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Stanford professor emeritus and prominent learning sciences scholar, James G. Greeno, dies at 85

James G. Greeno
Stanford Professor Emeritus James G. Greeno was an expert in learning sciences. (Photo credit: Adam Tow)

Stanford professor emeritus and prominent learning sciences scholar, James G. Greeno, dies at 85

Greeno helped develop the theory of situated learning, which emphasizes the influence of social interactions and environment on learning.

Stanford Graduate School of Education Professor Emeritus James G. Greeno, a renowned scholar who made important contributions in the learning sciences and was known for his soft touch in guiding graduate students in their own research pursuits, died on Sept. 8 at home in Pittsburgh after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 85.

After studying with associates of B.F. Skinner’s at the University of Minnesota, Greeno became a well-known experimental psychologist before transforming himself into a scholar of cognitive science. He later helped develop the theory known as situated learning, which emphasizes the influence of social interactions and a person’s environment on the learning process. The evolution of his career occurred simultaneously with the evolution of the field of educational psychology, generally, but Greeno’s ability—and willingness—to adapt his thinking and approach were unusual, colleagues say.

“One of the things I loved about Jim was that he came of age when psychology was all about behaviorism; it ruled out the possibility of knowing what was going on in a person’s head or gut or emotions,” says Professor Emeritus Raymond McDermott. “And he was at the top of that field when he started to get interested in what the behaviorists couldn’t say. The alternative was to find out how people did their thinking, and Jim got to be famous and on top of that field” too.

Generous mentor

Greeno was also generous in his commitment to developing the next generation of learning science scholars, inviting the graduate students who studied under him to conferences and other events where he was a featured speaker and into the home he shared with his wife and two children. He was not quick to offer verbal praise or encouragement; instead he expressed his approval and support more subtly.

“He was not good at saying, ‘Good job,’” recalls Melissa S. Gresalfi, MA ’01, PhD ’04, Greeno’s last PhD student at Stanford and now a professor at Vanderbilt University. But, “if you said something he thought was interesting or profound or right on, he would give you a little wink. I became an avid consumer of the wink.”

Jim was a leader in moving the field of education to a more situated and contextualized exploration of learning.” – GSE Dean Daniel Schwartz

Greeno was born on May 1, 1935, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and later lived in Le Sueur, Minnesota. His parents died when he was young, and he was raised by a stepmother and her husband, working during high school and college at a Green Giant Company cannery. As an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota, he met his future wife, Noreen, who vetted him for a role on the student government. Greeno earned his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in psychology on the Twin Cities campus before embarking on his own career in educational psychology, which included stints at Indiana University, the University of Michigan, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of California at Berkeley. In 1987, he landed at Stanford.

“Jim was a leader in moving the field of education to a more situated and contextualized exploration of learning,” says Stanford GSE Dean Daniel Schwartz, who adds that Greeno was the reason he (also an expert in learning sciences) joined Stanford’s faculty in 2000. “He was a fully engaged mentor, scholar, and family man. He will be missed.”

Greeno co-founded the Institute for Research on Learning, a non-profit initially funded by Xerox that was dedicated to demonstrating how artificial intelligence and cognitive science could be applied to learning. One of Greeno’s major projects there was to develop an entire curriculum for grade 6-8 math students in collaboration with Stanford Professor Emerita Shelley Goldman and dozens of local teachers.

At Stanford, Greeno served as director of the Symbolic Systems Program from 1989 to 1992. He was the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education and professor, by courtesy, of psychology. He focused his research on learning and problem solving, especially in math and science.

Acclaimed scholar

Greeno was a prolific writer whose work spanned decades and realms of inquiry and continues to be relied on today. He held leadership roles at the National Academy of Education, the American Educational Research Association, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, among other organizations. He was a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, and served on the editorial teams of several publications, including as executive editor of Cognitive Science.

Despite all that, Greeno always understated his own prominence.

“There was a part of Jim that was very low key from his Birkenstocks to his brain,” says Goldman, laughing at the memory of his favorite footwear. “He always introduced himself the same: ‘My main job is that I teach at Stanford.’ We worked a lot with teachers, so he was saying, ‘I’m like you,’ but he also never wanted to go first with his status.”

Greeno’s oldest child, John, says his father definitely brought what he was learning about learning home although he and his sister didn’t realize that at the time.

“I had to learn to tie some knots for Boy Scouts, and there was one knot I just couldn’t get, and he just kept at it and gave me some different ways of thinking about it,” he says. “Eventually, it worked, and I use that knot to this day tying kayaks to the car.”

Gresalfi says Greeno used the same approach with his graduate students.

“I said all kinds of ridiculous things” early in the advisor-advisee relationship, she remembers. “And he could have just said, ‘That’s wrong.’ But he never did. When he gave me the space to talk things through, that is an act of faith and kindness. He always reframed my doubts as indications that I just hadn’t learned all the things I had to learn yet.”

Greeno remained active in his chosen fields as long as he could. In 2003, he took emeritus status at Stanford to return to the University of Pittsburgh to be closer to his grown children and their families.

Greeno is survived by Noreen Herreid Greeno, his wife of 63 years; his son John Greeno and his wife Patricia; his daughter Catherine Greeno and her husband Paul Fischbeck; and four grandchildren.


A wonderful career, and a life well-lived...

Kind, open, helpful, and curious in his intellectual life, Jim was always ready to step in to help all of us who wanted to know what he was up to "these days." I last saw him in Pittsburgh where he appeared at a lecture I was giving on the future of theater as a boost for the cognitive, social, and physical health of folks across all ages. He was curious, deeply interested, and asked such strong thoughtful questions. He certainly had a strong influence on my thinking about how scholars need to remain ever ready to think in different ways. We will miss his presence.

Thanks for this great obituary, it rings true. I finished my PhD in '97 co-directed by Jim and Ray McDermott. Our seminars could be frustrating because of his insistence not to be the one directing the conversation and sometimes it could go directionless for a long time. I only remember him showing disagreement when I had in mind a change of scholarly direction that really didn't make sense (in retrospect). Even then, his disagreement was so subtle you had to know him to see how strongly he felt. It all worked out in the end.

Now I know what it meant when he winked at me! Jim Greeno was on my dissertation committee and served as a mentor for me when I was a Stanford graduate student in the 1990s. I learned a lot from him. He was kind and generous with his time. I was the better for having been one of his students.

Jim Greeno was a mentor for me when I was a grad student in Mathematics Education at Stanford. He was a wise and caring man and I am the better for having him in my life during those years. I'm glad he had such a full, rich life.

Now I now the meaning of all those winks.

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