book cover
“If I had to sum up, in one word, the singular talents of our species I would answer with ‘learning.’ We are not simply Homo sapiens but Homo docens - the species that teaches itself.”

How We Learn Book Review

How We Learn: The New Science of Education and the Brain, Stanislas Dehaene, 2020


This book is an exploration of human learning. Written in a popular style by an academic this book pulls together current research from cognitive science and neuroscience to offer an explanation of learning, what the author Stanislas Dehaene, calls the triumph of our species.

So What? 

Dehaene defines learning as the process of forming an internal model of the outside world and describes four critical elements of learning—attention, active engagement, error feedback, and consolidation. He asserts that people do not reach their full potential if their environment is not set-up to support them in doing so. The short-term memory of a literate person is almost double that of someone who has never attended school. For each additional year of education IQ increases one to five points. Fluid intelligence can be developed by training especially so in the early years.

Parents and those involved in education can learn from cognitive science.

Now What?

Don’t give up on learners, especially young learners. Experience and learning can influence the plasticity of the brain making permanent and beneficial changes throughout life.

Learning involves the interplay of his four pillars.

  1. Attention amplifies the information we focus on.  We select and tune in to what matters and filter out the noise.
  2. Active engagement is an algorithm akin to curiosity which ceaselessly asks our brain to test new hypotheses. Learning is likely to be demanding and linked to motivation.   
  3. Error feedback which compares our predictions with reality and corrects our mental models of the world.
  4. Consolidation where knowledge is transferred to long-term memory, freeing space for further learning. Sleep locks in recall.

“A passive organism does not learn.”

Reducing passive learning, inspiring curiosity and question-asking, and creating structured opportunities to learn via discovery are important. These interventions allow for deeper understanding and better recall. The best educators, whether parents or teachers, follow these principles, and the author urges their general adoption.