New centre brings researchers, classrooms closer

Too often, education researchers and classroom teachers have operated in separate spheres – one group working to understand the underpinnings of learning, the other working directly with students. The new Centre for the Science of Learning aims to help those spheres intersect.

Led by Education professor Daniel Ansari, a cross-appointed faculty member with the Department of Psychology, the centre brings together researchers from Cognitive Science, Psychology, Neuroscience and Education to generate evidence-based insights into how children learn best – and then work closely with school boards and teachers to put that knowledge into practice, in classrooms and in education boardrooms.

ANSARI

“There’s a clear research-to-education gap, whereby researchers do work in laboratories, teachers do work in schools – and the two very infrequently meet,” Ansari said.

“Often, you have a one-way street of communication. University researchers will swoop in for an hour or two, do a professional-development session, and then leave again. Then, teachers have all this information, but what are they going to do with it now and what is their perspective? We want to find that out, too.”

Modeled on similar centres internationally, the Western centre is unique among Canadian universities.

“We have the capacity at Western,” Ansari said. “We have researchers who are experts in various aspect of learning in Kindergarten to Grade 12 but also in university level. Let’s get them together and try to combine our individual strengths to create something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.”

Education Dean Vicki Schwean said the new centre is a natural extension of Western research on child development and mental health through the interdisciplinary Mary J. Wright Research and Education Centre at Merrymount Children’s Centre, the Centre for School Mental Health and the Child and Youth Development Clinic.

“It just made inherently good sense now to invest in a learning-sciences centre. We’ve got some tremendous researchers and some tremendous things that are going to go on there.”

She said the centre’s work goes deeper than the newest fad or policy statement on how children learn to read or do math.

“There are different theories. But all of our learning work ­­is all what I would call strong, evidence-based research. It can be replicated; it can be studied in other places; it has demonstrated positive outcomes as a function of good research.”

Schwean said classroom teachers will be partners in identifying key study areas and will also be able to see the benefits in their classrooms, because that’s where the research will take place. “If we just keep it in a repository, it’s of no significance. These things have to lead to something professionals in the field can actually use.”

Ansari, Canada Research Chair in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, said the centre’s sweet spot is early education thanks to affiliated researchers like Psychology professor Marc Joanisse, an expert on reading; Communications Sciences and Disorders professors Lisa Archibald, who researches oral language, working memory and reading, and Janis Cardy, on language and developmental disorders; Education Associate Dean Perry Klein, in cognition and instruction; and Education professors Emma Duerden, a neuroscientist specializing in infant cognition, and Barbara Fenesi, with expertise in attention and cognition.

Ansari is planning information sessions for undergraduates to help them adopt proven effective learning strategies, such as how best to study for exams.

“Right now, students mainly come up with their own methodology for doing so but there are actually evidence-informed approaches that have been proven to be effective that we can implement quite effectively.”

The centre’s official opening is Oct. 4.