I came to the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) in 2002 to build connections between education and the basic science of learning and development. The weak links between these two fields were surprising to me, given how foundational such science is to the very purpose of education.
IES had just launched the Cognition and Student Learning program, and researchers were invited to submit applications to examine whether principles of learning established in basic science were robust when examined in education settings. Six years later, we launched the Social and Behavioral Context to Support Academic Learning to understand the ways in which the social environment of classrooms and school affected learning. Together, IES has invested over $445M, an investment that has contributed substantially to our foundational knowledge of teaching and learning.
I was surprised by this recent blog by Bob Pianta and Tara Hofkens. While they acknowledge the research that IES has supported to transform education practice, they did not seem to realize our substantial, ongoing investments in the basic science of teaching and learning—both in and out of classrooms.
In part, this may reflect their perception of what types of work we support under our Exploration goal – which is not limited to “scouring databases” but instead involves all types of research, including small-scale experiments and longitudinal studies. These projects generate foundational knowledge about what factors are associated with learning outcomes and can potentially be changed through education. In fact, the questions that Pianta and Hofkens want answered by the basic science of education are the same questions that some IES grantees have been examining over the course of the last 15 years.
Here are just a few examples.
- What factors regulate children's attention in a classroom setting? Anna Fisher and her team found that cluttered classroom walls in kindergarten led to greater distraction and less learning – a finding that captured the imagination of the nation and the nation’s educators.
- What roles do the capabilities of peers play in advancing children's cognitive capabilities? A new study led by Adrienne Nishina is examining how student’s ability to think about situations from different perspectives is related to their day-to-day interactions with peers from diverse backgrounds.
- What factors promote or inhibit teachers' responses to children's perceived misbehavior? Teachers’ expertise and teachers’ emotional competencies are two factors that IES-funded researchers have found to relate to their responses to children’s behavior.
- What role do social and emotional experiences and affective processes play in fostering learning? Shannon Suldo and her team find that the coping strategies that high school students choose to manage their responses to stressors are linked to learning outcomes.
- What are the components of school climate that matter the most for different forms of student success? Two recent projects, one in Cleveland, and one in Virginia, are using survey data to explore the relationship between school climate, social behavioral competencies and academic outcomes. The teams are also exploring how those relationships vary within student subgroups.
Funding the basic science of teaching and learning—in and out of classrooms—has been and will continue to be a cornerstone of the work that IES funds. The IES investment in this area is broad, and is shared in books such as Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells us About Raising Successful Children, and Educator Stress: An Occupational Health Perspective.
Importantly, IES is not the only funder in this area. The National Science Foundation invests substantially in their Science of Learning portfolio, the McDonnell Foundation’s Understanding Human Cognition portfolio includes an explicit request for projects at the intersection of cognition and education, and the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) supports a variety of relevant research programs. I agree that we need systematic investment in the basic science of teaching and learning. But we must build on what we have already learned.
We are grateful that Pianta and Hofkens recognize the importance of investing in this area. Perhaps the fact that they did not acknowledge the substantial investments and contributions IES has made in exploring the important questions they pose is an IES problem. While we have invested heavily in the science of learning, we have skimped on brand development and self-promoting. If someone as central to the field such as Pianta, who has received several IES grants, including research training grants, doesn’t know what IES has done, that is a red flag that we will need to attend to.
In the meantime, we hope that this brief glimpse into our investment to date has illustrated some of the questions that the basic science of teaching and learning within education can answer. More importantly here’s where you can seek funding for this type of work.
Commissioner, National Center for Education Research
 IES was authorized in November 2002. The Cognition and Student Learning research program was launched by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, the office from which IES was created.