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Lionel Messi and The Science of Learning

Benjamin Riley

Category: Cognitive Science

Today, Deans for Impact publicly launches its first major programmatic initiative with the release of The Science of Learning. This short document is composed of six questions related to how students learn, with principles from cognitive science that help answer them, and lists some practical implications for teaching that follow from these scientific principles.

Just as some organizations issue policy papers to influence the creation of public policy, Deans for Impact is releasing The Science of Learning as a “program paper” intended to inform the programmatic design of educator preparation so that new teachers will understand these scientific principles and employ them in practice.

But this begs an obvious question: Why? Why should future teachers understand cognitive science, the science of understanding how we acquire knowledge and use it to make sense of the world?

My answer – and I should emphasize this is my answer, rather than an official position of our organization — is premised on three separate arguments based on (1) existing evidence; (2) a testable hypothesis; and (3) a deeply held belief.

Let’s start with the existing evidence for the science of learning.  The so-called “cognitive revolution” in psychology has yielded tremendous new insights into our understanding of how we learn. Given that “empirical testing” is one of our guiding principles at Deans for Impact, members have coalesced behind  The Science of Learning because each of the principles we’ve articulated is supported by high-quality empirical research. The same is true for the practical implications that follow from these principles (though, of course, the empirical work here is a bit more challenging).

That we stand on the shoulders of giants is demonstrated by the broad (and still growing) list of stakeholders that have formally endorsed the science of learning. these include — to name only a few — noted researchers such as Carol DweckAngela DuckworthJohn DunloskyJohn Hattie, and Dylan Wiliam; teachers such as Roxanna EldenDan Meyer, and Cristie Watson; organizations trying to advance the quality of teaching such as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards; and organizations from across the education spectrum, including Center for American Progress and the Fordham Institute, and AACTE and NCTQ. (Cue my favorite Ghostbusters quote: “We have cats and dogs, living together, mass insanity!”)

These individuals and organizations have joined together because the science supporting these cognitive principles is strong. There is an existing knowledge base about how we acquire knowledge, and The Science of Learning is intended to be a field guide to exploring this knowledge base.

There is, however, a challenge that may be raised in response to the above argument. While it may be true that we have a better scientific understanding of learning than ever before, do teachers need to understand this science in order to be effective?

I sometimes think of this as the “Lionel Messi counterargument.” Bear with me.

Lionel Messi is generally considered to be the best professional soccer player in the world, capable of delivering deft passes and jaw-dropping strikes on goal at the highest level of international competition. But does he understand the physics of how soccer balls travel? Perhaps, but color me skeptical. My guess is he’s developed his skills in blissful ignorance of the underlying physical laws that control the movement of the ball.

Perhaps the same holds true for educators – perhaps teachers need not understand the science of learning to be effective. Perhaps teachers, like Lionel Messi, can acquire all the skills they need through deliberate practice without understanding the underlying theory of learning implicit in their actions.

Here’s the good news: There’s a way to resolve this question through research. Which is why my second argument for The Science of Learning is premised on a testable hypothesis: If we prepare teachers such that they learn fundamental principles of cognitive science, and they learn how to apply these principles in practice, this will generate positive outcomes.

These outcomes may include improved student learning (because teachers will harmonize their instructional approaches with their understanding of how students learn). Or perhaps understanding the science will improve teacher retention (because new teachers will feel more professionally secure in the decisions they make when they are thrust into their careers). And maybe understanding the science will make the profession of teaching itself more attractive (by elevating the rigor of the subject matter that educators are expected to master).

All of these are testable claims. We intend to test them. The release of The Science of Learning is only the first phase of an effort that will require additional research into how to “translate” this science into practice. And we acknowledge that all of these hypotheses may be falsified.

Yet even if that comes to pass, I would still feel strongly about the value of promoting The Science of Learning so that education professionals have a better understanding of cognitive science. This brings me to my final argument, which is based on one of my deeply held beliefs:

We should value scientific knowledge simply because it makes our world more interesting to think about.

We live in a highly consequentialist era, a time when many demand proof of X input leading to Y result. Those sort of outcomes are important, of course, but learning about cognitive science is something we can value regardless of proof of any particular efficacy. As we’ve shared early drafts of The Science of Learning with reviewers and educators, I’ve seen dozens of interesting conversations develop about the nature of teaching and learning. Stimulating these sorts of conversations is a good unto itself.

So I hope you find The Science of Learning as interesting and thought provoking as I do. If you have questions or comments about the principles and their practical implications, or are just plain curious to learn more, we would love to hear from you. Please email us at