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From the Science of Learning to the Design of Learning

From the Science of Learning to the Design of Learning was Dr Manu Kapur's keynote speech at the Swiss Faculty Development Network (SFDN) 2019 conference. We know a lot about learning, what works and what doesn’t, but how do we translate that into the design of our courses? Manu’s solution is disciplinarity, having the students do, from day one, what they are expected to do in their field.

Higher education is currently confronted with three major issues, according to Manu:

1. The amount of content we are teaching our students is constantly growing. We know more and more and feel we need to share everything with our students, to the point where ‘we are teaching so much, there is no time to think.’

2. Knowledge doesn’t transfer well, whether from teacher to student, or from the student into real world applications. As teachers we try different ways to explain, we believe our students get it (and they often believe so too), until we ask them to apply it in practice and perhaps in a slightly different scenario. How can we teach so students can apply that knowledge in the real world?

3. Finally, pedagogy: the content experts are often not pedagogy experts. Even if they were, Manu contends that the current training in pedagogy is not working, as illustrated by the issue of knowledge transfer.


With disciplinarity, teaching is aligned with the practice of the discipline. Students are doing what will be expected of them in their given field, from day one. Medical students should be seeing patients, law students should be working out cases and math students should be inventing solution to problems (Ziegler and Kapur 2018). In context, knowledge becomes more meaningful to the students and they learn what is needed and how to apply it. Students start to ‘see’ the world like the experts in the field. This also helps develop creativity, as students feel that they too can come up with interesting solutions, not just apply formulas taught be the teacher. Finally, as the expert and students work towards a solution, tacit knowledge, often hard to explain, is naturally shared.

Research showed that procedural, conceptual knowledge, as well as the ability to transfer knowledge to the real world are all improved. This must also be more motivating for students as they immediately start to do what they are training for.

The Swiss apprenticeship system may be an interesting model in this area. It has been successful in training high quality workers. However, being an expert isn’t enough. Tasks need to be scaffolded, starting from the knowledge students already have (Kapur 2011). Pedagogy must change, but a pedagogical approach is essential.

This has given me another lens through which to re-consider my learning activities. Another important learning from Manu's talk was about productive failure


Kapur, Manu. 2011. “A Further Study of Productive Failure in Mathematical Problem Solving: Unpacking the Design Components.” Instructional Science; Dordrecht 39 (4): 561–79. http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/10.1007/s11251-010-9144-3.

Ziegler, Esther, and Manu Kapur. 2018. “The Interplay of Creativity, Failure and Learning in Generating Algebra Problems.” Thinking Skills and Creativity, The Role of Failure in Promoting Thinking Skills and Creativity, 30 (December): 64–75. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tsc.2018.03.009.

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