How We Learn by Stanislas Dehaene

Written by Alan Edmiston

How We Learn by Stanislas Dehaene (ISBN: 9780141989303)

I was first introduced to the work of this neuroscientist by Mundher Adhami many years ago. Michael Shayer and Mundher drew upon his work during the development of the Let’s Think Maths lessons for Key Stage 1 and at the time I found his book, The Number Sense to be a revelation. Back then it was helpful to read a book that actually gave real insights into how the growing understanding of the brain could help teachers in the classroom. The impact then was a careful rethinking of my understanding of the development of mathematical thinking during early childhood. The early part of this century saw the educational press awash with books about the brain, many of which made some rather grand claims about the application of neuroscience to the learning process and the actions of the teacher in the classroom. Philip Adey refers to several of these issues in his last publication, Bad Education, which I would strongly recommend you reading for a deeper reflection on the place of Let’s Think within education.

To say I enjoyed How we learn would be an understatement. I found it stimulating, challenging and accessible which is actually quite something given the number of chapters on brain imaging and the multiple references to obscure areas of the brain I think I should know. How We Learn has given me even more to think about for it has made me question my own understanding of the brain and how it impacts the learning taking place in my classroom. For a week after putting down the book I weighed up my classroom practice against the advice in this book which is also titled The New Science of Education and the Brain. Until recently any author claiming to give direct teaching advice based upon brain science was given very little space in my thinking. This is in part due to the spurious science that is often involved when someone claims to tell you how the brain learns and the movement pushing learning styles and other such oversimplifications of science as quick educational fixes.

This book however is among an emerging breed of practical application texts concerning brain science. It seeks to use scientists’ growing understanding of brain development and function to provide clear and simple advice that can transform our classrooms. Dehaene is a very well respected neuroscientist who is both measured and thoughtful in the advice he gives and also one who is mindful of the claims he is making.

What is helpful, is how his understanding of how the brain works can be applied to learning and specifically learning that takes place in school. There is a lovely episode on page 189 where there is an appeal to allow mirth and laughter to have a place in the learning process. This is timely advice for I finished this book on the 8th of March the day when children in England returned to school after lockdown2. I wonder how much laughter was heard after all those months of silence?

Part Three of this book gave me the most food for thought for here he outlines the pedagogical features that need to be present for efficient learning to take place: attention, active engagement, error feedback and consolidation.  As a Let’s Think Tutor three of these resonated very strongly with me. His reference to the idea of error feedback contained a really interesting take on cognitive conflict (a key feature of all Let’s Think teaching). The subheading for one section in this chapter was ‘surprise is the driving force of learning’ and to qualify what he means he quotes research that states that: ‘organisms only learn when events violate their expectations’ which helped me to look afresh at this aspect of my teaching and planning. I also found his focus upon attention quite interesting as this referred to what pupils attend to and my own understanding of how to engage pupils. I have now come to see that Let’s Think lessons contain triggers that engage children and to support their talking. Triggers can be part of the lesson or ideas that focus pupils such as in one lesson recently where I used the idea of the r-number to focus pupils on the nature of exponential growth. Active engagement connects with the idea of social construction in Let’s Think and the fact we are supporting pupils to working collaboratively on a shared challenge. Dehaene states that the brain learns efficiently only if it is attentive, focused, and active in generating mental models and in Let’s Think this is best done with other adolescents for the words of a 12 year old are more accessible to another peer of the same age than mine. Consolidation concerns time and the importance of sleep in the learning process.  Let’s Think works because it takes time i.e. two years as we seek to enrich and balance our students diet of experiences within the classroom.

Each of the sections above are practical and helpful and serve to lead the reader towards the main aim of the book which is to provide a neuroscience-informed approach to educationThe highlight of this section are the thirteen easy applicable action points of which I will relate numbers 6, 7 and 13.

  • Keep children active, curious, engaged and autonomous,
  • Make every school day enjoyable,
  • Let students sleep!

There is much here to support the pupils we are so passionate about and I aim to distil more of the gems contained within How We Learn for the rest of this year and beyond.