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Demystifying Learning Sciences

Teachers are the composers, orchestrating the rhythm of learning in the classroom. You pull materials from multiple sources, match resources to student needs, and iterate on your plans to help students meet their goals. You alternate between the regular and the random, where every moment is a progression. To be successful, it’s helpful to know what has worked in the past to create your own symphony in tailoring the learning environment. 

Unfortunately, what works isn’t always so clear. There are the reading wars, the digital divide, new math, project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, and many more examples of competing educational approaches. Are they all different things? Or do they overlap? The way things are laid out, it’s hard to know when the differences between approaches are just semantics or if we need to take a side. I’ve found that even if research-based strategies seem simple and make sense on the surface, there are many complexities once I dig deeper. I’m sure many of you crave a framework that could take a 10,000-foot view over it all and help evaluate what methods work best for our students.

The research community has come a long way in its ability to conduct research and translate findings in an applied way for teachers in the classroom. When I first started working in educational technology just over 10 years ago—first as an external evaluator and then as part of the research team for an online reading program—I had a good foundation of knowledge in the different areas of child development. Once it came time to apply the theory to the practice of creating online learning tools, I realized that I needed to take a deep dive into cognitive psychology and, more recently, neuroscience. Truly, I only recently embraced the term learning science, a combination of education, psychology, neuroscience, and research from related fields such as economics and sociology. It was liberating to have a name for the interdisciplinary work that I’m so passionate about and want to share with colleagues and with you. 

While I was Vice President of Learning Sciences at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, my first task was to develop a set of principles that could guide the development and revision of all HMH programs. As noted on the research website, all of our curricula are grounded in domain-specific research and summarized in several foundational research papers. These learning science principles don’t differ by domain, learner age, and digital access.

I immediately sketched out my initial thoughts and started presenting them to colleagues and academics on the 2019 Learning Science & Research Advisory Board, gathering feedback, and revising. Four learning sciences themes emerged: Rigorous, Aligned, Motivating, and Personal (RAMP).

R: Rigorous

  • Progression and application of higher-order thinking skills
  • Teaching that supports productive struggle and deep learning

A: Aligned

  • Instruction, practice, and assessment connected by skills, topics, and strategies
  • Materials designed to consider the brain’s learning processes and to prevent cognitive overload

M: Motivating

  • Materials must support students’ sense of:
  • Competence or understanding of their skill mastery
  • Meaning or purpose of why they are doing this work
  • Relevance to their culture, interests, and needs
  • Choice or control over their pace and path for learning

P: Personal

  • Focus on personal building blocks, including:
  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Teacher closeness
  • Peer-to-peer relationships

These four themes create the Learning Science Pillars that can simplify that 10,000-foot view over all the materials, curricula, and initiatives in the classroom and across the district. They work together, and truly powerful programming includes all of these elements to accelerate learning outcomes for students.

As with any framework, it’s all in the application: How does this relate to me? How can I make sense of this in the work I do every day? To share the details of RAMP with you, let’s do some storytelling over the next few months! 

Many of you spent a good amount of time getting ready for the back-to-school season. I noticed fairly quickly that a number of teachers were organizing their classrooms or building lesson plans around learning sciences myths. These are ideas that almost seem too good to be true—and were perhaps the way that we were taught in school—but haven’t been empirically proven to be true over time. In response, I’ve put together this series to introduce RAMP to you. Join us to RAMP up your teaching!

We will debunk the following myths:

  • Everyone has a predominant learning style that best supports their learning.
  • You either have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.
  • You can multi-task and do more than one thing well simultaneously.
  • Ten thousand hours of practice will make you a master at anything.
  • Creativity lives on the right side of our brain and logic lives on the left side.

Watch out for my next blog post, where I’ll address the first myth on this list.

This article first appeared on the HMH blog Shaped at