Technology Aids Understanding Science of Learning

A group of scientists who research learning recently came together from around the nation for a National Science Foundation conference to share their "latest findings, lessons learned [and] new directions." All participate in "Science of Learning Centers," funded for the past decade by the NSF for the express purpose of deepening the understanding of learning. Among the takeaways from the gathering: Technology now plays a major role in understanding the learning process.

Most of the six centers bring together research people from multiple institutions in proximate regions of the country. For example, Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center (SILC) draws researchers from Temple University, the University of Chicago, U Pennsylvania and Northwestern U. The Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center (LearnLab) has scientists from Carnegie Mellon U and U Pittsburgh.

"The NSF created the Science of Learning Centers program in order to bring top researchers from many diverse fields together and provide them with the resources to deepen our understanding of learning," said Fay Cook, NSF assistant director for social, behavioral and economic sciences, in a prepared statement. "Over the past 10 years, these centers have addressed important questions and gaps in our knowledge of the process of learning — questions that are complex in scope and scale, and that required infrastructure and human capital beyond what small individual research groups could provide."

During the event, LearnLab Director Ken Koedinger reported on how his joint institutional center has run 360-plus live, cross-domain classroom experiments. The results of those experiments, Koedinger explained, allowed the LearnLab to develop an "education-relevant learning theory" that resulted in creation of a "Knowledge-Learning-Instruction" framework that demonstrates "how different knowledge goals require different optimal configurations of instructional techniques because they require different primary learning processes, like memory, induction or sense-making."

The NSF published a rundown of "takeaways" from the event. At the top of the list: the value of technology, which is "expanding our ability to understand and analyze learning in ways that were never before possible, from being able to look at brain activity over time windows on the order of 10 milliseconds to being able to non-invasively peer into the brain of a five-month-old infant or 'see' how memories can be held in a brain in waves to prevent two memories from competing with each other."

The meeting also concluded that we as humans learn better when learning environments "take advantage of our social natures" and the "very presence" of another person improves our learning, even when that interaction is taking place online.

Observations about science, technology, engineering and math also surfaced as important areas of interest. According to the researchers, the addition of the arts to that roster (STEAM vs. STEM) offers the "potential to broaden the appeal of STEM fields." The arts — especially music — can increase or improve learning. Also, tools now exist that have the potential to "greatly improve math and STEM learning" through a "spatializing" of the curriculum. In fact, the takeaways reported, "spatial thinking" is at the foundation of STEM capabilities, and such skills can change "all the way into adulthood."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.