What Are the Learning Sciences? And Why Do They Matter?

Adaptive learning. Deliberate practice. Growth mindset. These buzzwords have been swirling around in the education sphere as of late, and for good reason. 

Researchers across many fields have been highlighting the promise of new ways to think about and leverage educational strategies backed by empirical research. But how can we help educators put these ideas into practice, and how do we know if they’re working? Are these trends worth the investment?

The solution lies in a team dedicated to the learning sciences, which we at HMH recently introduced. The team places the measurement and assessment of learning front and center when creating blended digital- and print-based solutions for educators and students. While research and efficacy have long been a focus in the creation of assessment and intervention solutions, we’ve recognized that we need to expand the influence of research by thoroughly embedding learning sciences into the core curriculum development lifecycle as well.

The Learning Sciences: A Brief Overview

So, what do we mean when we say learning sciences? It’s an interdisciplinary field focusing on understanding the educational contexts and strategies that promote learning, and relying on insights from fields such as cognitive science, psychology, neuroscience, data analytics, linguistics, computer science, statistics, psychometrics, and machine learning. 

Our goal as the new Learning Sciences team is to collaborate cross-departmentally with teams focused on content, assessments, research, professional services, marketing, sales, and engineering to apply both research-based theories of learning and discoveries made from our own data analytics in a practical way. Mostly, we’ll focus on the tried and true “what works” principles, but we’re also always on the lookout for promising new ideas from which to learn.

A wealth of research has shown that a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching inevitably leaves many students either struggling in the dust or unable to meet their advanced potential, so teachers have to be selective about what they implement in the classroom, basing these decisions on the needs of their students. Data-driven differentiated instruction is a scientific approach to teaching that uses formative assessments to determine what students already know, where their knowledge gaps lie, and where to go next.

Why Do the Learning Sciences Matter?

Data-driven decision-making isn’t just an effective method for teachers to plan and implement learner-centric instruction that addresses the full range of student needs in today’s heterogeneous classroom; it’s also how the Learning Sciences team thinks about developing the tools we create to support educators and students. Just like good teachers target instruction by first assessing the landscape of diverse learner needs in their classroom and then finding resources to address those needs, we as learning scientists also begin by assessing the diverse needs of educators and students and digging into academic research to identify solutions that support these needs.

We build an evidence-based theory to guide decision-making and prioritization of solution components and features that are expected to most effectively support student learning. The goal is that classroom time can be spent on meaningful activities that contribute to students’ learning and growing.

The introduction of the new digital Into Learning products likewise represents an unprecedented opportunity for us to learn and improve as we go. Core curriculums in the form of traditional textbooks limits our ability to understand the impact of specific program components given that the flow of information is only unidirectional, and efficacy studies tend to look at the overall impact of the program after a semester or a school year. 

For our new Into programs, we will collect a vast amount of user data that will allow us to build learner profiles and understand on a large scale how different types of learners interact throughout the school year with specific program components—like interactive lessons or assessment items—and evaluate how effective those components are in moving students toward their goals.

As the new Learning Sciences team, we look forward to supporting the vision of HMH as The Learning Company and working with educators!

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Learn more about HMH's K-12 Into Learning programs, from which the Learning Sciences team will gather data that provides insight into how students interact with the curriculum.