How do we learn?
When I started planning the webinars for EdYOUfest and realized I would have to deliver one myself, I thought really hard about what topic I wanted to address. It just so happened that a very special book was lying on the table right in front of me. It was How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better than Any Machine… For Now by Stanislas Dehaene.
Stanislas Dehaene is a cognitive neuroscientist from France, professor of Experimental Cognitive Psychology, and researcher at Collège de France with a special interest in reading, numeracy, and consciousness. In his excellent book, he proposes a framework for understanding how the human brain processes and acquires new knowledge. His work is so influential that I was inspired by it when I designed the cognitive sphere of my Learning Cosmos conceptual framework. According to Dehaene (2020), cognition basically has to do with the following:
- ATTENTION: The ability to selectively focus on specific stimuli in the environment, and to filter out distractions.
- MEMORY: The ability to encode, store, and retrieve information from long-term memory.
- LANGUAGE: The ability to use and understand spoken and written language, which is essential for communication and learning.
- EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONS: The cognitive processes that allow us to plan, prioritize, and perform complex tasks. These include problem-solving, decision-making, and flexibility.
These cognitive processes are at the heart of learning. They’re so vital that:
We can compare the cognitive sphere to Earth’s conditions to support life, such as the presence of liquid water and breathable air.Me, the Learning Cosmos
In fact, if there’s any universal formula for learning, we should probably look at Eric Kandel’s work. Kandel won a Nobel Prize for his work on sea slugs and the neurophysiology of learning. He is cited in Dehaene’s book and in Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa’s work as well. He actually contributed to the field of Mind, Brain, and Education with one of its principles:
Learning requires attention and memoryEric Kandel
I always tell my Language and Cognition as well as my MBE students that if we’re not paying attention, we’re not taking in the stimuli from the environment. If we’re not taking in these stimuli, we’re not making memories. If we’re not making memories, there’s nothing to retrieve later on. In short, inattentive students need to attend to the materials at a later time to be able to learn – and that might be more difficult since they’ll probably need to do it on their own.
What are the four pillars?
Back to Dehaene’s work. He claims that the universal basis for learning can be categorized into four pillars that should work together to support learning and cognitive development. By understanding how they function and how they interact with each other, we can better understand how the brain processes and acquires new knowledge. I like the pillar analogy because, as I mentioned in my EdYOUfest talk, we need pillars to support a structure. You can think of a house, a tall building, or a bridge. With structures supported by just a few pillars, however strong they are, remove one and you’ll likely undermine the whole structure.
The four pillars of learning are:
- Active Engagement
- Error Feedback
Dehaene starts by saying that attention is the solution to an environment of information saturation. Indeed, just think about the overwhelming amount of information we’re exposed to on a daily basis. One example and interesting fact he mentions is that Artificial Intelligence got better when it learned to pay attention. Searching for patterns in big datasets is a truly herculean task. Machines have a lot of processing power, sure, but even so, if they have nothing to pay attention to, they’ll end up doing a lot of unnecessary things.
According to Posner, as mentioned in the book, we have three major attention systems:
- Executive Attention
They basically tell our brains when to, what to, and how to attend to things respectively. So it’s not enough that you got your students’ attention. It needs to be sustained and directed. Think of alertness as the notification bell you get from social media or the alarm clock that goes off when you need to do something. Orienting is like the beam of a flashlight in the dark or the spotlight of a theater. Executive attention is like the control board.
Since attention is a scarce resource, we shouldn’t just know where to direct it but we must also learn how to suppress unwanted information.
What can that tell me about my class?
- Remove unnecessary distractions from your classroom (too many posters on the wall for instance)
- Call your students’ attention when something is vital. Telling them that you’ll share something important is a good strategy but might not be enough.
- Check if your students are paying attention. Ask Concept Checking Questions (CCQs) sometimes
- Share attention with your students (social interaction) and use cues to direct their attention to things (look or point at what they need to attend to)
Sitting passively equals not learning. As simple as that. The problem is assessing who’s sitting passively or who is actively engaged. Dehaene debunks the myth that we need to be constantly moving to learn, although movement is certainly connected to learning. The idea is that we need to be attentive and engaged (mentally) with the class. In other words, receiving lots of input and not creating mental models, taking notes or asking questions to check understanding pretty much means that our students are not learning very well.
According to Dehaene, the American psychologist Henry Roediger put it simply:
Making learning conditions more difficult, thus requiring students to engage more cognitive effort, often leads to enhanced retention
That connects with the idea of deep processing as well. Back in the 70s, when Craik and Lockhart created their memory model known as Levels of Processing, they had already discussed the idea that deeper enconding makes things more memorable. That doesn’t mean that anything works well. In fact, Dehaene reminds us that:
The fundamentally correct view that children must be attentively and actively engaged in their own learning must not be confused with classical constructivism or discovery learning methods – which are seductive ideas whose ineffectiveness has, unfortunately, been repeatedly demonstrated.Dehaene, 2020, p. 181-182
Many of the things children and teenagers are expected to discover on their own or through minimal guidance took centuries of observations and experimentations for humans to find. These concepts can be quite abstract as well.
Dehaene reinforces that both the idea of digital natives as well as learning styles are urban legends and educators should not base what they do on these notions. What then should be taken into consideration when promoting active engagement?
Tapping into our students’ natural curiosity will trigger the reward system in the brain that leads to motivation because of the release of dopamine. That relates to metacognition because curiosity is born from being aware of what we don’t know and having the drive to find out. A metacognitive person does exactly that. They reflect on what they know, what they don’t know and how they can come to know what they don’t know. In other words, the think about their cognitive processes and learn how to learn.
What can that tell me about my class?
- Maintain curiosity by stimulating your students according to their levels of competence and by rewarding it
- Boost students’ confidence by showing them that they can learn as long as they employ the best strategies and that tasks are adapted even though they might be struggling
- Help students who are disappointed in school to rediscover the pleasure of learning something
- Discovery learning can only yield good results in very specific contexts where concepts are not too abstract and when students are more autonomous. Do not demonize explicit instruction
- Be contagious. Teachers’ attitudes and enthusiasm can affect students’ curiosity
Stanislas Dehaene’s third pillar of learning is error feedback. He dedicates a few pages to a theory that also goes back to the 70s: The Rescorla-Wagner rule. It suggests that learning occurs when an individual encounters a new stimulus that is associated with a particular outcome. The strength of this association is determined by the extent to which the outcome is surprising or unexpected. In other words, if a person expects a certain outcome and that outcome occurs, then learning is not likely to occur. However, if the outcome is unexpected or surprising, then learning is more likely to occur.
The Rescorla-Wagner rule also proposes that the amount of learning that occurs is determined by the strength of the association between the stimulus and the outcome. If the association is already strong, then little learning will occur. However, if the association is weak, then more learning will occur.
Therefore, Dehaene claims that organisms learn when events violate their expectations, and surprise is the essential drive for learning. Making errors is, contrary to what many believe, the basis of learning. In fact, our brains swarm with error messages from the many error signals we receive whenever something unexpected happens.
Next, Dehaene emphasizes the role of feedback. He claims it is incredibly important in learning, it should not be synonymous with punishment and the best type is immediate, objective, and reassuring. That’s why grades are not always the best substitute for feedback, as they only provide a number and they can be profoundly unfair and misguided. Feedback needs to feed back, that is, provide students with information on how well they did. Getting an A or an F weeks after a task with no other information will most likely not tell students what they need to do to improve.
What works then when it comes to error feedback?
- Self-testing or retrieval practice
- Spaced repetition
Self-testing involves actively retrieving information from memory and that works because research shows it enhances long-term learning. It can not only help students check what they know, but also allow them to identify gaps in their knowledge and focus their studying efforts on areas where they need the most improvement. The same is true of spaced repetition. Many decades of research have shown that distributing practice over time beats cramming when we’re looking for better retention.
What can that tell me about my class?
- Surprise students with tasks that tap into their curiosity
- Provide detailed feedback as soon as possible. Use games and online platforms to help
- Don’t work with grades exclusively. Add comments to your students’ assignments, presentations, and exams
- Start your lessons with a quiz and allow students to retrieve information throughout the lesson at key moments
- Think-Pair-Share is a good way to have students create predictions and learn more effectively
- Revisit the things you taught with a certain frequency so that students can check how much they still remember
Dehaene invites us to think about how things come more naturally to us after practice. So think of what distinguishes experts from novices. Novices have to make conscious efforts to learn something, which fills up their working memory and leaves them unable to do anything else. Think about when you were learning how to drive. In contrast, think of a F1 driver. Experts can perform tasks effortlessly and automatically, as they have consolidated their knowledge into their long-term memory and practiced under many different circumstances over the years.
That’s what consolidation is about. It refers to the process of transferring information from the working memory to the long-term memory and it is achieved through the strengthening of neural connections or “wiring” between neurons. Remember?
Neurons that fire together, wire together,
Making things more automatic in the brain by creating and strengthening neural networks means that we can free up brain resources for other purposes. Imagine how hard things would be if we had to always make a conscious effort to do anything?
Now, we must remember that consolidation requires spacing, revisiting things, and testing oneself. That’s so because of a very important biological function: sleep. It is crucial to consolidation, especially declarative memory. When people sleep, their brain replays the things they have seen, heard, and experienced, facilitating the consolidation of memories. Additionally, sleep enables people to connect the dots and form new insights, as the brain’s level of abstraction is incredibly high when people dream. Dehaene even wonders if machines will have to sleep in the future to evolve.
What matters then when we want our students to consolidate their learning?
What can that tell me about my class?
- Repetition is key when we want consolidation to take place
- Scaffold what you’re teaching carefully and add a new layer of challenge as things progress
- Make sure you assign things to be done the following day so that students can sleep in between and retrieve
- Talk to parents about how late their kids go to bed and if they’re exposed to too much screen time
- You can tell parents to encourage their kids to take naps because they can enhance consolidation as well
Stanislas Dehaene’s four pillars of learning provide valuable insights into how the human brain learns and processes information. By understanding these four pillars, teachers can create effective learning environments that facilitate students’ growth and development. In 2023, if teachers should learn anything, no matter what subject area they work with, I hope they learn these pillars. It is high time we had a better understanding of how the brain works so that we can truly help our students achieve better learning outcomes.
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