About Us

About the Science of Learning Institute

Our goal is to understand learning at all levels of analysis— from the molecular level of understanding how brain cells work, through the cognitive level of understanding how children and adults learn to speak and read, and through the level of the classroom where people experience formal learning opportunities.  The research questions that propel our institute include: What is the biological basis of memory? Why is it easy for a 2 year-old to learn multiple languages, but difficult for adults to learn a second language? Why and how do individuals differ in their ability to learn math? How can humans partner with machines to improve learning in both kinds of systems? Answering these and other questions forms the foundation for understanding learning across the lifespan in typical and atypical, gifted and challenged learners.  Importantly, it supports the goal of optimizing learning for all.  

Rationale for the Institute

In an era driven by globalization and rapidly advancing technology, our ability to learn has become the most essential part of our human capital. Learning allows us to optimize our functioning in society, adapt to changing situations, collaborate with others, and participate in activities that bring us much joy. Moreover, it is widely recognized that the nation’s economic success is inherently tied to our capacity to become lifelong learners (UNESCO, 2012; World Bank, 2003).

While learning is vital to success in so many areas, we are only now beginning to possess the knowledge and techniques to understand how it works. We have made enormous strides in understanding the brain and are on the brink of discovering how genetics, environment, brain chemistry and other influences combine to foster or inhibit learning. Moreover, we are poised to move farther and faster as we acknowledge that learning is a complex process that spans interdependent biological, psychological, sociocultural, and technological systems and therefore, understanding it requires interdisciplinary collaboration. Only by creating synergies across disciplines will we truly be able to unlock the complexities of learning.  

To create this synergy, The Johns Hopkins University launched an ambitious, interdisciplinary, Science of Learning Institute to understand learning across its systems and manifestations: from the individual brain cell to our capacity as a species. Building on the existing expertise of Johns Hopkins faculty, the Science of Learning Institute will accelerate the passage from basic science discoveries to transformed lives. By excelling all along the continuum of learning — from basic research in molecules to an understanding of the nature of human cognition to its translation to practice and policy — we will be in a position to transform education. These simultaneous advances will provide targeted educational strategies for individual children and adults; help ensure a well-trained workforce that can compete in an ever-changing world; and enable everyone-- even those whose brains have undergone developmental disorders or injury-- to learn to the full extent of their capabilities.

Such aspirations require a strategic effort to integrate knowledge across many traditional disciplines - including cognitive science, psychology, neuroscience, computer science, engineering, public health, policy, and education – and to foster a culture of dialog and collaboration amongst scientists, practitioners, educators, policymakers, and business leaders.

Formation of Institute

The creation of the Institute was the result of a two-year process (2011-2013) in which faculty across Johns Hopkins University engaged in thinking together about the many dimensions of learning and how to best foster interdisciplinary research.  Three working groups were formed from faculty of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Education, the School of Medicine, the Whiting School of Engineering, the Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Applied Physics Laboratory, and the Kennedy Krieger Institute.  The Molecules to Mind group focused on the basic learning mechanisms across levels of analysis, from understanding how molecules in the brain work to create learning to understanding how minds emerge during infancy, adulthood, and through the aging process. The Individualized Learning group focused on the nature of individual differences in learning, embracing the idea that learners vary from one another, and that understanding these differences is as important to enhancing learning as understanding the “norm.” The Human-Machine Interaction group explored how we can benefit from cutting-edge learning technologies to enhance the learning done by machines as well as humans, and how these different kinds of learning can complement and build upon each other. A crucial issue that drove the conversation across the groups was the question of how one could use all of these approaches to enhance learning at all ages, and in the many settings where learning takes place.  For formal education, this means moving toward the ultimate goal of “the school of one,” where a learner is provided with materials exactly matched to his or her own needs. The Science of Learning Institute was established in 2013 with a shared goal of facilitating innovative, interdisciplinary research that will generate new interdisciplinary scientific discoveries and build meaningful connections between research, practice, and policy. 

Founding Working Groups (2011-2013)

  • From Molecules to Mind:  This group focused on the basic science of learning, from understanding how molecules in the brain work to create learning, to understanding how minds emerge during infancy, adulthood and through the aging process.  Click here to see the working group roster.

  • Individualized Learning:  This group focused on the nature of individual differences in learning, embracing the idea that learners vary from one another, and that understanding these differences is as important to enhancing learning as understanding the “norm.” Click here to see the working group roster.

  • Human-Machine Interaction:  This group explored how we can benefit from cutting-edge learning technologies to enhance the learning done by machines as well as humans, and how these different kinds of learning can complement and build upon each other. Click here to see the working group roster.