This article presents an overview of the field of the learning sciences and discusses some of its distinctive features. We highlight its fundamental character as a design science that uses design-based research as a signature methodology. We discuss the field's general emphasis on interdisciplinary research, studying a variety of real settings where learning occurs and developing tools to support learning. The field examines learning through an array of theoretical lenses that take into account the situated and social nature of learning and thinking, as well as the influence of history, culture, community, and power relations on learning. We also note some current trends in research directions, including a growing focus on equity and social justice.

As a young, international field of educational research that emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the learning sciences emphasizes research that examines how people learn and what is important to learn, creates contexts to support learning, and investigates how learning occurs in these contexts (Hoadley, 2018). Research in the learning sciences is undergirded by three foundational pillars: design, cognition, and social context (Fischer, Goldman, Hmelo-Silver, & Reimann, 2018). Design refers to the creation of learning environments that promote learning, including the design of instructional tools (Hoadley, 2018). In line with this emphasis, the field has developed design-based research (DBR) as a signature methodology. In terms of the second pillar, research on cognition has taken a holistic approach, moving away from studying isolated facets of cognition, often in laboratories, toward examining cognition in complex, authentic learning environments as well as “in the wild” of the real world (Fischer et al., 2018). Learning scientists generally believe that human cognition is embedded in social practices and groups; it is interwoven with culture, language, and social identities. Thus, the third pillar of the learning sciences spotlights the social contexts in which learning occurs. Learning scientists study the complexities of learning as it occurs in authentic social contexts, which can include family interactions, workplaces, classrooms, after-school programs, museums, and so on (Nathan & Alibali, 2010). In the past two decades, this focus on social context has led to an increased focus on equity and social justice with a particular attention to the role of power, histories, and politics in shaping education (Esmonde & Booker, 2017; Fischer et al., 2018).

Research in the learning sciences can be characterized by a range of features that are related to and emergent from these three pillars. Learning scientists endeavor to create innovative learning environments that pursue ambitious learning goals. They value multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary work to gain a more holistic understanding of learning from different disciplinary perspectives. They typically seek detailed explications of how learning occurs in authentic, social settings. Many researchers also view learning as situated; that is, learning unfolds differently in different contexts, and these contexts strongly shape learning.

In this article, we provide a broad overview of the learning sciences as an educational discipline. We discuss: (1) a brief history of the field, (2) the field's focus on design, (3) methodologies used by learning scientists, (4) characteristic features of learning sciences research, (5) applications of learning sciences research to policy, and (6) some current trends in the field of the learning sciences.