How Our Brain Is Programmed To Learn – What Every Parent And Educator Should Know

Cognitive neuroscientist and psychologist Stanislas Dehaene's book, How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine, offers key insights into the science behind learning

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As a parent and education advocate, I am deeply passionate about how our brain works. I am constantly looking to uncover the secret behind the most successful learning models and pedagogies, not only so that I can help my own kids, but so that I can help better amplify the message and scale access to such programs for all children. 

One of my favorite books on the matter is How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine, in which a leading cognitive neuroscientist and psychologist Stanislas Dehaene explains the science behind learning. He examines what knowledge we are born with, and how we learn new knowledge including what impacts our ability to learn? And how do we compare with machine learning? And what is the best use of the brain’s learning algorithms in education? 

Dehaene determines that (at least to date) the human brain learns better than any machine.  “While the current advances in computer science are fascinating, their limits are evident,” Dehaene says. “Conventional deep learning algorithms mimic only a small part of our brain’s functioning.”

Key Takeaways for Educators and Parents

Dehaene explains that the secret to learning requires the following four things:

Attention: In order to effectively teach something, you must have captured students’ attention. It is critical to student learning, so here are some tips to capture their attention:

  • You can alert, highlight, or orient your students to the most important information by sharing your attention.
  • Don’t over-decorate the classroom, as it can distract and lead to information overload. Keep it simple and repeat the most relevant information.
  • Ensure an appropriate learning level for the students – when something seems too easy or too difficult, students will lose attention.
  • Use culturally relevant content to tap into already-acquired student interests, which holds their attention. 

Curiosity (aka active engagement): Students learn through active as opposed to passive engagement. Promoting curiosity and effort encourages students to learn better:

  • Adopt a growth mindset, so that failures are not punished but seen as learning opportunities.
  • Pure exploration without guidance is not effective, but guiding the exploration with questions, rather than lecturing, promotes student participation.

Feedback: In order to learn you need to have immediate error and success feedback: 

  • Feedback should be immediate or close thereto, so pop quizzes are more effective than graded tests that are returned weeks after taking them.
  • Allow students to self-reflect.  On our music education platform, WURRLYedu, we encourage recording oneself and reflecting on the song or performance as a regular habit, so students provide their own error feedback. It is best to do this early in one’s practice not just at the final performance as the expectation is not for a finished product and it will be easier to make corrections as needed. Also make sure to celebrate successes, and provide feedback for what was done well.
  • Avoid punishment and keep feedback constructive! Giving grades without corrective feedback is often perceived as mere punishment.

Consolidation: Consolidation of information is where knowledge becomes automated. In order to consolidate we need:

  • Repetition: encourage practice every day.
  • Sleep: encourage students to make the most of the night by getting enough sleep. When we sleep, we re-learn and transfer conscious knowledge to long-term memory, consolidating, and freeing the brain up for further learning. A great tip for exam times is to review information right before going to bed, so it will be fresh in your brain for processing.

As parents, we can also reinforce these pillars at home with our children – including optimizing a learner’s attention, promoting curiosity by making learning feel fun and challenging (but not too challenging), offering positive feedback and the opportunity to learn from mistakes, while also encouraging sleep. I also shared and will continue to discuss and challenge these pillars with my children, so that they can make positive choices for themselves.

And as the founder of WURRLYedu, I was pleased to see that our philosophy of learning which is “Inspire, Practice, Record, Reflect,” combined with our easy-to-use recording tools and feedback loops fully supports Dehaene’s pillars of learning. It is a highly insightful book, and well worth a read for educators and parents alike.

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