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What's with the big push on 'the' science?

Updated: Jun 1


Lately, if you have listened to folk talking nationally about education, you will have heard about 'the' science of learning. I know I have heard it plenty and with a growing discomfort I must admit. It took a while to put my finger on what was concerning as I have been actively espousing that we in education cannot afford to ignore neuroscience for a number of years and indeed was excited when I first heard talk of the science of learning.

On reflection it is how the phrase is used and where the emphasis is put that concerns me. THE science of learning implies that there is one right way, it creates division. And is this being used to inform and inspire or prescribe and limit? This is where my discomfort lies.


The underlying beliefs with THE science of learning

When I first started exploring this discomfort it took me, of all the funny places to go, to ontology and epistemology. I learned about these when I was studying for my masters. To be perfectly honest I didn't really learn it, because I didn't get the connection to what I was doing, so I gathered knowledge from my lecturers and my reading material, dutifully did an assignment and had enough to clarify my theoretical perspective for my research. But, and I need to make this clear, I did not understand it... until now (and I still have some way to be fully conversant I think) because I needed to unpack a problem that related to it. When we go to research and say what we are doing is 'evidence based', 'informed by science', 'THE science of learning', are we considering the theoretical framework the research, evidence or science is based on? Is there an implicit bias that needs to be understood? I suggest that the theoretical perspectives, the beliefs about knowledge and how it is acquired, must be considered when exploring the science. A little healthy skepticism goes a long way.


The use of THE science of learning, with the emphasis on the THE.

This emphasis implies that there is only one science of learning. Who says what that science is? Science of learning draws from several disciplines including neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science, education and then applies this to classroom practice. I applaud this. Have we got a clear consensus on what learning is I wonder. If we don't, then there cannot be one THE science of learning.

The ardent use of 'THE science of learning' has a capacity to create more division in our education system, at a time when I feel we need to make education a more cohesive, collaborative environment. This fervour makes me think of monotheism where the adoption of a ONE true God has provided a platform for some (not all by any means) to marginalise, subjugate, de-humanise others based on their worship of apparently false Gods. Perhaps history, philosophy and social sciences should also inform the science of learning?

Whilst I think about it I would like to see microbiology, physics and dare I say political science included when we consider crafting teaching practices to improve learning outcomes for all of our children.


THE science of learning will fix education

This assumption is based on a narrow perspective that schools, indeed teachers, are solely to blame for our children 'failing' in the education systems that we have created. I think it can be agreed, for most of us anyway, that we want all children to succeed. What success looks like might be up for debate however. Many of us would dearly love to see change in the education system- but what needs to change and why? That is also up for debate. What I do know is that no science of learning will fix all the ills in our system because education is not happening in an isolated bubble. Our schools are part of society and therefore are impacted by and reflect what is happening in society.

I know that some reading approaches can work for many children, that's great. But a great reading approach and an empty belly or a traumatic homelife or lack of access to resources will not necessarily a great reader make. We need to see our learners as whole human beings not just readers, writers or mathematicians.


Narrowing the curriculum

If the science of learning is being used as a tool to narrow and create a prescriptive curriculum then that is serious cause for concern. I have heard from a couple of sources now this idea that teachers aren't able/skilled to write curriculum, all I can say to that is sigh!

We have national curricula that guide the knowledge and skills that our children are expected to have access to learn in their schooling. But then, importantly, we as teachers apply this to our unique settings with the diverse people in front of us, we build learning frameworks that address the needs of our learners in our communities. That takes interpretation, critical thinking, creativity, finding meaningful resources and crafting engaging learning opportunities. I would argue that this is an important part of our job as teachers. Teaching is a skilled profession, a nuanced art, not a knowledge driven process... we are not making widgets, we are helping young people grow and develop as citizens of a world in flux.

I do know some teachers would love to be told what to do, when and how. Many of these teachers are exhausted and some (I'd suggest a large minority) just don't want to do the heavy lifting. In order to address this I suggest we need to value teachers and raise the status of the teaching profession. It is devastating to hear teachers maligned on the nightly news, in soundbites, on social media so often. Most of us are doing the best we can in an imperfect, underfunded, over-stretched system but dumbing down the role will not make it better, especially not for our children.


What about diversity?

We are all unique... no two children that come into our classrooms are exactly the same, no two classrooms, no two schools. Diversity is at the heart of education and yet the system seems hell bent on putting people into boxes, slapping down the lids, labelling them and shipping them off before the next consignment comes in. We just don't work like that. Our strength as a species is in our diversity. I worry that if THE science of learning is being used (manipulated might be another word we could use here) to narrow the curriculum to a small vision of academic success then we will break the hearts and minds of so many young people and our world will be the poorer for it. I know that sounds emotive, and it is! I want better for my child. I want him to be able to explore a range of skills, to find his talents, to be challenged in his thinking, to be inspired and encouraged to deepen his understanding, to critically assess what he is being told and ask questions, to make a positive impact on the world in some way. Facts we can find on google... I want him to think and school can be a great place for him to learn to think in new and different ways.


These are simply my musings as I try to make sense of what I am hearing, to be fair it is what I am hearing from politicians mostly. Sir Ken Robinson called for change to education in the western world a number of years ago and his is only one of many voices who are crying for us to help shift the educational paradigm away from the neoliberal agenda that it has been subjected to for so long. We cannot afford to sit back and just accept what we are being told, we need to question. I may be wrong in a multitude of ways here, I am sure someone will point that out to me, however I am happy to have the conversation and for us to build an understanding together. The science of learning is something I have a lot of hope for but I fear it's potential may be hijacked by those with a particular ideology that is not aligned to the intent of this field of research. I hope to be proven wrong.





Megan Gallagher, is a mum, teacher, coach, speaker, PLD facilitator and consultant. She weaves her teaching experience, intense interest and curiosity about the brain, and coaching skills together in all that she does.

One of her greatest pleasures in life is seeing others shining and this is the basis of the work she does. She specialises in coaching for children, families and educators, and shares her expertise in wellbeing, curriculum design, and impactful teaching and learning as a speaker and facilitator.

For more information please check out meggallagher.nz. You can contact her at meg@meggallagher.nz

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Interesting! It is good to see the way you're exploring what is actually meant by the term "The science of learning" You rightly pick up on the use of the word "The". I would also suggest the word "science" needs to be explored. The word refers to a particular way of making sense of the world around us through disciplined observation that leads to explanations (theories) whose effectiveness and worth is judged by the quality of evidence that supports them and their ability to explain new situations. It is inherently tentative. This suggests being very cautious when the word is used to give something an implied status and credibility. If the term "the science of learning" is used as a…

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Thank you for this response Richard and I agree with you, science does need to be explored too. You make a very good point about the intent behind the use of the phrase 'the science of learning', and as a prompt for thinking and discussion it serves a purpose. I am really enjoying what this conversation is opening up.

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This is great Meg, thank you! You articulate the dangers of dogma..I worry about the seeming political lack of appreciation of the importance of wellbeing support for the too many traumatised children struggling to learn the academics when their basic needs are minimally addressed by the amazing teachers doing their best in the shifting priorities of curriculum.

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Thank you Elaine. I agree, it is all so much more complex than the simple silver bullet mentality that politicians seem to serve on a daily basis. I worry for our tamariki, especially our most vulnerable x I know teachers are doing so much to try and plug the gaps in the system but addressing that challenge is exhausting.

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Bloody brilliant Meg! Everyone needs to read this!


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Thank you for the support Karen x

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