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Brain-Based Education Part II

As stated in my previous blog post, brain-based education means understanding how the brain works and employing strategies based on principles derived from solid scientific research to your teaching.

The following is a list of nine principles of brain-based education that appear to have a significant relevance to educators.

1. Brains are dynamic, not static

Contrary to the fixed-brain theory a few short years ago, brains are not fixed. In fact, they are susceptible to change throughout our lifetime (neuroplasticity).

The changes are driven by myriad of factors. Those factors include experience- dependent changes (nutrition, stressors, exercise, socialization, learning) and experience-independent changes (maturation, aging). Many changes are the result of gene and environment interactions known as gene expression. In short, our DNA is not 100% of our destiny.

Educators should know that certain purposeful, school-wide or classroom experiences can strategically change the student’s brain. The ability of the brain to rewire and remap itself via neuroplasticity is profound. Schools can influence this process through skill building in areas such as reading, meditation, arts, career preparation, physical activity and thinking skills that can build student success. The evidence is compelling that when the correct skill-building protocol is used, educators can make positive and significant changes in the brain in a short period of time.

2. Human brains are unique

A combination of genetics and life experiences make every human brain as unique as a fingerprint. This principle says much more than “one size does not fit all” or that “differentiation is a good idea.” This is a profound understanding that tells us the entire educational model is outdated. For decades, educators were told that there is a large body of “mainstream” students who were normal or typical. The remaining students were identified as “outliers” and typically classified as gifted, behavior disordered or requiring special education. This model does not match up with the scientific data on brain variations. What is more accurate to say is, “We have significant variation in the large majority of our students (80-95%) and the remaining “outliers” have what we call a typical or “healthy” brain.

“Brain-based education means respecting uniqueness by using variety and choice in the teaching process.”

While the political and educational implications of this are enormous, it is unknown to what degree this should shape policy. Certain schools expend a significant amount of resources to socialize students into “sameness” such as private prep schools and military schools. To the degree that these schools succeed, students may become more alike in their behaviors. Yet, on the whole, we are unique beings with a unique set of beliefs, experience, knowledge and actions. Schools that can engage students via their differences can meet needs better.

3. Brains use active construction of learning

We could categorize student learning (information, values or skills, etc.) in many ways. One way to group it would be to answer the question: “Was the knowledge ‘actively constructed’ or ‘transferred’ to you? The human brain is designed for interactive learning. The human being is more helpless at birth than most other mammals. We are born more than “open” to environmental input; we require it to develop our brain properly. Without interactive visual, auditory and tactile input, our systems misfire and underperform. But our brains are designed to actively manage our experiences, not passively “download” them.

Useful, practical, functional knowledge is based in activity not passivity. While it has the capacity for a “sit and git” experience in a classroom memorizing numbers, poems, facts and geography lessons, this declarative capacity may be the weakest of all the brain’s learning systems. 

In fact, we cannot talk about the interface between the brain and learning or the brain and the environment as if these are isolated variables. For our brain, interactive learning experiences in a relevant environment are processed in far differently and more potent ways than sitting in a classroom and reading or memorizing a text. At school, beginning at about the age eight, there is an increasing percentage of students being asked to sit “still and learn.” Brain-based education means you orchestrate learning in ways that allow students to piece together the learning.

When animals and people do things in their worlds, they shape their behavior. Based on brain research, we know that likewise they literally shape the anatomy and physiology of their brains (and bodies). When we are simply exposed to events and information learning and teaching require active construction of knowledge, as research has demonstrated consistently in cognitive science for over a century (Baldwin, 1894; Bartlett, 1932; Piaget, 1952) and in neuroscience for 50 years (Singer, 1995). The conduit metaphor works to some degree for learning bits of information, but for using knowledge instead of reciting facts, cognitive and neuroscientists are replacing the conduit metaphor with a model of knowledge as actively constructed. People build knowledge by using it actively to do things in the world. For example, Piaget’s (1952) fundamental metaphor for knowledge is grasping ideas and facts with the mind and manipulating them physically and mentally.

4. Human brains are social brains

Social conditions influence our brain in multiple ways we never knew before. Today, sociology is now influenced by the journal of Social Neuroscience. The student experience at school is a highly social experience, which become encoded through our perceptual awareness, which may encode our sense of reward, acceptance, pain, reciprocity, affinity and cooperation. Isolation, poor social conditions, and social “defeat” are correlated with fewer brain cells.

Use targeted, planned, diverse social groupings with mentoring, teams and buddy systems. Work to strengthen pro-social conditions. Teacher-to-student relationships matter, as do student-to-student relationships.

Educators ought to be encouraged to support more, not less, physical activity. It raises the good chemicals for thinking, focus, learning and memory (noradrenaline, dopamine and cortisol). Students need 30-60 minutes per day to lower stress response, boost neurogenesis and boost learning.

5. Uniqueness is the rule, not the exception

Schools are pushing “differentiation” as a strategy to deal with the differences in learners. That’s close, but not quite the truth. In fact, instead of there being mostly “typical” students with some with “differences” the brain research tells us the opposite. Let’s find out how common it is to have a “healthy brain.” Make differences the rule, not the exception and validate them.

6. Brains are designed for “gist” processing

New evidence suggests the value of teaching content in even smaller chunk sizes. Why?

The old thinking was that students could hold seven plus or minus “chunks” in the head as capacity for working memory. But that science is outdated. Newer research says two to four chunks are more realistic. In addition to this shorter capacity for working memory, our mid-term “holding tank” for content, the hippocampus, has a limitation on how much it can hold. It is overloaded quickly, based partly on learner background and subject complexity. There are other reasons our students get overloaded quickly with content. Learning and memory consume physical resources such as glucose and our brain uses this quickly with more intense learning.

“Teachers should teach in small chunks, process the learning, and then rest the brain.Too much content taught in too small of a time span means the brain cannot process it, so we simply don’t learn it.”

Here’s the guideline: the more background the learner has and the greater the complexity of the content, the shorter the time chunk (usually 4-8 minutes). The greater the background knowledge, the less the complexity, the longer the “input” stage (8-15 min.) is acceptable. Under no condition, should there be more than 15 consecutive minutes of content input. Share this with your teachers. But share it in a small chunk, and then allow time for processing it.


7. Role of the arts


The role of the arts in schools continues to be under great scrutiny. But five neuroscience departments at five universities (University of Oregon, Harvard, Univ. of Michigan, Dartmouth, and Stanford) have completed projects studying the impact of arts on the brain. The results suggest that arts are far more important than earlier believed.

They show that certain arts boost attention, working memory, and visual spatial skills. Other arts such as dance, theater and drama boost social skills, empathy, timing, patience, verbal memory and other transferable life skills.

Right now, evidence suggests that you get the most value from 30 to 60 minutes a day doing activities related to the arts, three to five days a week. Arts support the development of the brain’s academic operating systems in ways that provide many transferable life skills.

The better the social skills, the better the academics. Many good programs are in books, workshops and online. Why put effort into this area? Kids who learn patience, attention, empathy and cooperation will be better students.

8. Memory is malleable

Even memories are not fixed but, instead, are quite malleable. Every time you retrieve a memory, it goes into a volatile, flex state in which it is temporarily easily re-organized. This is highly relevant for teachers and administrators who are responsible for student learning and classroom testing. Every time students review, they might change their memory (and often do). Yet, without review, they are less likely to recall their learning. It suggests that teachers use several strategies to continually strengthen memory over time instead of assuming that once learned, the memory is preserved.

Instructors should review the content half way between the original learning and the test. Second, teachers should mediate the review process with students through structured reviews such as written quizzes or group work that ensures quality control. Otherwise the material is more likely to get confused and test scores drop.

Abridged from:

Jensen, E. (2013). Guiding principles for brain-based education: Building common ground between Neuroscientists and Educators.