How We Learn: The Four Pillars of Learning

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Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

Theories of learning traditionally arise from the disciplines of philosophy, sociology, and psychology. Technological advancements and scientific development led to cognitive neuroscience, which produces its own theories of how humans learn. One professor of experimental cognitive psychology, Stanislas Dehaene, explains the brain’s learning algorithms, identifying the four pillars, the main success factors in learning.

Attention

The key issue for educators, whether teacher, parent, or trainer, is to direct the learner’s attention, to focus the attention on the appropriate thing. One can’t learn something, if not paying it attention. Attention is a selective filter, choosing to note some information and letting other information go unnoticed. Therefore it is important for the teacher to highlight what learners should prioritize.

Attention is a combination of three distinct cognitive processes:

  • Knowing when to pay attention;
  • Knowing what to pay attention to; and,
  • Knowing how to pay attention.

Be wary of overconfidence that comes from selective attention when something slips under the radar of perception. When it goes unnoticed, the tendency can be to argue that it simply never happened.

Active Engagement

After a learner’s attention is directed, one must actively engage with the content. Passively listening to the instructor will not help remember new information. Learning requires active engagement on a cognitive level. Intellectual struggle is a far better teacher than just listening to words.

Instructors should employ a range of approaches that force students to think for themselves. These methods could include practical hands-on activities and experiments, small group work, classroom discussion about possible hypotheses, or probing questions from the teacher.

Feedback

Feedback about errors is an important pillar of learning since it allows the learner to understand the mistake, correct it, and move past it. Feedback must be given in an environment where the learner feels confident and encouraged, not criticized.

The brain learns through an iterative process of successive adjustments in response to errors. When the learner makes a wrong prediction, the error causes a discrepancy between that prediction and actuality. This leads the learner to then make a new prediction.

Consolidation

The acquired skills or newly memorized information then must be consolidated into knowledge. With this step, what is learned is incorporated into the learner’s knowledge and the knowledge becomes unconscious and lasting. When learning a new skill, such as how to speak another language, the brain repeats the learning process multiple times until the skill is mastered and automatic. Effort diminishes and the skill becomes routine, freeing up space in the prefrontal cortex of the brain to learn new things.

Consolidation of information comes from the repetition of achievements, but adequate sleep is a crucial element in the consolidation of learning. During sleep, the brain remains active, processing information and identifying patterns, consolidating experiences in memory and establishing generalizations.

Final Thoughts

The four pillars of learning apply to learners of all stages and ages. The brain’s plasticity may be optimal when younger, but the brain is still well-equipped for lifelong learning. People can learn to learn better by taking advantage of the four pillars of the brain’s learning algorithm at any age, in institutions of formal education, in the workplace, and in everyday life.

For educators and trainers, the four pillars provide guidance for teaching. When teachers know how to get students to pay attention and then help engage them substantively with the material, offer appropriate feedback, and foster consolidation of the information learned, they provide the circumstances that lead to success in learning.

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