Learning Science and Foundational Principles of Corporate Training

Miriam Taylor (MT):  I’m excited about this conversation. I’ve been thinking about the topic for many years. Let’s begin with a simple question: What is meant by “learning science?” 

Jerry Zandstra (JZ): If you’ve been thinking about learning science for many years, this is the first indication that while the question might be simple, the answer is not. I do wonder if we are even using the proper terminology. It might be more descriptive to call it the “sciences of learning.” 

MT: That doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

JZ: I suppose that is true. But it might be more accurate. Learning science is actually a series of sciences that contribute to our understanding of how people learn. Many sciences rely on the insights of other branches to fully understand their area of focus, but perhaps none more than what we call learning science. It turns out that learning is very complex and involves almost every facet of human life. 

MT:  Interestingly, not everyone agrees on which sciences should be included. In your opinion, which sciences should be included?

JZ: I won’t claim this is the definitive list and others can certainly be added. Let me put it this way. I think the sciences that help us understand how people learn include at least the following: cognition, psychology, sociology, linguistics, consumer science, and behavioral science. Not only could we include others like anthropology and technology, but each of the ones I’ve listed has subsets of other specialties that help inform the broader categories of these sciences. For this conversation, let’s stay with the list I’ve given. 

MT: That works for me. I should mention that you and I will be having separate conversations on each of the sciences you listed and how they contribute to adult learning. Let’s shift gears and take a more global perspective. Do the learning sciences vary by culture?

JZ: From my perspective, I think the answer is yes and no. Let’s begin with yes. In some sense, there is a commonality to all human beings. The sciences we’ve listed, I believe, all contribute to understanding how learning happens across the globe. I can’t imagine a cultural situation where the science of cognition, for example, would not contribute to our understanding of learning. 

MT: But you also think learning sciences vary by culture?

JZ: Not which sciences but how those sciences are done. I don’t think many would disagree that cultural identity and background inevitably shape the way we perceive and understand our world, even to the point where they influence our cognitive processes from an early age. If we consider the science of psychology, we will pretty quickly recognize that motivations to learn can vary from culture to culture. Some are most individualistic. Others are more collectivist. I think we would find the same dynamics as we consider learning and sociology or linguistics. I was in a market in Nairobi several years ago and struck up a conversation with some of the vendors. We were talking about our cultural differences and one gentleman pointed out that for many years, Swahili did not include a future tense. I was struck by that, especially in how it must have had an impact on their thought process. I sometimes think that people in the US are the opposite in that they only think in terms of the future and do not reflect enough on our shared past. The science of linguistics would be helpful here especially when thinking about learning and development. 

MT: How do these sciences work together to produce better learning experiences?

JZ: I think the illumination that comes from these various sciences helps us understand the human learner and their context. We all know that learning profiles matter because they give us basic demographic information. But they don’t consider things like the context of learning for a particular person who is already struggling with cognitive overload in their job. Profiles don’t dive deeply into psychology or sociology and both of these sciences really matter in learning.

MT: Can you give an example?

JZ: Think about what we all experienced in COVID. Most L&D leaders had to immediately shift to remote learning because many of their learners almost overnight became remote workers. It was jarring for learning professionals, but it was also a shock for people who were used to going to an office, store, or factory every day. They were patterned to think and act in very specific ways and did their work, most of the time anyway, without the distractions of being in their homes. Think of a learner who suddenly was working in a completely new work environment. The cognitive stress of working from home greatly increased for many people. Psychologically, they were uncertain of their futures. Sociologically, they were suddenly disconnected from their peers. All these had an impact on their ability to not only do their jobs but also effectively learn. 

MT: Where in the design/development process should learning sciences be considered?

JZ: I would say from the earliest stages of a Needs Analysis to delivery of the final product. We have listed at least the following sciences related to learning: cognition, psychology, sociology, linguistics, consumer science, and behavioral science. One might play a larger role at one stage or another of the learning development process. But I don’t think it is wise to ever dismiss any of them at any stage of the process. Let’s think about the science of linguistics. Too commonly, language considerations become a focal point at the end of a project once the learning experience is already completed in the original language. I’m sure you would agree that this approach does not produce the best results. 

MT: What are some practical tips to keep these in front of L&D leaders?

JZ: One suggestion is to keep a list of these learning sciences visually in front of you as you design and develop courses. Think through each of them as you proceed and call out how each science can inform you of what you are building. Make it visual. I made a list of some questions that I hope will be helpful for our readers:

  1. How are you connecting to what people already know? (Cognition)
  2. Are you giving learners enough time to reflect and process what they are learning? (Cognition)
  3. What is the proper amount of content given the other demands on the time of learners? (Cognition)
  4. What is motivating your learners to engage? (Psychology)
  5. What social structures are in place to reinforce the learning? What in their context is detracting them from learning? (Sociology)
  6. Are you making use of scaffolding in which learners are encouraged to be more independent and less reliant on the learning materials, instructor, mentor, or coach? (Psychology) 
  7. How is your learning being designed to capture the attention of your learners (Consumer Science)
  8. How do you expect learners to act differently after they have engaged with the learning you create? (Behavioral Science). 
  9. What are the emotional, environmental, and social factors that will influence the choices your learners make? (Behavioral Science)

MT: Are there any AI considerations in play in Learning Science? 

JZ:  It really isn’t possible anymore to talk about learning without thinking about artificial intelligence. In very broad strokes, I think AI’s primary contribution to learning will be the ability to personalize learning in a way that is only possible when someone who has mastered a skill or way of thinking personally mentors another individual. This is the most effective way to learn but certainly not the most efficient. We can’t expect to train fifteen hundred people one-on-one. Because that is not possible, we have shifted to mass learning which can deliver information and knowledge to a large group of people in a highly efficient manner but sometimes is not very effective. Part of the power of AI will be a swing back to more personalized learning which is learning delivered to a specific person in a specific way that meets their individual requirements while accounting for their cognitive abilities, psychological and sociological needs, language, motivation, and past behavior. 

MT: We are not there yet?

JZ: We are not but it is not difficult to imagine a near future where we will be. 

MT: I’ll need to think about that a little more, but I will grant you that the developments in AI in the last 18 months have been stunning. That is all the time we have for this conversation and so I want to thank you for sharing your thoughts.

JZ: As you said at the beginning, this is just the start of this conversation. We will be digging into each of the sciences of learning in future conversations. Thanks for your good questions and this conversation.