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Aurora Institute

The Learning Sciences: Two Perspectives

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Amelia Peterson

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

Amelia Peterson

In recent years, there has been a lot more talk in Education about the science of learning. With developments in psychology and neuroscience, the thinking goes, we should be able to build a core body of knowledge on learning to inform how we teach and organise education. Efforts to synthesize this knowledge include the OECD report The Nature of Learning and the National Research Council’s How People Learn.

When it comes to moving from knowledge to action, however, the learning sciences seem to break up into two different perspectives. One is represented by the Innovative Learning Environments work that developed out of The Nature of Learning, and its seven principles emphasizing the personal and social aspects of learning. From this perspective, the most important tenet is that a learner has to actively engage in constructing their new knowledge and skills. It aligns with constructivist or Vygotskian traditions, but also builds on the work of Kurt Fischer and pioneers of his Mind, Brain and Education (MBE) subfield, including Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Vanessa Rodriguez and Christina Hinton. Drawing equally on neuroscience and behavioural studies which hone in on the individual dynamics of learning and teaching, this perspective brought the role of emotions, embodied cognition and social context to the forefront.

The second perspective grows from a different strand of cognitive science, and is perhaps best represented in the writing of psychologist Daniel Willingham or former school principal David Didau. This take views learning in terms of cognitive processing, and emphasizes the role of working memory. A central tenet is John Sweller’s theory of “cognitive load”, based on sets of findings about how novices in a subject benefit from stripped back, explicit instruction, so as not to overburden their working memory. On the back of this, they stress the importance of prior knowledge and tend to be opposed to activities deemed too demanding, such as discovery based learning. A good account of this perspective is found in this summary from Deans for Impact and for a deeper dive into these two takes, this paper by an eminent New Zealand education researcher Rose Hipkins, is a reflection written in response to a report from Deans for Impact CEO Ben Riley.

The two bodies of research literature are really pretty compatible, but they tend to get picked up by different groups. So while “constructivists” foreground the evidence for real-world projects to create rich emotional and social learning experiences, “cognitivists” worry about learners getting lost in the task and point to evidence for core knowledge curricula and explicit instruction. Opportunities for integration often deteriorate in the face disagreements around progressive and traditionalist goals.

At their best, however, the learning sciences are a broad church which encompass both views. In a recent post on this blog, Chris Sturgis summarizes ten principles from The Nature of Learning which really draw from both constructivist and cognitivist perspectives. Daniel Willingham has written a great blog post about how different theories of learning often come down to how “learning” itself is defined. As this article neatly summarizes, the study of learning has evolved through different traditions, and we should expect some layering rather than one completely replacing another.

Moreover, in terms of their practical implications, the two views agree on a great many things when it comes to changing what we do based on what we know about how people learn. Both point to the need for more understanding of learners, in terms of their personal and social identity or their prior knowledge. Both present task design as a central activity of teaching, viewing a task from the student perspective to think through what they will need to work on it effectively. And both imply that learning is complex and largely unobservable, such that educators have to proceed with care and regularly check for understanding.

But it also useful to maintain the two as distinct viewpoints, one focusing on cognitive processing demands and the other on more whole-person concerns. By being aware of these two perspectives, we are better equipped to spot the opportunities and pitfalls of new structures, environments or tasks. Moreover, the discrepancies between the perspectives are a reminder that the learning sciences are themselves a nascent body of knowledge which still includes some disagreements and many blank spaces. In creating competency-based education, what we know about how people learn is a basis to start from, but design is always a move into the unknown; there is much new knowledge to be gained along the way.

Further reading

Didau and N. Rose (2016) What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology and a review highlighting its approach to learning theories.

Ertmer and Newby (1993) “Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing Critical Features From an Instructional Design Perspective”. Performance Improvement Quarterly.

Fischer and D. Rose (1998) “Growth Cycles of Brain and MindEducational Leadership.

Hinton, Fischer and Glennon (2016) Mind, Brain and Education. The Students at the Center Series.

Daniel Willingham (2009) “Why Don’t Kids Like School?American Educator. Spring.


Amelia Peterson is an Education PhD student at Harvard University, where she is also an Inequality and Social Policy fellow. She worked previously for Innovation Unit and has written for a wide range of education organisations, including the OECD Centre on Educational Research and Innovation, the World Innovation Summit on Education, and LEAP Innovations. She is co-author of the books Redesigning Education: shaping learning systems around the globe and Thrive: Schools Reinvented for the Real Challenges We Face.