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4 key elements for successful learning according to a famous neuroscientist

Stanislas Dehaene is one of Europe’s leading cognitive neuroscientists. He heads the INSERM-CEA Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit​ (Unicog) near Paris and uses advanced scientific techniques to study how culture and biology interact in the human brain. His research centers on topics related to mathematical cognition, reading, language, bilingualism, and consciousness.

He presents the results of his research to the general public in a number of public talks and works, including the book How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine . . . for Now. His research offers great insight into our brain's learning abilities and reveals fascinating facts about what he calls the “four pillars of learning” - the most important conditions for effective learning and respective strategies to be a successful learner at school, university and at any other point in one's life.

Here they are:

First pillar: Attention

According to Dehaene, it has been discovered that attention plays a great role in learning because it acts as an amplifier of selected information, allowing us to retain and absorb it more effectively. However, if a person doesn't pay attention to a particular thing, it will simply slip through the cracks, being stopped at the gates of our brain.

Considering a powerful impact that attention has on learning outcomes, both negative (the lack of it can disrupt learning completely) and positive, it is particularly important to create the right conditions and environment for different types of learners, including school and university students.

In practice, it means that teachers should be able to engage students, directing their attention to what they want them to learn, and need to make sure that there aren't any distractions in a classroom, including excessive decoration.

Second and third pillars: Active engagement and correction of mistakes

Our brains are wired in such a way that they cannont learn passively. Students should be given space to offer their own hypotheses, try different explanations and make mistakes along the way. At the same time, they need to receive a proper correction ("the error signal") from a teacher or from themselves when they realize that something doesn't add up.

At the same time, Dehaene points out that existing grading systems are not suitable for this purpose because they are not good error signals: they don't provide enough information and don't leave any room for correction and improvement.

Forth pillar: Consolidation

When we receive new information or try to develop new skills, it takes time for our brain to consolidate this knowledge and begin using or applying it automatically, almost without a second thought. And sleep plays a very important role in this process.

Neuroscientists have discovered that when we sleep, our brain repeats what we have learnt during the day many times, helping us consolidate this new information. Studies show that sometimes a problem one struggles with can be solved by simply going to bed and trying again after a good night's sleep.

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