When the neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene visited a school to observe how his research was being applied, he was horrified by what he saw. In a misinterpretation of the idea that we learn better when active, the principal proudly showed how he had equipped every desk with pedals so pupils cycled as they studied maths.
“Active engagement takes place in our brains not our feet,” he writes in his entertaining survey of how science — from brain scans to psychological tests — is helping inspire pedagogy. His findings will be of particular interest now coronavirus has turned so many parents into homeschoolers, directly observing their children’s education. Dehaene challenges many tropes. He argues that children digest new concepts best not when passively listening to a teacher but by rephrasing ideas in their own words and thoughts. He stresses attention, consolidation, engagement and feedback are all key to learning. Sleep enables the physical rewiring of the brain required to consolidate information learnt during the day, while the distinctive biological nocturnal rhythms of teenagers justify lie-ins with a later start to their school morning once they are fully awake. He criticises “high stakes” public exams (scrapped this year in the UK because of the pandemic). They do nothing to explain why a child has failed and the time delay before the results are announced make them useless in helping to learn from mistakes. They are also judgmental and demotivating, explaining why curiosity often drops off after age 5. By contrast, Dehaene argues that regular tests providing rapid, neutral feedback are very effective. They encourage children to keep exploring, especially when accompanied by humility from teachers who do not claim to know — or provide — all the answers. Learning vocabulary is best done via quizzes: viewing the foreign word, then turning the page for the translation, rather than trying to memorise the two side-by-side. The question-and-answer format is more effective for revision than digesting voluminous notes. While acknowledging the dangers of video games, Dehaene suggests they can increase concentration and stimulate learning. Their designers have learnt the importance of motivating players by interspersing easier and more difficult levels, to nudge them towards mastery. He rejects the idea that people have different learning styles, arguing instead only that their speed of learning varies and everyone benefits from audio and visual approaches. He also debunks the notion that young “digital natives” have any deep technological mastery and warns against multitasking. Distractions — from emails to too many posters in the classroom — dampen learning. Dehaene cites experiments to show the importance of concentration, and supports phonics — breaking words down into their component parts — because the system provides less distraction than struggling to read a long set of characters in a single go. His book is divided in two. The first part describes much of his own pioneering work, including the use of MRI scans to explore the development of the brain in very young children. It is perhaps too bold in linking the biochemical processes in the brain to precisely how that demonstrates learning or behaviour. In the second half, there is less sourcing and arguably too great a certainty in his summaries of sweeping conclusions drawn from wider scientific literature. Yet this is a readable work, well translated from the French with some touching references to his upbringing, from the cult film La Jetée to the writing of Daniel Pennac, who describes helplessness at school in the system of “grades as punishment”. After drawing up his universal rules of brain development and the process of learning, Dehaene could have done more to explore the impact of cultural differences — notably countries’ divergent policies on the best age to start school or when to teach reading. He mentions in passing (without questioning the methodology) international test results which show France’s decline in its mastery of maths, without reflecting on the top-down, tutored and teacher-led approach in China and much of Asia, which scores better. Educational aspiration may be universal, but the methods and outcomes still vary. Andrew Jack is the FT’s global education editor How We Learn: The New Science of Education and the Brain, by Stanislas Dehaene, Allen Lane, £20, 318pp