LRDC’s Greeno was ‘a giant in the field of cognitive sciences’

Learning Research and Development Center senior scientist James Greeno, whom former dean of the School of Education Alan Lesgold recently recalled as an “Isaac Newton for the world of learning and education,” died Sept. 8, 2020.

In a book of remembrances for Greeno's family, Lesgold recalled meeting Greeno when Greeno was an established professor at the University of Michigan and Lesgold was a student at Stanford.

“I always felt like he was a fellow student,” Lesgold said. “Jim was always humble, decent and a good listener. When he had something to say, it was worth hearing.

“Jim’s work spanned some major evolutions of learning theory,” he said. At Berkeley in 1984, for instance, Greeno began focusing on “how learning theory could be relevant to real learning in school and elsewhere rather than the abstracted learning performances of the laboratory,” concentrating on the learning of math and science.

“Throughout the second half of his career, Jim looked hard at the interactions and artifacts that promote learning, including Socratic dialogue and diagrams, as well as at what is learned and how what is learned is structured,” Lesgold added.

The resemblance to Newton, he said, arose when “Jim immersed himself both in the world of theory and formalisms and in the real world of school learning,” for a career that “was stellar and important both in scholarly and in social terms …

“As a gentleman, as a scholar, and as an advocate for better schooling, Jim will be missed greatly. I certainly am a better person when I try to emulate his actions, disposition, analytical thinking and kindness.”

Greeno had two stints on the Pitt faculty — first in the LRDC as a psychology faculty member in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, and then as a School of Education faculty member from 2003 until his death. A recent University-published article notes that he had moved back to Pitt from Stanford to be near his children and grandchildren. He co-taught courses in the school’s Ph.D. program, including the new doctoral program in learning sciences and policy.

The school’s associate dean and former Greeno colleague, Kevin Crowley, said in the article that Greeno was “a giant in the field of cognitive sciences and learning sciences. He helped us to rethink how to define, how to support, and how to understand conceptions of teaching and learning. He also got us out of the lab and into the places where learning occurs.”

Born on May 1, 1935, Greeno was co-founder and senior research fellow of the Institute for Research on Learning in California, and held leadership positions with the National Academy of Education; the Society of Experimental Psychologists; Federation of Behavioral, Psychological and Cognitive Sciences; Cognitive Science Society; Psychonomic Society; Society for Mathematical Psychology; American Psychological Association; American Educational Research Association; American Association for the Advancement of Science and others.

He was executive editor of Cognitive Science and received a Guggenheim Fellowship, J. McKeen Catrell Award and E.L. Thorndike Award from the APA.

Greeno is survived by his wife, Noreen Herreid Greeno; son John; daughter Catherine; grandchildren Emily, James and Grace Greeno and Jack Fischbeck; daughter-in-law Patricia Greeno and son-in-law Paul Fischbeck.

Memorial donations are suggested to the James G. Greeno Scholarship Fund to assist Pitt undergraduates, through this link or by check to the University of Pittsburgh with “James G. Greeno Fund” in the memo line, to the University of Pittsburgh, Philanthropic & Alumni Engagement, 107 Park Plaza, 128 N. Craig St., Pittsburgh, PA 15260.