The Science Behind a Better Education

November 29th, 2018

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When I tell people that I study neuroscience at Duke University, the first comment I get back is something along the lines of, "are you thinking doctor or surgeon after medical school?" I then proceed to explain that I am not headed to medical school and instead am combining neuroscience with my lifelong interest in education to pursue a career in the field of learning science. After each conversation like this, it takes a fair amount of reassuring myself that following my two passions in this way can lead to a meaningful and successful career. What kind of career would fill that niche, and more importantly, how can I go about finding it?

That question was partially answered Sophomore year in a class appropriately called Educational Neuroscience, in which we explored how neural underpinnings of memory, attention, emotion, stress, and adolescence affect the learning process. This course instilled great hope: the exciting and interdisciplinary field of learning science has the power to make a lasting impact for students, teachers, and schools. Still, research in this realm, though promising and novel, is subject to reduced funding, and plenty of critics seek to poke holes in the scientific methods used. It was unclear at the time if anything else beyond research could come out of it as a fulfilling occupation.

After collaborating with Macmillan for the last eight months on the student advisory board for educational co-design, I can confidently say that a career in learning science is not only realizable, but also increasingly more important as inequality and stratification remain rampant in our schools systems. For those arguing that teachers can do nothing with a stack of their students' brain scans during a learning activity, I would completely agree. The point is not to force complex scientific methods and data into classrooms, but rather for learning science to enable a more accessible, effective, and engaging educational experience.

Of Macmillan's six key principles for learning experience design, two in particular stand out to me. First, that cognition can be enhanced using technology, and second, that pedagogy matters. Learning science's biggest tool at the moment - and my core interest - is the development of educational technology. Macmillan's technology initiatives that focus on self-efficacy, study habits, and fairer assessments are changing the way students tackle the big hurdles of school. Designing products based on measurable and practical learning outcomes is just one of the ways Macmillan is at the forefront of the field. Yet, in the digital age, it is always important to remember that technology must never replace the human relationships crucial to success. This is where the second principle of pedagogy comes in. Meeting students where they are, allowing for self-regulated learning skills to grow, and fostering meaningful relationships in the classroom are all part of a teacher's work not necessarily reflected in the curriculum. Using technology to improve upon these best teaching practices, while challenging, is incredibly rewarding when done right.

I would be nowhere without the outstanding education I have received thus far in my life. As I finish up the second half of my college experience and look forward to what comes next, I know that I want to bring that same love of learning to new generations of students. I would like to thank Macmillan for giving me a wonderful outlet to explore my interests in co-design and development of exciting new technologies to improve the student experience. Learning science will help guide education into the future. I look forward to being part of it all when it happens.

Ben Thier is a member of Macmillan's Student Codesign Group, and a Junior at Duke University studying Neuroscience and Education. Born and raised in New York City, Ben is currently studying abroad at the University of Sydney in Australia. In his free time, he enjoys playing tennis for Duke's Club team, scuba diving, and listening to way too many podcasts.

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