Cover Story

When psychologist Grover "Russ" Whitehurst, PhD, was a graduate student, he studied learning and thought of it as a science. Then the cognitive revolution hit, and the topics he was interested in--specifically learning related to education--turned into "soft" science.

Now, as Whitehurst tackles the job of retooling science reform as assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Education Research and Improvement (OERI), the term "science of learning"--or "the learning sciences," as some prefer--is back in vogue. The field is integrating what psychologists learned in the cognitive revolution with many other areas of psychology, education science, computer science, linguistics and other disciplines related to learning. It started in the early 1990s with the creation of the Journal of Learning Science and really took hold with the 1999 publication of a National Research Council report How People Learn (www.nap.edu/catalog/6160.html).

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is now poised to launch a new program to support a cadre of science of learning centers--several a year at up to $5 million each a year until there is a substantial cohort of centers around the country. With the centers, NSF hopes to focus efforts of the varied and often disconnected disciplines--from developmental, social and cognitive psychology to linguistics and educational research to computer science and work in the various core disciplines, such as biology, chemistry and mathematics--concerned with understanding how people learn and the best ways to teach them.

The ultimate goal is to focus multidisciplinary research on learning in an effort to strengthen the foundation of "evidence-based" teaching now being pushed by the federal government (see Wanted). Indeed, these proposed science of learning centers would provide two key ingredients for education reform: more interdisciplinary research on how people learn and more attention to how learning research can better inform efforts to implement science-based changes in real world settings.

The program push is part of President George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education plan and has substantial support from Congress. Final word on funding is expected in the next month or so.

The time is right for such a program, says University of California, Los Angeles learning and memory researcher Robert Bjork, PhD. Not only is the federal government pushing evidence-based education, but educational researchers now have enough new basic research--from social psychologists examining how the environment influences school performance, to memory researchers learning the best techniques for retaining long-term memories, to sociologists interested in how culture affects learning--to dramatically improve teaching techniques and learning environments.

The system isn't broken

For years, top researchers such as Carol Dweck, PhD, Nora Newcombe, PhD, Jim Greeno, PhD, and Joe Campione, PhD, have been attempting to move ideas born in the laboratory into classrooms (see Educational research for examples). But their work has been slowed by the small size of traditional research grants, the complexity of the work and, in many cases, the challenges of convincing schools to allow themselves to be used as laboratories.

"Schools have become gun-shy of researchers coming in and saying they're going to 'fix' education," says University of California, Berkeley, learning researcher Marcia Linn, PhD. "There have been a lot of fads that have come and gone and a lot of programs that failed to respond to the complexity of schools."

And plenty of promising and exciting research has never made its way into the classroom, say those who know the field.

At the heart of the problem has been a woeful lack of funding, says Whitehurst.

"It's not that the system is broken--it's broke," he says. "If you just look at the investment in research and development as a proportion of the total U.S. education budget, it's a fraction of a percent. If you look at the same investment in most knowledge development industries, it's 20 to 30 percent of their budget."

Now, there's some indication that the cycle of poor funding is ending. Bush proposed a 44 percent increase for OERI's 2003 budget--the biggest single increase proposed for any agency this year.

Whitehurst has already found funding for several new learning science initiatives. For one, OERI is funding Cognition and Student Learning Research Grants that will encourage basic researchers in the area of attention, memory and reasoning--skills essential for learning--to apply their work to education. In addition, the office will support grants looking at reading comprehension, including work on how students develop the ability to understand what they read, how educators can teach reading comprehension optimally and how tests can assess reading comprehension accurately.

NSF's proposed science of learning center grant program is another move in the right direction, says Whitehurst. If funded, the grants would "allow us to undertake projects that we never would have contemplated," says Temple University cognitive psychologist Nora Newcombe, PhD, who testified in May before Congress as part of APA's program to support the NSF centers. "Projects could get funded that were either too expensive or wouldn't give a big enough payoff in a limited time. It will allow for qualitatively different research."

In particular, NSF's program should allow researchers to conduct the larger, more complex studies needed to understand how people learn, both in the laboratory and in classrooms.

The program will emphasize the need for each center to have a core of basic research, inspired by and oriented toward practical issues, says NSF's Steven Breckler, PhD, who will co-administer the program. "Ultimately these are very practical problems," he says. "And we'd like research groups to use those [problems] as inspiration for basic research."

A main requirement for the centers will be that they bring together researchers from several different disciplines to work on a single set of issues--for example, spatial learning. They'll then tackle the issue from multiple perspectives, including a core of basic research that attempts to understand how people learn about spatial concepts as well as fostering a connection to curriculum development and testing and, eventually, large-scale translation programs that attempt to move curricula into schools.

The hope is that the centers will provide the "evidence" that is so crucially needed for "evidence-based" education reform, says Breckler, NSF's program officer for social psychology.

Applied vs. basic?

In fact, many learning science researchers bristle at the distinction commonly made between basic and applied research.

"I think we've created an artificial barrier when talking about basic and applied," says Linn. "In some sense it's all basic. Those of us in classrooms are developing a basic understanding of classrooms. Methods are often not too different, though the work is certainly more complicated. The distinction causes an unnecessary rift."

The model many learning researchers are aiming for, says Stanford University's Greeno, is "problem-solving research and development": organizing projects that are focused on new fundamental understanding of learning--the basic research prong--while at the same time improving education resources at the district, school or classroom level--the applied prong.

He and the late Ann Brown, PhD, at the University of California, Berkeley, pushed this idea in a 1999 report by a committee they co-chaired for the U.S. Department of Education. "This [type of problem-solving research] is not something that should replace activities of fundamental research or activities of just plain problem-solving in practical settings," adds Greeno. "But because of the way we are organized in departments and the way funding is organized, the default has been doing one or the other rather than both."

Of course, there's still plenty of room in the learning sciences for very basic research--even without an applied incentive, says Breckler. In fact, NSF will continue full support for the myriad science of learning research it was funding before the center grant idea existed.

"The idea is not to undermine or reduce support in other places," says Breckler, "but to provide a level of funding that is much more ambitious--at the level of a center--to create the data, the evidence and the understanding we need to ultimately improve the quality of education and instruction."

Having the opportunity to apply for the kind of big money available from a center grant is big news for psychologists and other learning researchers, who traditionally have not had the opportunity to compete for such large-scale projects, particularly from NSF.

"Psychology has generally been funded in a mode of nickel and dimes at a time," says Kenneth Whang, PhD, who is co-administrator of the center grant program. "That has an effect on how big of a question people try to address and the whole dynamic of the field."

This program, he says, is an opportunity for psychologists to start thinking about larger-scale research in a program that's ready to embrace the contributions of psychology.

Beth Azar is a writer in Portland, Ore.