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What is Learning Science?


The term “Learning Science” is a strange one and ironically could be seen as ambiguous in English. It’s ironic as you would think after 250,000 years of human civilisation that we would understand by now how we learn. Learning after all is existential to the way we are. Learning is being.

Yet, depending on the context, “Learning Science” could be interpreted as “I’m learning about science”. The term could also be seen as relating only to learning that involves science. Neither of these meanings are correct in the sense intended in this article.  

Happily, the Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (2014), edited by Professor Keith Sawyer, cleared things up quite a bit. The collection of essays from a diverse spectrum of specialisms and research fields brings together a such needed transdisciplinary perspective to the vital human process of learning. 

Learning Science seeks to understand the common human processes that govern the way we learn, whether situated in the fields of humanities, culture, the arts, social sciences or indeed the natural sciences. It also looks at how we learn as members of formal institutions compared to how we learn “in the wild” in unstructured and complex environments. Indeed learning science seeks to compare and contrast the similarities and differences in the way we learn. There’s an increasing attention on the shift in the focus of human learning, from laboratories, lectures rooms to learning in unstructured environments of coffee shops, enterprise hubs and even bedrooms.

As the recent Billie Eilish movie, “The World’s A Little Blurry," made clear, it is now possible to record a best selling album in a bedroom. As learning scientists, we’re interested in how that happens. What enables humans to be able to do that?  


The complex global problems that we are confronted simply can’t be solved by remaining within our institutional silos. So Learning Science is a field of knowledge that integrates the philosophical fields of ontology, epistemology, axiology and praxology, with contemporary cognitive and psychological science. This is easier said than done, and the task of understanding these integrative fields will last longer than a lifetime. 

As Prof.Sawyer writes:

“The goal of the learning sciences is to better understand the cognitive and social processes that result in the most effective learning and to use this knowledge to redesign classrooms and other learning environments so that people learn more deeply and more effectively”.

Learning has been a field dominated by ideology and often quite traditional notions, originating, whether Aristotle and Plato in the western classical approach, Lao Tse or Confucius in the Chinese culture or the Vedas in Hindu tradition. Our notions of learning have been steeped in these traditions. Very often, they have been translated into traditions of institutional learning, whether it be via schools, Universities, professional institutes, and more recently executive training and online learning. 

It’s strange to note how modern digital technology has done little more than provide a new mode of delivery for very traditional modes of learning. Online learning via MOOCs for example, still rely on a traditional instructor-led education. While widening access and providing common platform, MOOCs have also experienced common problems with conventional instructional learning, including student disengagement and fallout, abstraction and detachment from the real world and adaptation to specific cultural contexts. 

As Sawyer writes:

“Instructionism prepared students for the industrialized economy of the early 20th century”. But is now, “increasingly failing to educate our students to participate in this new kind of society. Instructionism is particularly ill suited to the education of creative professionals who can develop new knowledge and continually further their own understanding; instructionism is an anachronism in the modern innovation economy”.

And further, “knowledge is not just a static mental structure inside the learners head; instead, knowing is a process that involves the person, the tools and other people in the environment, and the activities in which that knowledge is being applied”.

Learning science therefore involves a deep critique of traditional notions of learning and presents a challenge to received wisdom. It is literally subjecting all forms of learning, from the lab to the boardroom to the studio,  to the rigours of scientific enquiry and evidence-based methods. 

For example, entrepreneurship education frequently fails to address broader systemic issues, such as economic privilege, gender, transformational change, etc It tends to focus on lower level instrumental learning. Even at the individual level, too little attention is give to deeper cognitive structures and ethical beliefs in the entrepreneur or founder team. For example, team dynamics are rarely considered in depth, with the focus on the founder, or founding pair. The introduction of an angel investor, for instance,  can create exponential complexity in an early phase venture.

One of the most fertile areas opened up by learning science is the links between learning, sociology and cognitive science. This is leading to new insights into how humans expand their learning in specific contexts. Expansive learning, a field originated by Finnish educationalist Prof Yrjö Engeström at CRADLE, in the University of Helsinki, looks at how people learn at the level of the whole activity system. 

As Engeström writes,“An analysis of learning by an activity system involves identifying a change in the practices of the system and giving an account of how that change was accomplished”. 

Expansive learning (EL) therefore enables us to examine the dissonance and contradictions within a field of activity and examine the impacts at the individual level, in such areas as agency, alignment, empowerment, etc., and how irrational and archaic forms such as discrimination, exclusion and inequality and its impacts. 

The learning sciences therefore provide a rich set of methods and tools for addressing complex learning in the contemporary environment, and not just the classroom of the 20th century. This might involve, but is not limited to the following:

       Critical thinking


       Action Research

       Psycho-dynamic coaching

       Data science

       Digital platforming 

       Game design

       Change management




The key element in learning science is how these methods and tools are brought together to solve specific problems. Learning science is therefore focused on the pragmatic real-world applications. It's axiomatic that new knowledge is no longer confined to academic journals, but is being co-created in live environments, every second, everywhere.  

Learning science, therefore provides the tools to shape the future in the time and place that it is being created. 

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