By Susan Keaton
Understanding how people learn, and developing real-world learning tools—especially for children from high-poverty communities, who tend to underperform in school—is the goal of the new University of Chicago Science of Learning Center. The overarching goal of the center is to bring cutting-edge research findings to bear on learning problems.
The UChicago Science of Learning Center, which formally debuted Nov. 16, supports interdisciplinary team research on learning, drawing on expertise from across the University, said Susan C. Levine, the Rebecca Anne Boylan Professor of Education and Society, and the center’s faculty director. The center also strives to increase collaborations between researchers and practitioners and to support educational outreach efforts at the University, she said.
Interactions between researchers and educators are key as the center focuses on “useful and usable research” to understand and improve the learning throughout a learner’s lifetime, said Lisa Rosen, the UChicago Science of Learning Center’s executive director.
Researchers need to tap into the expertise of practitioners to make their work more applicable to real-world learning problems, she explained, just as practitioners who work to enhance students’ learning can benefit from evidence-based research findings on why certain techniques work or how they can be improved or expanded.
“People are really hungry to get out of their regular silos and be able to talk together,” Rosen said.
An appetite for collaboration was evident when 400 educators, researchers and community members attended the center’s inaugural lecture to hear University of Pennsylvania Prof. Angela Duckworth describe her groundbreaking research on “grit,” the tendency to pursue challenging goals over years with perseverance and passion.
Panelists Camille Farrington, senior research associate at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research; Elizabeth Kirby, Chicago Public Schools; and Charles Payne, the Frank P. Hixson Distinguished Service Professor at the School of Social Service Administration, responded to Duckworth’s presentation. The diversity of perspectives on the panel mirrored the center’s goals of connecting research with practice and fostering collaboration and exchange among diverse education-related entities.
Levine said, researchers need to understand pressing educational issues and the challenges of implementing well-researched learning tools in real-world educational settings.
“Classrooms are messier, noisier” than controlled studies carried out in the lab, she said. Teachers work with a wide range of students with different developmental needs, different learning styles and different levels of family support. Through the Science of Learning Center, learning tools could be tested through lab research, taken into classrooms for real-life field testing, then returned to the lab for refinement before becoming widely used in the classroom, or incorporated into curricula, she said.
The UChicago Science of Learning Center plans to increase educational outreach efforts and make them more effective, with the goal of creating a training ground for new education professionals, who would learn to meld practice and research.
The center focuses on understanding the cognitive dimensions of learning and how children develop attitudes toward learning, as both of these factors are strong predictors of positive learning outcomes. Ultimately, increasing understanding of the learning process and of learners themselves is the center’s focus, Levine said.
“Learners are active contributors to their own learning trajectories, and teachers and parents need to engage their interests and talents, as well as find ways to get them interested in important topics that may not be as appealing to them,” she said.
The University has a long history of applying groundbreaking research to teaching through the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools and the Urban Education Institute, which operates the four University of Chicago Charter School campuses. The UChicago Science of Learning Center will collaborative with both entities.
For example, the University’s Big Ideas Generator and the Urban Network have contributed seed funding to create the UChicago Science of Learning Network, which convenes monthly conversations among University researchers, school- and district-level leaders, and classroom teachers with different areas of expertise. The Urban Education Institute is co-sponsoring this effort. Encouraging collaborations among various research efforts under the center’s leadership will allow for more systematic inquiry and development of interventions, Rosen said.
The UChicago Science of Learning Center also partners with Head Start and other agencies that work to keep preschool children on track for optimal learning, particularly with literacy and math skills. Levine said research repeatedly shows that early interventions can help close achievement gaps. The center is engaged with the Getting on Track for School Success project, which is creating formative assessments in literacy and math. The assessments allow preschool teachers to understand children’s learning trajectories and link their knowledge to instructional strategy.
The center also will assess strategies that can help throughout the learner’s lifetime. Students who don’t get early interventions need help keeping up with their peers, as do any pupils who lose ground along the way for whatever reason. Programs already under way through the center, such as the Successful Pathways from School to Work initiative, are producing knowledge that can help improve students’ transition to college or the working world.
Families and caregivers need tools to help their children, and making those tools accessible, especially to people in underserved communities, is a challenge the center will tackle.
“It’s a hard problem, but we can’t just say it’s impossible,” Levine said. “We have to look at finding ways.”
Levine and Rosen said they are open to new ideas, methods and techniques for the center’s work. For example, Levine recently met with developers at the Chicago Toy & Game Fair, who are experts in making products that appeal to youngsters. Levine hopes collaborations between the center and toy developers will ensue, resulting in products that both engage learners and support important aspects of learning.
“We want to hear what others want to do and explore, and to provide a venue where researchers and practitioners can share their expertise,” Levine said.