In recent years, there has been an inclination to acquaint educators around the world with the science of learning. While it is not a new concept, the science of learning in education particularly seeks to improve students’ learning by integrating knowledge from different fields of research which include neuroscience and social sciences. To support this endeavour, the National Institute of Education, Singapore launched the Science of Learning in Education Centre on 24 March 2021. SingTeach speaks to the new centre director Professor David Hung and Assistant Dean (Science of Learning) Dr Azilawati Jamaludin, who is also the guest editor of this SingTeach issue, about the research centre and how our Singapore education can benefit from it.
For decades, educators all over the world have explored different kinds of learning strategies, tools and techniques for their students. While some of these efforts might have been successful, how many of them are actually backed by science and research?
As such, it is crucial that educators are aware that applying the findings from research in the area of cognitive science – or the science of how we learn – to curriculum and materials development can significantly help enhance the likelihood of achieving desired outcomes.
The Concept of Science of Learning
“A science of learning in education orientation is important because it foregrounds a holistic conceptualization of learning, recognizing the multiple levels of investigation and descriptions that are necessary to better understand and explain how learning occurs.”
– Azilawati, on the important role the science of learning plays in the education field
To understand the concept of science of learning, one has to first recognize that learning is shaped by various levels of interactions that occur outside and within the individual. These interactions include that of environmental and socio-cultural factors, as well as biological and physiological factors.
“The science of learning then integrates these knowledge from different fields to advance our understanding of the processes, mechanisms, factors, and designs that contribute to learning,” Professor David Hung, who is also Dean of the Office of Education Research (OER) at NIE, explains. “It seeks to improve students’ learning and in particular, students that are of lower-progress.”
“A science of learning in education orientation is important because it foregrounds a holistic conceptualization of learning, recognizing the multiple levels of investigation and descriptions that are necessary to better understand and explain how learning occurs,” Assistant Professor Azilawati, who also leads several brain-based research projects at NIE, adds.
In a nutshell, the science of learning is a holistic theoretical framework that reconciles insights from different learning sciences fields in order to maximize one’s understanding of the complex associations and relations involving multiple systems that shape our learning. “With this integration, it provides us with the opportunities to shape more effective educational practices that optimize human growth and development,” Azilawati shares.
Singapore’s First Science of Learning in Education Centre
Many of us are no strangers to Singapore’s international reputation in the area of education. In October 2020, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) announced that Singapore’s students claimed the top spot in the Global Competence test that was conducted as part of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2018.
“Singapore’s education system has consistently fared well in international rankings and NIE has been at the forefront in leading educational research, and addressing educational challenges and problems,” Prof Hung shares.
As a large majority of the existing research at NIE utilizes cognitive-behavioural or socio-cultural research methods, Prof Hung believes that tools from other disciplines, such as neuroscience and artificial intelligence, can further help with pushing the boundaries of our understanding of learning and its related processes.
“It becomes vital that we tap into such resources,” he adds. “As such, the Science of Learning in Education Centre was established with the aim of bringing together education researchers and those from fields related to cognitive, neuroscience and artificial intelligence to combine their expertise and expand our capabilities in education research as a whole.”
Being the nation’s first and only science of learning centre that focuses specially in education, what kind of efficacies for Singapore education would the centre afford us with?
“The Science of Learning in Education Centre was established with the aim of bringing together education researchers and those from fields related to cognitive, neuroscience and artificial intelligence to combine their expertise and expand our capabilities in education research as a whole.”
– Prof Hung, on the purpose of setting up the Science of Learning in Education Centre
Benefits of Science of Learning for Singapore Classrooms
“The Science of Learning in Education Centre will allow us the opportunities to optimize educational practices, and teaching and learning strategies for successful human learning, which essentially is the crux of our human capital,” Azilawati explains. “In particular, there are at least three key leverages that the centre can afford us with: integration, optimization and generalization.”
The integration of advanced neural-equipment such as portable brain imaging with targeted cognitive experiments available at the centre will give education researchers like Azilawati herself the ability and confidence to answer intractable learning problems such as persistent disparities in learning outcomes.
She explains further: “For example, in implementing an evidence-based pedagogy for Mathematics, why do children still show marked individual differences in outcomes? What factors contribute to these differences between learners who are typically developing and those who are struggling? If even after behavioural interventions, we still find students falling behind in math, can the differences in outcomes be attributed to biological differences that are not easily observed?” Integrating different levels of analyses can enable researchers to answer perennial questions in education that would otherwise be impossible.
Azilawati also believes that it is worthwhile to explore and determine how successful, or unsuccessful, pedagogies are when mediated by other factors of instructional effectiveness such as motivation, emotions or metacognitive processes. Through specific research that can inform how learning vary as a function of individual learner characteristics, we can imagine an enriched education landscape that optimizes both teaching and learning strategies.
“The third leverage that the centre can afford us with is generalization,” Azilawati shares. “If we are able to identify the factors or patterns that influences learning through basic science research and find out whether these patterns can transfer to other domains, we can certainly advance our understanding of and efforts for maximized learning,” Azilawati explains. This will also greatly help researchers and educators in designing more appropriate and accurate intervention programmes for struggling learners.
The Future of Education with Science of Learning
To this end, there is no doubt that learning is a complex and active process that occurs throughout the lifespan and involves multiple factors. Some NIE research that looks at the science behind how one learns also tells us that learning can be shaped and reinforced through variable aspects.
“We hope that with this centre, we will eventually create a body of knowledge in learning that can, one day, find a translation pathway from research contexts all the way to translational practices where teachers can take that research evidence and situate it into sound pedagogical designs,” says Prof Hung.
With the establishment of this new centre that brings together education researchers from various fields related to cognitive and neuroscience, to name a few, Azilawati also hopes that she would be able to remediate persistent, prolonged struggles that some lower-progress learners face. “We hope that we can remediate and help this group of learners progress in terms of their academic achievements and also their well-being in life,” she concludes.