About the LIFE Center

The LIFE Center was established as a National Science Foundation Science of Learning Center in 2004.

The LIFE Center represents a collaboration between the University of Washington in Seattle, Stanford University, and SRI International, Inc., both in the San Francisco area. The LIFE Center is a multi-institution Science of Learning Center funded by the National Science Foundation. The University of Washington is the lead institution. Other institutions across the country also participate. LIFE Center researchers represent a broad range of fields, including neurobiology, psychology, education, speech and hearing sciences, anthropology, and sociology, and many of the issues LIFE investigates arise from their interactions.

Humans' social worlds are rich and complex, and social interaction is essential to our survival as a species. We are exquisitely sensitive to others' faces, voices, and behaviors, and social cognitive neuroscience is identifying brain systems dedicated to processing social stimuli. At the same time, the impact of culture and social activities on learning in and out of school, especially in informal settings, is gaining increased attention.

In spite of the heightened recognition of the importance of social factors for learning, the relevant mechanisms are not well understood. The LIFE Center is a multi-institution group of scientists whose purpose is to develop and test principles regarding the social foundations of learning. LIFE Center investigators focus on complex human learning over the lifespan with the goal of understanding how and why human social processes affect learning. LIFE Center findings will inform learning theories, influence educational practices, and affect technologies designed to enhance learning.


The LIFE Center's purpose is to develop and test principles about the social foundations of human learning in informal and formal environments with the goal of enhancing human learning from infancy to adulthood.


The LIFE Center has defined two missions that reflect an interest in the social foundations of learning:

1. To identify and investigate underlying principles of how people learn socially by strategically sampling learning across settings, domains, and ages, and by using multiple methodologies (neurobiological, cognitive, developmental, and socio-cultural) to create an integrative synthesis.

2. To foster research and education collaborations with individual and institutional partners, and to promote qualitative improvements, both theoretical and practical, in our collective capacities for understanding and supporting human learning.


Our selection of the "social foundations of learning" as LIFE's purpose derived from four factors: (a) Center-wide LIFE discussions of our findings with the goal of identifying common principles across diverse settings, domains, and ages, (b) identification of learning features in both informal and formal settings, (c) new advances in related fields, (d) a consensus among LIFE's scientists that the role of "social" in learning is underrepresented in current thinking about the science of learning.

Early in our development as a Science of Learning Center, the LIFE Center developed a representation (Figure 1) to provide a visualization of the amount of time people spend learning in formal and informal learning environments. LIFE Center scientists were struck by two facts. First, school-aged children spend about 19% of their time in formal settings such as school, and the remaining 81% time in informal settings. Second, at many developmental ages most of our learning occurs in informal settings. Young children from birth to 5 years of age learn primarily in informal settings; and as adults, we learn in informal workplace environments. Much of human learning is done in informal learning environments--in the "sea of blue." What characterizes learning in the "sea of blue?" A key factor in informal learning settings is their highly social nature.

Figure 1: The LIFE Center Lifelong and Lifewide Learning Diagram - Citation Details

the LIFE Center's Lifelong and Lifewide Diagram by LIFE Center is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.
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The scope of LIFE's mission is illustrated below in Figure 2. LIFE is systematically working in a number of different environments, and across different ages, in order to provide sufficient variability for problem finding, hypothesis testing, and theory building to address our purpose of investigating the social foundations of learning in informal and formal settings.

In Figure 2 below, each number (1-8) represents one or more LIFE research projects involving settings and ages: (1) learning in infancy; (2) early school-age including formal and informal environments; (3) formal K-12 environments; (4) informal environments for middle school students (e.g., clubs, museums and family homes, and connections across these environments and to schools); (5) community college and college environments; (6) graduate training of pre-service teachers; (7) interdisciplinary training of LIFE graduate students and post-docs; and (8) workplace environments. LIFE researchers are making use of the variability found across these settings to uncover key issues of learning that can easily remain invisible if they are not systematically explored under such variation. LIFE's sampling of settings, domains, and ages is enhanced by collaborations with a variety of individual and institutional partners, in keeping with the goal expressed by Mission 2. We have a number of successful illustrations of that strategy.

Figure 2: The LIFE Center Lifelong and Lifewide Learning Diagram: Illustrated Samples. Numbers represent strategic LIFE sampling across settings, domains and ages to uncover principles of social foundations, social practices, and social designs in learning - Citation Details

the LIFE Center's Lifelong and Lifewide Diagram by LIFE Center is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.
Creative Commons License

About the National Science Foundation Science of Learning Centers Program

The National Science Foundation Science of Learning Centers Program (SLC) supports research that harnesses and integrates knowledge across multiple disciplines to create a common groundwork of conceptualization, experimentation and explanation that anchor new lines of thinking and inquiry towards a deeper understanding of the science of learning. Learn more at the NSF SLC website: http://www.nsf.gov/slc

The LIFE Center is one of six currently funded Science of Learning Centers around the U.S.:

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