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New institute aims to advance research on how we learn

October 26, 2010

Advancing the universal experience of learning is the focus of a new initiative at Arizona State University. The Learning Sciences Institute will span academic disciplines to promote improved learning and well-being in educational, work and family settings.

ASU has recruited Stephen N. Elliott from Vanderbilt University to lead the institute.

“Dr. Elliott possesses the combination of research expertise, creativity and collaborative skills needed to ensure that the institute succeeds in promoting positive learning outcomes in a variety of settings,” said ASU President Michael M. Crow.

“Under his leadership, the institute will advance the learning sciences from a variety of perspectives, including education, biology, cognitive science, computer science, psychology, anthropology, sociology, advertising, engineering and marketing.”

Elliott will join ASU in December. He currently is the Dunn Family Professor of Educational and Psychological Assessment in the Department of Special Education at Vanderbilt. As an ASU Foundation Professor, Elliott will hold academic appointments in ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and the School of Social and Family Dynamics, an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“Challenging questions about how to measure and improve human learning require teams of investigators with expertise about human abilities, schools, families, technology, social dynamics, public policy, economics, health and more,” Elliott said. “Arizona State University, and soon the Learning Sciences Institute, are places where asking and answering questions that require interdisciplinary research happen on a daily basis.”

Learning sciences is a relatively young discipline, originating in the 1990s. It is an interdisciplinary field that focuses on the scientific understanding of learning and the design and implementation of innovations and instructional methods that can improve learning.

“Many disciplines contribute to an understanding of learning,” said Elizabeth D. Capaldi, university provost and executive vice president. “Dr. Elliott’s arrival is evidence of our strong commitment to those disciplines, and to the synergies possible when researchers from these many disciplines can interact and work together to apply their research. This is an ideal topic for ASU’s multidisciplinary approach to grand challenges, given our institution’s historical roots as a teachers college.”

The institute’s primary areas of research promotion and collaboration are expected to encompass four broad categories: children and schools; technology and innovation; families and communities; and professional development. Elliott noted that these categories reflect many national funding priorities and are consistent with some of the outstanding research programs already under way at ASU.

“Cross- or inter-disciplinary research is not only fun and exciting; it is essential for answering many important questions. Different disciplines have different scientific traditions and tools, and the scholars within them are often guided by diverse theories. Collectively, these differences in methods, tools, and theories contribute to numerous perspectives on a similar problem. We often gain new and improved insights by considering alternative perspectives,” he said.

Elliott noted it is especially important to apply creative intellectual energy to the learning sciences, given the universality of the learning process.

“Inventing new ways to maximize learning is an important concern whether helping a first-grader translate letters to sounds or helping an older adult follow instructions for installing new computer software,” he said. “Better understanding of how people of various ages and abilities learn leads to better design of learning environments and tools. The collective result is a society that is more informed, more efficient, and more adaptable.”

“Dr. Elliott and the LSI will enhance the scholarship already under way in Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College,” said Mari Koerner, Teachers College dean. “The Institute increases our ability to collaborate with colleagues across and outside ASU to design, implement and evaluate learning innovations. We in Teachers College are constantly looking to find ways to ensure a better education for PreK-12 students. This approach to research can help us to find out more about how students learn, and therefore how we can more effectively teach our future teachers how to teach them.”

Added Richard Fabes, director of the School of Social and Family Dynamics, “The new LSI will be a grand opportunity for our faculty, students and community. It will generate new ideas about how to improve the learning environment. Ultimately, the aim is to improve educational outcomes for students of all ages. The LSI is a perfect fit for the New American University.”

Elliott’s arrival at ASU represents a Sun Devil homecoming. He earned his Ph.D. in educational psychology from ASU in 1980. Prior to his work at Vanderbilt, Elliott spent 17 years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is perhaps best known for his scale development and assessment research on children’s social skills and his validity research on testing accommodations and modifications for students with disabilities.

Elliott cited a number of critical factors influencing his decision to come to ASU to establish and lead the Learning Sciences Institute.

“First, leadership starting with President Crow and Provost Capaldi values and supports intellectual fusion and interdisciplinary enterprises,” he said. “There are many talented faculty and research scientists on the multiple campuses already engaged in learning research and there are world-class methodologists alongside them to support rigorous research.

“There also are unparalleled opportunities for business and research partnerships in the education innovation sector developing at ASU SkySong. Additionally, Arizonans want the best education possible for residents of the state, and thus there are likely to be many opportunities for learning science investigators to partner with educators and community members.”

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