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What is Brain-Based Learning?

Written by Eric Jensen

Note to Readers: Ten Brain Based Learning Strategies will be reviewed over the next 3 Newsletters.

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. (I’m a big fan of cognitive science, neuroscience, psychology and other mind/brain sciences).

How reputable is brain-based education? Harvard University now has both a master’s and doctoral degrees in this field, known as the “Mind, Brain and Education” program. There’s also a peer-reviewed scientific journal on brain-based education, which features research reports, conceptual papers, reviews, debates and dialogue. Now that I’ve reminded you that brain-based education is the “real deal,” there’s one more thing.

There are what you and I might call “macro strategies” and “micro strategies.” The micro strategies are very situation specific. For example, when you are giving directions, only give one a time, because the brain needs time to process the location, the action and the qualities of the action (“Go find your teammates and wait quietly at your team stations.”). I provide these in our actual workshops because they require demonstration and context to maximize the understanding and transfer. Here, we’ll focus on macro (the “big picture”) strategies. These are the “biggies” that reap huge rewards. But you’ll need to use your own experiences to customize them for your situation. Trust me; they all are achievement boosters, so here they are.

Principle to Strategy Number One

It’s confirmed: Physical education, recess and movement are critical to learning. How? We now know that we can grow new neurons through our lifetime and that they are highly correlated with memory, mood and learning. This process can be regulated by our everyday behaviors, which include exercise. The optimal activity is voluntary gross motor, such as power walks, games, running, dance, aerobics, team sports and swimming. We also now know that early childhood movement wires up the brain to make more efficient connections. Schools can and should influence these variables.

Practical school applications: Support more, not less physical activity, recess and classroom movement. 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. For the first few weeks of school, expose students to a variety of physical activities. Then, offer choice. That’s critical because voluntary activity does more good than forced activity, which may cause an overproduction of cortisol.

Principle to Strategy Number Two

It’s confirmed: Social conditions influence our brain in multiple ways we never knew before. School behaviors are highly social experiences, which become encoded through our sense of reward, acceptance, pain, pleasure, coherence, affinity and stress. In fact, poor social conditions, isolation or social “defeat” are correlated with fewer brain cells. Nobody knew this occurred five or ten years ago.

Practical school application: Do not allow random social groupings for more than 10-20 percent of the school day. 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.

Principle to Strategy Number Three

The brain changes! All educators should know the brain can and does change every day. In fact every student’s brain is changing as they attend school. The ability of the brain to rewire and remap itself via neuroplasticity is profound. Schools can influence this process through skill-building, reading, meditation, arts, career and building thinking skills. 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. Without understanding the “rules for how our brain changes,” educators can waste time and money, and students will fall through the cracks.

In fact, neuroscience is exploding with discoveries about the brain as being highly malleable. We used to think about the paradigm as either genes or experience. We now know it can be a hybrid of both. We now know that environments can trigger genes to express themselves in ways we never would have predicted—if you know what to do. You can upgrade a student’s capacity for memory, processing, sequencing, attention and impulsivity regulation. Why not teach these skills to give students the tools to succeed?

Practical school application: Give teachers a mandate of 30-90 minutes a day and 3-5 times per week to upgrade student skill sets. Teach attentional skills, memory skills and processing skills. Progress requires focus, “buy-in” and at least a half-hour a day.