What’s the best way for kids to learn?
Of course, every learner is different. For some students, taking notes on a teacher’s lecture may be enough to keep them engaged and learning — particularly if it’s on a topic they’re interested in. For others, a more varied and active approach to learning may be more beneficial.
One cognitive psychologist, Stanislas Dehaene, has described what he calls the Four Pillars of Learning. Using neuroscience as a backdrop, these pillars describe a process of how kids can learn — and retain — information.
Pillar #1: Attention
You don’t have to be a cognitive psychologist or an expert in neuroscience to understand that attention is a key component of learning. We know that it doesn’t matter how well new information may be presented to us — if we’re not paying attention, it just won’t stick.
But understanding the science of attention can help us figure out how to help kids grasp new and important information.
Our brains’ attention is selective, so merely presenting information to students isn’t enough to ensure that they learn it. After all, kids’ brains are bombarded with stimuli all day long, from all different directions — so unless we show them how to direct their attention to what matters, they’ll have a hard time narrowing in on what’s important.
What you can do:
Spend some time teaching your child how to differentiate important information as they’re learning by focusing on the details. For older learners, this might look like highlighting important passages in an article, or summarizing a broader topic in just a few sentences. For younger learners, it can be as simple as playing “I Spy” or trying a spot-the-difference activity.
Pillar #2: Active Engagement
Unfortunately, it’s not enough to just passively pay attention to new information; in order for it to really sink in, you also have to engage with what you’re learning.
For many teachers, making a lesson “engaging” is synonymous with making it “fun” — showing videos, playing games, or singing songs in an attempt to keep students entertained by the lesson. But when it comes to a learning brain, entertainment does not equal engagement; and these methods are less about true engagement than they are about holding kids’ attention.
Active engagement can only really occur when learners feel a genuine connection to the topic. Why? Because connecting new ideas to the things that are already familiar and important will cause all kinds of new pathways in the brain during the learning process.
Engaging with a subject means connecting it to something meaningful — whether that’s a social relationship, important world events, previous knowledge and memories, or a strong sense of innate curiosity.
It also involves having an active role in the presentation of new information. Passively listening will only get you so far, but asking questions, exploring new ideas, and experimenting will help deepen those neural pathways even further.
What you can do:
As your child learns new information, encourage them to ask questions and form ideas that connect with their own lives and prior knowledge. Making connections to their own lives and interests, to things they’ve read about, or to things that are going on in the real world can help their brains actively engage with the new information in a way that they can keep coming back to.
Pillar #3: Error Feedback
Even as learners understand how to focus their attention and engage with their learning, they are bound to make mistakes. Like many cognitive psychologists, Dehaene says that this is nothing to be worried about — and, in fact, it’s a crucial step to learning something new.
The biggest mistake we can make when it comes to our kids’ learning is choosing not to use their mistakes as opportunities to learn. Rather than ignoring or dismissing their mistakes (or worse — turning them into negative or shameful experiences), we should try to offer useful feedback as soon as possible, so that students have the opportunity to correct and learn from their mistakes in the moment.
Making errors (and receiving timely feedback) helps learners pivot toward their goals by forging and deepening new connections in the brain. And this means that learners need to be okay with getting the wrong answers sometimes.
Fostering a growth mindset is one of the best ways to ensure that learners get the most value out of their mistakes. When kids understand that making mistakes is part of the process, they’ll welcome feedback and build the resilience to keep going, especially when things start to get hard.
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Pillar #4: Consolidation
Once you’ve got kids’ attention, they’re actively engaged, and they’re responding to useful feedback about their mistakes, it’s time to put everything together and consolidate their learning.
Consolidation is the process of repeating and using new knowledge and skills until it has become almost automatic. Without this step, all of the hard work from the first three pillars is soon forgotten.
After all, our brains are extremely efficient, and memory plays a huge role in learning. If the brain decides that certain information isn’t useful, it will discard it pretty quickly — so if we want those new skills to stick around, we have to make sure to keep using them.
What you can do:
Sleep plays a big role in the process of consolidation, so make sure that your learner gets plenty of rest! And once kids have mastered a new skill, encourage them to use it authentically as much as possible. The more they recall that information, the more it tells their brain that it’s information worth having — and worth keeping around.
While it’s true that the best methods of learning will vary from person to person, understanding how the brain works during different stages of the learning process can help us to support all learners at every step. And by guiding kids through each of these four pillars of learning, we can ensure that the process creates meaningful and lasting knowledge.
Borden, J. (2021, March 12). The science of student engagement — today’s learner — cengage. Retrieved March, 2022, from https://todayslearner.cengage.com/the-learning-and-cognitive-science-of-student-engagement/
Dehaene, S. (2020, February 10). How we pay attention changes the very shape of our brains. Retrieved February 17, 2021, from https://lithub.com/how-we-pay-attention-changes-the-very-shape-of-our-brains/
Porée, C. (2019, September 5). The four pillars of learning according to Stanislas Dehaene. Teach on Mars. Retrieved March 1, 2022, from https://www.teachonmars.com/en/blog/2019/02/the-four-pillars-of-learning-according-to-stanislas-dehaene/