How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine . . . for Now

By Stanislas Dehaene

Recommended on: 13th March 2020

Cheery Friday Greetings to our Learning How to Learners!

Book of the Month

How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine . . . for Now, by Stanislas Dehaene. This is the best book around, hands down, on how the brain learns. Part of the brilliance of Dehaene’s book is that he breaks everything down into easy-to-understand insights that allow you to grasp the big picture without getting bogged down in the minutia of complex neural interactions.  

Dehaene also describes why discovery learning is so problematic in comparison with explicit teaching: “[Discovery learning] is attractive. Unfortunately, multiple studies, spread over several decades, demonstrate that its pedagogical value is close to zero—and this finding has been replicated so often that one researcher entitled his review paper ‘Should There Be a Three-Strikes Rule against Pure Discovery Learning?’ When children are left to themselves, they have great difficulty discovering the abstract rules that govern a domain, and they learn much less, if anything at all. Should we be surprised by this? How could we imagine that children would rediscover, in a few hours and without any external guidance, what humanity took centuries to discern? At any rate, the failures are resounding in all areas: 

  • In reading: Mere exposure to written words usually leads to nothing unless children are explicitly told about the presence of letters and their correspondence with speech sounds. Few children manage to correlate written and spoken language by themselves…. The task would be out of reach if teachers did not carefully guide children through an ordered set of well-chosen examples, simple words, and isolated letters. 
  • In mathematics: It is said that at the age of seven, the brilliant mathematician Carl Gauss (1777–1855) discovered, all by himself, how to quickly add the numbers from one to one hundred (think about it—I give the solution in the notes…). What worked for Gauss, however, may not apply to other children. Research is clear on this point: learning works best when math teachers first go through an example, in some detail, before letting their students tackle similar problems on their own. Even if children are bright enough to discover the solution by themselves, they later end up performing worse than other children who were first shown how to solve a problem before being left to their own means. 
  • In computer science: In his book Mindstorms (1980), computer scientist Seymour Papert explains why he invented the Logo computer language (famous for its computerized turtle that draws patterns on the screen). Papert’s idea was to let children explore computers on their own, without instruction, by getting hands-on experience. Yet the experiment was a failure: after a few months, the children could write only small, simple programs. The abstract concepts of computer science eluded them, and on a problem-solving test, they did no better than untrained children: the little computer literacy they had learned had not spread to other areas. Research shows that explicit teaching, with alternating

If you’re into the neuroscience of learning, you will unquestionably want to read this book. (The last half, in particular, is extraordinarily enlightening.)

The Best Analysis We’ve Seen So Far on the Coronavirus

Virtually every aspect of education has been affected by COVID-19. This article gives a superb overview of what you need to know to help your community or company to act wisely in the face of the exponential spread of the coronavirus. [Hat tip: Dr. David Handel, founder of our favorite flashcard app, IDoRecall.] 

How to Remember Not to Touch Your Face

This wonderful video by four-time memory champion Nelson Dellis gives you a quick tip to help you to not only not touch your face and to be sure to wash your hands—but it also gives you a way to detect fellow Nelson Dellis fans. 🙂

Putting the ‘special’ into ALL education

This podcast, featuring Tim Connell, an educator specialising in Special Education, discusses various trends and insights related to Special Education. Key graf: “Special education too tends to be less at the mercy of the kind of pendulum swings of whatever is trendy currently within education, special educators tend to hold that line of just good practice because they know that works and invariably those pendulum swings in mainstream education tend to come back to that anyway.”

The Unparalleled Daisy Christodoulou to Give a Workshop on Simplifying Assessment in Schools

We had the good fortune while in London last year to attend one of Daisy’s workshops on comparative judgment of essay writing to speed and improve assessments in schools.  Frankly, we were blown away by the unique simplicity and effectiveness of this approach. If you’re interested in learning more, you can attend Daisy’s workshop May 5th in New York City.  Register here.

Garuba Ojo Fredericks (Fred) from Nigeria has completed over 400 MOOCs in a wide range of subjects

Are you looking for inspiration in the MOOC-making world?  Look no further than Fred, who is a world-class MOOC-taker.  It’s a fantastic story, well-told (as always) by Pat Bowden of Online Learning Success.

How to Turn Yourself Into a Superlearner

This article in the Guardian does a terrific job of covering the nitty-gritty behind good learning. Key (encouraging!) graf: “Most of us have more than enough brainpower to master a new discipline, if we apply it correctly – and the latest neuroscience offers many strategies to do just that.” [Hat tip: Lead Mentor Steven Cooke.]

Drilling Down into Problems with Common Core

This article gives an in-depth description of why one K-12 teacher, who has two decades of experience in a technology-related career, finds Common Core math to be deeply problematic.

That’s all for this week. Have a happy week in Learning How to Learn!

Barb, Terry, and the entire Learning How to Learn team