Learning and the Scientific Method

Learning-and-the-Scientific-MethodI write a lot about the science of learning, so today I thought we should talk about science. The word “science” comes from the Latin “scientia” which means “knowledge.” In Western culture, the ancient Greeks developed an approach toward gaining information about the world through the use of the scientific method.

It goes like this:

  1. Ask a question.
  2. Conduct background research.
  3. Construct a hypothesis.
  4. Test your hypothesis in an experiment.
  5. Draw a conclusion by analyzing data.
  6. Communicate your results so they can be checked and validated by your peers.
  7. If it holds up, your conclusion becomes a “theory” or a “model” for others to leverage.

Sadly, many claims are being made today that have little or nothing to do with science and probably even less to do with learning. If you are going to be able to apply the science of learning, you first have to know what you’re looking for and be able to distinguish science from conjecture, opinion or profiteering. Let’s look at a simple example of the scientific method.

You’ve probably heard the story of how Isaac Newton “discovered” the law of gravity. As the story goes, he was sitting under a tree when an apple fell to the ground. “Why does it always fall down?” he asked. “What could be causing this behavior?” When he found no answer in his library, Newton developed a hypothesis. “There must be some invisible force pulling the apple and other falling objects to the ground.” In today’s world, Newton might have stopped right there. He might have published his opinion that there is an invisible force – let’s call it “gravity” — and explained how it holds objects together. He might create a whole blog around this new “science of gravity” and go around giving speeches about it, dropping apples on the stage to wildly applauding crowds wherever he goes. He would conduct webinars on how to use this exciting new science to our personal benefit. He might write books like “The Gravity of Leadership” and “Secrets of Gravo-marketing.” He would charge thousands of dollars for a “Master-level” class in the “Science of Gravity for Gaining Personal Wealth and Happiness.”

But this didn’t happen, because Newton was a scientist. He didn’t content himself with forming a hypothesis and cashing in. He conducted multiple experiments to test his opinion, fully prepared to abandon it if the evidence pointed in a different direction. After conducting his experiments, Newton had to analyze his results. (He actually found that current mathematics weren’t powerful enough to conduct the analysis he required, so as a little side project he invented calculus.) His results led to a refined hypothesis and more experiments and more analysis until finally he arrived at a conclusion that he could support with the evidence he had gathered. When he was ready to publish “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica,” Newton laid out a revolutionary, systematic view of how the world works – based on the body of evidence as illuminated with mathematics. Scientists call this a model or theory. It’s an explanation of how something that works that gives you predictable results. At the point that someone finds evidence that the model no longer works, you have to either revise the model or find a new one.

Other scientists read Newton’s paper and tested his results. Over and over again, they tried to find a hole in his logic or an inconsistency in his results. When it became evident that Newton’s hypothesis was reliably repeatable it became a recognized “theory.” Eventually, people even began referring to it as a “law.” That’s how science works. We don’t get to just throw up our guesses about how people learn and proclaim ourselves experts. Our peers will review our data and challenge our conclusions, until we can all agree on an evidence-based approach.

But there’s a funny thing about science. Because the scientific method requires your peers to challenge your results, what we “know” today can get blown away tomorrow by a new discovery or a new way of interpreting the data. For more than 200 years, Newton’s magnificent view of the world held true; and then it didn’t. As we began to study matter at the subatomic level, Newton’s “law” became inconsistent. You could no longer use it to predict the behavior of matter at these tiny levels.

Along came a young patent office clerk named Albert Einstein. Building on the work of Newton as well as the latest information on the behavior of atomic particles, he formulated a different hypothesis and found a new model to explain how the world works. His theory of General Relativity has stood the test of time for over a hundred years. So far, scientists have only been able to confirm, not contradict, his conclusions. But history tells us that it is only a matter of time before we find something that Einstein did not anticipate or cannot explain. That day will surely send us into a new era of understanding our world and may open up new modes of experience we can’t even imagine today.

Did Newton become less of a scientist because his theory of gravity breaks down at the sub-atomic level? Did the works of Einstein render Newton irrelevant? I think you can agree with me that the answer to both of these questions is “no.” Some of us may even live long enough to see a new discovery challenge the work of Einstein, although I’m not holding my breath for the occasion.

What’s this got to do with the science of learning? Here’s what I take away from comparing the history of modern physics to the science of learning today:

There are no shortcuts to true knowledge. You don’t get to stop with a compelling hypothesis. You have to test it and support your conclusions with data. Whenever we see someone making sweeping claims about the “neuroscience of leadership,” “neuromarketing,” or “brain training,” we should ask for the research that supports these supposed “facts.” You may be surprised how many times this line of questioning will lead to silence or equivocation. Step away from these people and run to the nearest scientist, fast.

3 thoughts on “Learning and the Scientific Method

  1. Pingback: The Neuroscience of Cubs Fans | LearningToGo

  2. Pingback: The Neuroscience of Cubs Fans, continued | LearningToGo

  3. Pingback: My Science Manifesto – We’re All Science Workers | LearningToGo

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