Canada Needs More Science of Learning Centres

October 11, 2019 Updated: October 14, 2019

Earlier this year, three education professors delivered an unusual presentation at the Canadian Society for the Study of Education in which they argued that the “hidden curriculum” of dodgeball was oppressive.

Their paper received widespread media attention and nearly universal derision. Most people found it bizarre that education professors would waste their time trying to prove that a popular game was oppressive, particularly since this type of research has nothing to do with improving student learning. But the paper served at least one useful purpose. It provided the public with a window into the dubious quality of research that is often produced by professors in faculties of education.

In his 2009 book “Visible Learning,” Dr. John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute in Australia and one of the best education researchers in the world, described education as an immature profession that often relies on ideology rather than evidence. According to Hattie, too many education professors promote teaching methods and strategies that have little empirical evidence supporting them. “There is a preference for the teaching method that fits the latest ideology, and rarely are these methods assessed by evidence,” he explains.

As a result, schools often jump from one popular fad to the next in a never-ending attempt to find a magic bullet that will finally “fix” public education. Discovery math, individual learning styles, open-area classrooms, and whole language are but a few examples. These and other fads have incredible staying power and often get renamed when school administrators impose them on unsuspecting teachers and students.

One of the major problems with education faculties is they typically operate in isolation from other university departments. As a result, math professors shake their heads at the discovery math approach promoted by math education professors while psychology professors have to spend much of their time debunking education fads such as individual learning styles.

To make matters worse, education consultants and professional development facilitators promote so-called “brain-based” teaching methods that have little basis in either cognitive science or common sense. Clearly, there is a need for greater cooperation and collaboration between education faculties and faculty members from other university departments so that teacher educators are much more carefully integrated with the strongest disciplines in the university.

Fortunately, change could be on the horizon.

On Oct. 4, the new Centre for the Science of Learning officially opened at Western University in London, Ontario. The centre is interdisciplinary and includes researchers from disciplines such as cognitive science, psychology, and neuroscience. Under the leadership of Dr. Daniel Ansari, a professor in developmental cognitive neuroscience at Western, the centre plans to conduct research and promote best practices in early years numeracy and literacy.

Ansari is the right choice to lead the centre. Not only does he have substantial professional expertise in cognitive neuroscience, he actively works to promote best practices in the public school classroom setting where real changes are needed. He regularly collaborates with public and private schools and helps to translate research findings into practical supports for teachers. Last year, Ansari presented a summary of his research on teaching basic math skills at the researchED professional development conference in Toronto. The teachers who attended his session expressed a strong desire to learn more about what he had to say.

Dr. Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychology professor from the University of Virginia, delivered the keynote address at the Science of Learning Centre’s official opening earlier this month. Willingham is a well-known researcher who regularly translates research into strategies that teachers can use in their classrooms.

During his talk, Willingham explained that education faculties do not have the same authority as medical schools or even trade schools. That is because the study of education lacks a defined body of knowledge and doesn’t have universally accepted standards of practice. In addition, because education professors often can’t even agree on what the goal of education should be, it is very difficult to identify a set of best practices that all teachers should understand and follow.

This is why the Science of Learning Centre is so important for Canadian teachers. Bringing researchers from different disciplines together under one roof, focusing on teaching and learning, and upholding a consistent set of rigorous research standards will increase the quality of teaching and research relevant to public school teachers. It also helps that the centre has a strong emphasis on ensuring that classroom teachers can make sense of the research and they can actually use it in their classrooms.

While a number of similar interdisciplinary education research centres exist in other countries, the Science of Learning Centre is the first of its kind in Canada. Hopefully, other education faculties will emulate the example set by Ansari and his team of researchers who are committed to improving teaching and learning in schools. For far too long, education faculties have operated as an island unto themselves, rarely learning from or cooperating with researchers from other disciplines. As a result, research becomes ever more divorced from reality—hence the presentation on the allegedly oppressive nature of dodgeball.

Researching better ways of helping students learn how to read and write and how to solve problems in mathematics is a good use of time and money. Western University’s Science of Learning Centre is a model that other Canadian universities should emulate. Teachers across the country deserve the best education tools possible.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of the newly released book, A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.