CogSciSci Book review: How We Learn: The New Science of Education and the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene

A book review by Dom Shibli – Senior Lecturer in Secondary Science at the University of Hertfordshire

This is a book I read a few months ago. But instead of being returned to the bookshelf for me to look at and reminisce, it is now inundated with Post it notes and used to inform planning of my course for next year. I want to give you a taster as to why you should read this book because I think the valuable time you will put into reading it will be worth it.

In starting my book review I want to start at the end. In the final paragraph of the book Dehaene writes:

‘Just as medicine is based on biology, the field of education must be grounded in a systematic and rigorous research ecosystem that brings together teachers, patients, and researchers, in a ceaseless search for more effective, evidence-based learning strategies.’

I am not an expert in the field of neuroscience and it is hard for me to be critical about the work done in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to make inferences about how the mind works. But Dehaene doesn’t just argue that the brain is a complicated computer and from reading the book I do get a sense of his understanding of the beautiful complexity of being a human.

Dehaene divides the book into 3 sections. He defines learning, uses case studies and data from MRI studies to then explain how the mind works before identifying ‘The Four Pillars of Learning’. He interweaves the narrative with tales from the human struggle to develop Artificial Intelligence (AI) which I think is to demonstrate how wonderfully complex the human mind is. Having demonstrated how he thinks the mind works he uses this information to introduce ‘The Four Pillars of Learning’

  1. Attention
  2. Active Engagement
  3. Error Feedback
  4. Consolidation

He suggests that ‘each of them plays an essential role in the stability of our mental constructions’. For those of you who are interested in learning  I doubt these would be controversial choices as ‘Pillars of Learning’ but how Dehaene elucidates them makes them essential for every teacher to know. Especially because if one of these is weak or absent then the learning process falls down. So an effective teacher is one who understands how these work and deploys them in their classroom.

Attention – Teachers need to teach students how to pay attention. This is because attention is a limited resource and if a student fails to pay attention they might be completely oblivious to their teacher’s message. So attention is an essential ingredient to successful learning and a good teacher is able to direct attention like a conductor standing in front of an orchestra.

A lovely example of how paying attention and social learning can have an unwelcome influence on the learning process is an experiment where babies watched adults press a button with their head. They did this because their hands were tied up. In observing this when the babies did the experiment they pressed the button with their hands. In a second experiment the babies observed an adult press the button with their head but this time there hands were not tied up. The babies saw this and also pushed the button with their heads. We can absorb information whether we know it to be truthful or not thus maintaining long disproven theories. Since we have the capacity to be unthinking copycats teachers should try and direct attention and not leave the learning process to chance.

Active Engagement – This does not mean moving around the room gathering information. Active engagement takes place in the mind and not the feet! Dehaene quotes another titan in the field of psychology, Richard Mayer, who writes that best success is achieved with ‘methods of instruction that involve cognitive activity rather than behavioural activity’. Daniel Willingham has written about how humans find thinking effortful. A teacher will be successful if they can stimulate curiosity which encourages thinking. If this thinking is translated into success then the effort of the student is rewarded. This is why I aim to make learning visible to the students in the classroom. I especially found that lower attaining students liked knowing that they had got something right and aimed to do this in every lesson so that I could try and short circuit their negative feelings towards my subject which they thought they couldn’t do.

Error Feedback – Dehaene states that a teacher should tell the truth and not judge when giving feedback. But my favourite line from this chapter is that ‘feedback reduces learner uncertainty’. So ask yourself about how you respond to students in the classroom and in their exercise books. If what you do doesn’t reduce uncertainty do it differently. He also suggests that memory is not about looking to the past but about its role in sending data to the future so we can access it later. When you can’t access it then you know that is has not been learned.

Consolidation –  If you can gain fluency then the effort required in the mind is reduced and so frees up mental resources to focus in other areas. By giving students the opportunity to practice something repeatedly there is a shift from slow, conscious and effortful processing to fast, unconscious and automatic responses.

The final chapter sums up how the field of neuroscience and education should exist together. Throughout the book Dehaene demonstrates that our brains are all the same and as teachers you should judge a child’s level and teach them accordingly. Notice students’ attention in your classroom, keep them curious and engaged (develop a sensible curriculum), make the school day enjoyable, design activities that support cognitive activity, accept mistakes, correct them and practice regularly. His final thought is about the importance of sleep and suggests that it might strengthen memory. Although it is not an excuse for falling asleep in the classroom.

I have left lots out of the book which I hope might encourage you to read it. This is not a Greatest Hits with all the well known tracks referenced. I picked out aspects of the book I liked, so read it and make your own greatest hits.

Thanks Dom for reviewing the book. If anyone else reads a book that they think other CogSci teachers might enjoy please get in touch. We would love you to review it for us!

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