattens the complexity of both learning and the brain, misplacing outsized importance on a limited view of “cognitive science” in its relationship to schooling. It’s also important for educators to understand where the evidence in “evidence-based education”, as “The Science of Learning” was known in a previous life, comes from and who it leaves out when we demand its faithful implementation in schools.

According to science, it’s actually impossible to understand what happens in a learner’s brain in any given moment.    

The Science of Learning, shockingly, is really concerned with the field of “Learning”: a narrow scientific field of psychological and educational research that is obsessed with testable and measurable output, memorization, and school outcomes. Learning research looks at things like how many random letters in a row a student can memorize, or what lecture notes lead to higher test scores on a standardized test. Learning science is designed to be specifically short time frame, repeatable, and focused on actions teachers can take. Thank God, because it turns out, according to science, it’s actually impossible to understand what happens in a learner’s brain in any given moment.   

Brains in jars sit on shelves in a science lab

Imagine for a moment we’re not talking about learning. Imagine we’re talking instead about a truck. A new truck:  it has a computer. It has a bunch of parts that are in little black boxes, too. If you open one of these, or try to mess with the computer, you void the warranty. And more importantly, to repair these black boxes, you need to buy a black box from the manufacturer. That’s right: some trucks (and tractors, too!) are full of un-repairable pieces. This is an action taken by manufacturers to take away the right (and savings) of repairing your truck. 

While education is not a truck, it does present some interesting parallels: educators never knew how to repair their truck. Similar to car manufacturers trying to strip the right to repair away, educators are punting on learning how to repair the truck and accepting a kind of black-box that they’ll never be able to understand, let alone fix on their own.

The Science of Learning is misleading when it refers exclusively to cognitive science, memory management, and the brain.

You can get a tear in your labrum that does not need surgery. Same thing with ACLs, MCLs, LCLs, mensicii, and various other knee ligaments and tendons. But who you ask about this will dictate your information about it. Are you asking a kinesiologist or an orthopedic surgeon? Are you asking a football coach who needs you ready for next season, or your primary care doctor who knows about your family history of arthritis and doesn’t want you inviting more trouble into your future?  Information is everywhere, and what’s worse is that so is expertise. Articles like the one written by Mercanti-Anthony do something very dangerous: they assume that a selected set of experts are relevant because practitioners themselves, unfortunately, have no expertise and are just realizing this for the first time.

The Science of Learning is misleading when it refers exclusively to cognitive science, memory management, and the brain, because it ignores all the unknowable and ineffable components of what happens inside a student’s brain. It positions The Science to be thoroughly researched, but it also doesn’t acknowledge a huge body of work that proves cognitive science is significantly more complex than they have portrayed it. 

Research increasingly recognizes that, as medical researchers Peter Stilwel and Katharine Harmon write, “Cognition is not simply a brain event.”(*) Drawing from their intuitive 5E model, we can better understand learning as a process of sense-making about ourselves in relation to the world that is:

Embodied - sense-making shaped by being in a body

Embedded - bodies exist within a context in the world

Enactive - active agents in interactions with the world

Emotive - sense-making always happens in an emotional context

Extended - sense-making relies on non-biological tools and technologies

Rather than rely exclusively on tests of memory and retention, as The Science of Learning would direct us, this holistic 5E model lives at the intersection of the multiple missions of school: to provide an emotionally and physically safe and productive environment, to promote social and emotional growth, to develop executive skills and self-regulation, and to improve the intellectual capacity of kids to be active agents in the world. Summarized beautifully by education, psychology, and neuroscience professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, “As human beings, feeling alive means feeling alive in a body but also feeling alive in a society, in a culture; being loved, being part of a group, being accepted, and feeling purposeful." 

Stilwel and Harmon argue, and we agree, that it makes little sense to single out or ignore any one of these factors. However, that is a risk of trading out these very important interconnected pieces of human experience to narrow the scope to testable, measurable outcomes driven by limited science, largely because most teachers have never dove into the difference between The Science of Learning and the other fields that point out how limited and ultimately unuseful it is.

Schooling does not happen to brains separate from bodies, society, culture, or purpose; separate from the full experience of being human.

It is limited and unuseful precisely because schooling does not happen to brains separate from bodies, society, culture, or purpose; separate from the full experience of being human. Kids are also not brains-in-jars. They exist within bodies, as affective agents in the world, thinking purposefully about and with the tools they have. We should care about those things in the context of school, too, but you’ll find little of them in popular discussions of The Science of Learning primarily concerned with managing the inputs and outputs of student memory. If you’re interested in reading more about the fascinating world of neuroscience that acknowledges these complexities instead of ignoring them, Luis Pessoa’s The Entangled Brain and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang’s Emotions, Learning and the Brain are excellent entry points to expansive thinking about thinking.

Finally, just to throw one last wrench into the gears, the biggest single problem with The Science of Learning is the disconnect between the content of it - a set of ideas about universal practices that boost learning - and the reality of it - a set of humans for whom little is universal or even fair. Brains themselves don’t develop on a universal, linear timeline where first grade is when kids begin to learn how to sit and do worksheets: yet that is what we have decided, way before The Science of Learning was around, before fMRIs were used to image the brain, that first grade is when you’re doing seat work. Some first graders may not even have the executive function to hang out in a seat that long!

Brains themselves don’t develop on a universal, linear timeline where first grade is when kids begin to learn how to sit and do worksheets.

Regardless of how much of The Science of Learning you throw at your students, there’s no way to understand how to differentiate, how to create safe space, and how to care for the humans doing the learning with that science. The Science of Learning says the opposite: “These methods create better results. Do these methods.” But if they don’t, and a student struggles: are the students scientifically “bad” at learning? Does the teacher even understand why it may not work in the first place? The problem with The Science Of Learning is that there is none. There are things that work for some. There are things that improve results for some. Learning science doesn’t concern itself with all: it can ignore subgroups of certain descriptors, like neurodiverse individuals, because they belong to special education research, or learning disability research, or other sub-genres of the sub-genre of research that gets different funding to prove different things.

There is no central repository of Good And Fair Equitably-Conducted Science.  The middle of the bell curve serves the most and gets the most attention. As such, you can expect exclusion: The Science of How Some Learn, If You Ignore the Fact That Also Some Days It Won’t Work, Because It’s Impossible to Account For All the Variables All the Time, and After All, It’s Just A Theory ™. 

(Be sure to read Part 2: Beyond Pavlov's Perfect Student)

Would You Like to Know More?

Annie Murphy Paul - The Extended Mind

Mary Helen Immordino Yang -  Emotions, Learning and the Brain

Naomi Fisher - Changing Our Minds

Andratesha Fritzgerald - Anti-Racism and Universal Design for Learning 

Luiz Pessoa -  The Entangled Brain

Michael Weingarth stands at a whiteboard
Nick Covington
Nick taught social studies for 10 years in Iowa and has worked as a labor organizer. He is currently the Creative Director at the Human Restoration Project.
Michael Weingarth stands at a whiteboard
Michael Weingarth
Michael Weingarth is the founder of Pillars of Learning and Penelope Education as an expert on brain science. His framework to examine compensatory patterns of cognition helps students achieve academically.
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