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What is Brain-Based Learning? Part 2 Strategies 4 – 6

Written by Eric Jensen

Brain-Based Education is the purposeful engagement of strategies that apply to how our brain works in the context of education.

Brain-based education is actually a “no-brainer.” Here’s a simple, but essential premise: the brain is intimately involved in, and connected with, everything educators and students do at school. Any disconnect is a recipe for frustration and potentially disaster. Brain-based education is best understood in three words: engagement, strategies and principles. You must engage your learners and do it with strategies that are based on real science. Below are Strategies 4 through 6.

Principle to Strategy Number Four

Chronic stress is a very real issue at schools for both staff and students. Recent studies suggest 30-50 percent of all students feel moderately or greatly stressed every day. In some schools, the numbers are double that! For those from poverty, the numbers can be higher. These pathogenic stress loads are becoming increasingly common and have serious health, learning and behavior risks. This issue affects attendance, memory, social skills and cognition. Some stress is good; chronic or acute stress is very bad for behavior and learning.

Practical school application: Teach students better coping skills, increase student perception of choice, build coping skills, strengthen arts, physical activity and mentoring. These activities increase sense of control over one’s life, which lowers stress. All of these can reduce the impact of stressors.

Principle to Strategy Number Five

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.” Of those who responded to the UCLA “healthy brain” student advertisement and considered themselves to be normal, only 32 percent passed the initial telephone screening process. Of those who qualified for the in-person health history and physical examinations, only 52 percent passed these screening procedures.

Now we can do the math: only 11 percent of those individuals who believed they were healthy/normal even qualified for brain imaging. Of the original 2000 students, just over 200 ended up meeting the criteria. The actual study concludes by saying, “The majority of individuals who consider themselves normal by self-report are found not to be so.” Let me repeat: almost 90 percent of human brains are atypical, damaged or in some way not healthy. That does not mean that many students have not compensated; they have.

Practical school application: Make differences the rule, not the exception at your school. Validate differences. Never expect all students (fourth-graders, for instance) to be on the same page in the same book on the same day. That runs counter to an extraordinary research databases that shows variations in maturation rates and other brain differences. Allow kids to celebrate diversity, unique abilities, talents and interests. Give them the skill sets, relationships and hope to succeed.

Principle to Strategy Number Six

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. The new 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.

Practical school application: 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. Breaks, recess and downtime make more sense than content, content and more content. Here’s the guideline: the less background the learner has and the greater the complexity of the content, make the time chunk of content shorter (use 4-8 minutes). The greater the background knowledge, the less the complexity, the longer you can make 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 colleagues. But share it in a small chunk, and then allow time for processing it.