The Role of the Applied Learning Scientist
Connecting dots, forging links, and building bridges
By Annie Snyder and Claire Cook, Applied Learning Scientists, McGraw-Hill Education
So, what do you do for work?
As applied learning scientists, we love answering this question: what we do is explore inside an incredible space, one that touches nearly every corner of education. Our job allows us to collaborate with educators and researchers across the globe, peering into the possibilities of today’s and tomorrow’s classrooms. To better explain the nature of our job, however, we’ll first need to look backwards to the educational landscape of yesterday.
Not so very long ago, the field of education was dominated by a system in which organizations and stakeholders tended to function as separate entities, often termed education siloes. In this system, every silo was not only distinct from every other silo, but also expected to operate independently. Teachers, administrators, policy-makers, teacher-educators, researchers, publishers, and elected officials all worked hard toward the singular goal of achieving excellence in teaching and learning — but these groups did not always work together. With such a system, it was inevitable that gaps would grow between the siloes.
Sometimes, these gaps had a significant impact on what happened, or didn’t happen, in schools. One such gap involved the pervasive divide between education researchers and classroom practitioners. In the past, a university researcher might have conducted research revealing that students learned math more effectively with a specific new approach. However, it would often take years for that research to be translated into a new math approach applied by actual teachers…and sometimes, that research was never read and applied at all.
It was hard to escape the siloes. With only limited access to research, teachers often had to rely on instinct and experience. They were able to practice the important art of teaching, but they (and their students) could not easily harness and use the insights offered by the learning sciences. Similarly, researchers studied the science of learning, but they weren’t always able to account for the messy realities of the classroom or easily communicate their work to practitioners. There were very few people available to connect the dots.
With only limited access to research, teachers often had to rely on instinct and experience. They were able to practice the important art of teaching, but they (and their students) could not easily harness and use the insights offered by the learning sciences.
Once information technology entered the picture, this gap grew even larger, and connecting those dots suddenly became even more important. Stakeholders in every silo understood that they were on the brink of a paradigm shift in education. The market began flooding with everything from computers to mobile devices to virtual reality, social media, learning management systems, apps, digital games, and more. As schools scrambled to accommodate and integrate this influx, understanding the link between the science of how we learn and the art of how we teach became a critical question.
An important guiding light out of the old silo model was a 1999 publication by the National Research Council, titled How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice. Concerned about the disconnect between learning sciences and the classroom, the council discussed a then-revolutionary idea: what if teachers, scientists, technology developers, and curriculum designers engaged in research together? In their concluding remarks, they noted:
“The research efforts proposed herein represent a serious effort to combine the strengths of the research community with the insights gained from the wisdom and challenges of classroom practice. Our suggestions for research do not assume that basic research should first be conducted in isolation and then handed down to practitioners. Instead, we propose that researchers and practitioners work together” (p. 283).
Moreover, the Council argued, it was not enough to just do the research and find ways to apply it. It would be necessary to find ways to communicate what was discovered, in ways that worked for everybody. The entire education community needed to come together and connect the dots.
Concerned about the disconnect between learning sciences and the classroom, the council discussed a then-revolutionary idea: what if teachers, scientists, technology developers, and curriculum designers engaged in research together?
This is what we do every day. We exist to answer this call. As applied learning scientists, our function is to investigate education across many perspectives and dimensions. We all were once teachers and have experienced firsthand the challenges and wonders of the classroom. We have all been education researchers, too, trained to examine the complexities of teaching and learning from a scientific standpoint. We thus begin each day primed to forge links between research and practice.
Our work takes us in several directions. Some days we can be found knee-deep in articles from academic research journals, gathering information on a specific educational research question and synthesizing findings into recommendations (or more questions!). Other days we are busy communicating and collaborating with teams within and outside the organization, not only to explore how research might apply to how we build learning solutions, but also to uncover new ideas. Sometimes you will find us engaging with stakeholders from every one of the old siloes: students, teachers, administrators, staff, researchers, and others.
And every single day, we dedicate ourselves to connecting research and practice. Why?
The answer is: at the end of the day, it’s really all about you, the student, the researcher, the educator, the curious reader. How you learn, and how we all learn together, matters — and it really does change everything.
For more on the field of learning science, see:
Donovan, M.S., Bransford, J.D., & Pellegrino, J.S. (1999). How people learn: Bridging research and practice. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.