Susan Levine, shown with a young learner in her cognitive development lab, uses intervention science as a part of the new Science of Learning Center. (Photography by Jason Smith)
Let knowledge grow
A new center brings together educational researchers and practitioners.

When Susan Levine was a graduate student in the Department of Psychology at MIT, her research focused on characterizing developmental change in children’s knowledge and cognitive skills. “But now,” she says, “I think more about the relation of cognitive development to the inputs parents and teachers provide and how this affects learning outcomes.” This shift in her approach is one she sees echoed in the field of developmental psychology.

Researchers at the University’s new Science of Learning Center, where Levine is faculty director, hope to bridge gaps between research and practice and help bring findings to bear on programs and materials that help students learn.

With a better understanding of learning, researchers can develop effective learning tools. Without this understanding, researchers might know that a particular curriculum or lesson works, but not which elements of the instruction are essential.

Broadly speaking, the center deals in intervention science. Intervention, a term borrowed from medicine, refers to anything that could improve a person’s health and well-being, from a smoking-cessation program to a physical therapy regimen. Education level is related to health and well-being, says Levine, the Rebecca Anne Boylan Professor of Education and Society, bringing educational interventions squarely into the mix. The center’s interventions to enhance learning include teaching strategies, student assessments, websites for parents and teachers, and learning apps.

For example, the center received a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop and study a website that includes tools and tips to improve math learning in young children. Another project, funded by the Big Ideas Generator and Urban Network at UChicago, brings researchers like Levine together with elementary school principals and prekindergarten through second-grade teachers. The group is establishing common ground and exploring collaborations that will lead to information that teachers can use in the classroom.

By working directly with teachers and school leaders, says Lisa Rosen, the center’s executive director, Levine and her fellow researchers gain a better understanding of not only what kinds of interventions would most help students but also the funding and other institutional constraints in getting tools into classrooms.

“What we’ve realized,” Rosen says, “is that researchers can’t be optimally effective—even if the things they develop are wonderful—if they approach the practitioners after the intervention or assessment is already developed.”

Levine and Rosen emphasize that there is no one way to form a center—at the University of Chicago or anywhere else. The Science of Learning Center grew out of a 10-year grant from the National Science Foundation to Levine and researchers at several institutions to study spatial intelligence and learning. As the grant was nearing its end, Levine sought ways to continue the work it had supported.

Through meetings with Social Sciences dean David Nirenberg, provost Eric D. Isaacs, and faculty across campus, they decided the University needed a center to bring together disparate types of learning and education research across campus. “By forming this center,” Levine says, “we could increase interaction and foster research-practice collaborations.”

Angela Duckworth, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a MacArthur fellow, spoke about “grit” at the center’s launch in November. (Photography by Lloyd Degrane)

At the center’s November launch, University of Pennsylvania professor Angela Duckworth, known for her research on “grit”—the ability to persevere to achieve challenging goals—gave the opening lecture, drawing a crowd of 400 educators, researchers, and community members.

Duckworth’s scholarship exemplifies the kind of research the center will foster, Rosen says, combining rigorous basic research on learning and collaborative efforts with educators, focused ultimately on improving education. To collaborate with others, as well as to publicize her findings, Duckworth has spoken at K–12 schools—including the Laboratory Schools—and worked with educators around the country.

With an eye toward a broad reach, the Science of Learning Center is building its network of practitioners through its Science of Learning Network and existing entities like the Urban Education Institute’s Consortium on School Research, which has long-standing ties with Chicago Public Schools. Researchers also speak to parents and teachers about their research and seek new ways to reach audiences.

In addition to inside the classroom, education help is also needed outside of school, where children spend significantly more time, Levine says, noting that gaps between socioeconomic groups often stem from disparate learning experiences at home. When her own four children were in school, they did homework at the dining room table while she did her own work, close at hand if they needed her.

“How can schools do the whole thing,” she asks, “when some kids are getting rich learning experiences that extend beyond the classroom? We need collaborative efforts in order to close the achievement gap.”

As a first step, the center is planning a family math conference this fall to address different approaches to support math learning, not just in the classroom but also at home. At the conference, researchers, practitioners, and others will focus on fostering math achievement through strong cognitive supports and positive attitudes about math in the home.

The center has other projects on the distant horizon, “things we’re not even working on yet but where we have expertise,” Levine says. “A lot of people have come to us and said, ‘Can you help with thinking about STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] education? Or support for first-generation college students?’”

The center plans not only to improve learning for current and future students but also to nurture the next generation of education researchers. As part of that preparation, the center’s graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are collaborating with UChicagoGRAD and the University’s writing center to better communicate their findings to broad audiences. They will learn to write research briefs and create effective infographics, in response to requests from schools for easily digestible data expressed visually rather than pages of text.

Levine and Rosen hope the center’s research will lead to better understanding of how students learn and that this insight will foster better educational outcomes, where each child is able to realize his or her potential. For now, the formation of the center itself sends a strong message. “It puts a stake in the ground,” Rosen says, a central place where researchers can come together to effect real change.