The four 'secret ingredients' to successful learning

There is great concern internationally around the alarming drop in academic achievement amongst students in Western countries. Are schools to blame? Is it poor parenting? Is it the insipid infiltration of digital media? The reasons, of course, are likely to be complex.

In his latest book, “How We Learn: The New Science of Education and the Brain” world-renowned neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene discusses the science of learning. He believes a deeper understanding of this science may help reverse the dark trend in academic achievement.

Dehaene describes in detail the four 'secret ingredients' of successful learning.

  • attention
  • active engagement
  • error feedback
  • consolidation

Mobilising all four ingredients in students will maximise the speed and efficiency of their learning. You can review Dehaene’s 13 Essentials for Successful Learning, and how these four 'ingredients' relate, in another post.

In this post, I'll be stepping you through each of these 'secret ingredients' and adding a little from the perspective of learning to read. 


Attention is the gateway to learning! Becoming a master at capturing children’s attention and directing it to what matters, is what matters! 

“Good teaching requires permanent attention to children’s attention.”
Stanislas Dehaene

In learning to read, paying attention to the overall shape of words (as taught in sight word instruction) prevents the discovery of the alphabetic principle and directs brain activity to an inadequate circuit in the opposite hemisphere of the brain. Only by attending to the correspondence between letters and sounds can a child activate the true reading circuit. For beginner readers, letters and sounds are what matters.

Another essential component of the attention system is the executive control centre as it determines how information is processed. It allows us to supervise our thinking and become aware of our mistakes. The good news is that attention can be trained and the earlier the better.

Dehaene reports that the best attentional training results come from stimulating the core skills of working memory and executive attention across a lot of different contexts. Starting in Prep, teaching the art of attention can be one of the best educational investments. Early training in attention and working memory appears to have a positive effect on reading and mathematics skill development.

Genuine attention disorders do exist, says Dehaene, and attention training, or in some cases medications such as Ritalin, can have positive effects. However, there is research indicating that a subset of hyperactive children with attention disorders may be suffering from a chronic lack of sleep or have sleep apnoea that prevents deep sleep. Without good sleep, the gateway to learning stays closed. 

In short, Dehaene recommends simple improvements when teaching, like reducing sources of distraction for children in overly illustrated textbooks and excessively decorated classrooms. But above all, his message is that “good teaching requires permanent attention to children’s attention.” If children are not attending, they are not learning.

Active Engagement

Once attention is gained a child needs to engage. 

"A passive organism does not learn."
Stanislas Dehaene

It is by engaging, exploring, and actively generating hypotheses to test in the outside world that children learn effectively. Motivation is also essential. A clear goal, and a commitment to reach it, stimulates the child to sustain the effort needed. 

Of interest, it appears that Dehaene is not a big fan of letting children fidget in the classroom all day long as a means of engagement. He feels this approach misses the point. Being active and engaged does not mean that the body must move, it means the mind needs to be engaged in actively generating mental models. "We learn with our brains, not our feet" he says. 

New concepts are learned when students rephrase them into words or thoughts of their own. Whether the body is still or not is not important, so long as there is deeper processing in the brain and the language areas are activated aloud or through internal thoughts. Think-alouds and modelling are great teaching tools.

Error Feedback

After a child selects the appropriate sensory input (attention) and uses this to produce a prediction (active engagement), they then engage in an activity to test their prediction. They evaluate the accuracy of the prediction through any errors that occur. This is error feedback.

An error signal is the element of surprise that drives learning. 

A child’s ability to tolerate errors and quickly correct them is fundamental to learning. Why? Because an error signal is the element of surprise that drives learning. (Just ask our ancestors who were constantly adapting to ‘surprises’ in their environment.) So, don’t punish errors but correct them quickly by providing detailed, stress-free feedback. And lots of praise for effort always helps!

Next, practice sessions are needed with ongoing error feedback.

But how often?

Cramming loads of practise into a single session is not as effective as ‘spaced learning’. Practising fifteen minutes a day, five days per week, is better than two hours on a single day per week (and certainly better than a quick practise in the car on the way to a learning session!). 

Spaced learning works best when the interval between sessions reaches 24 hours. If you want to remember something for a week or two, then practise every day. If you want more permanent memory, then extend the revision interval. Revise learned material every second or third day and then weekly or so.

Luckily, once we can read, we engage with the written word every day, so we don’t lose the skill and we keep on learning. But in those early stages of learning to read over-learning skills (and daily practise) is crucial.

Until knowledge and skills are rock solid, reviewing and testing continues to improve performance. And that’s where the next essential ingredient for learning comes in – consolidation.


In the early stages of learning, a child needs to mobilise all his attention to slowly and effortfully apply skills, then consolidate these skills through practice until they become automatic and unconscious.

Once we consolidate the skill our brain's executive control and attention can focus on learning. 

Let's consider this process from the context of learning to read.  

Learning to read is an intense and energy hungry activity for the brain. It requires effort, attention, and conscious executive control.

As learning consolidates, a restricted and specialised reading circuit is set up that efficiently processes strings of letters that we regularly encounter. Statistical learning occurs and the brain works out which letters are most frequent, where they appear most often, and which other letters are associated with them.

Through daily practise, with feedback on errors, the child begins to consolidate learning so that retrieval is automatic, and almost effortless, and reading fluency can be established.

Once the skill of reading is automated, the brain’s executive control and attention can be focused on other learning. Without automation the brain can only focus on the task of decoding which means all other decisions and deeper thinking is delayed or cancelled. 

The need for consolidation to achieve automation is clear. And when it comes to the consolidation and generalisation of knowledge, Dehaene draws our attention to the importance of sleep, especially deep sleep. 

“Let us make sure that our children sleep long and deep.”
Stanislas Dehaene 

REM sleep, or Rapid Eye Movement sleep is the state where we process and consolidate perceptual and motor learning – such as dance moves, learning to ride a bike or handwriting skills – areas of learning derived from our senses. But it is during deep sleep that we lock in learning of higher level and more abstract information. If a child is restless and wakeful, has breathing difficulties or other issues with sleeping soundly, then learning will be compromised. Most paediatricians will closely examine sleep behaviours when a child is having learning difficulties.

For older children, a nifty trick to consolidate learning is to study or review new information before falling asleep. Then, sleep does the job of sorting, consolidating, and linking new learning with previous information to allow easier access to information when they are awake.

In summary, Stanislas Dehaene’s advice for children in relation to those four 'secret ingredients' of learning can be summed up as:

  1. Fully concentrate
  2. Participate (in class)
  3. Learn from mistakes
  4. Practise every day and take advantage of every night.

Great advice for all of us!


If you're keen to get your hands on a copy of Deheane's "How We Learn" you can find it in any good bookstore or online here

If you have any thoughts or comments feel free to share them below. 


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