Brain-Based Learning

An Introduction to Brain-Based Learning

Have you ever wondered how your brain learns, if it’s something that you’re born with or if it’s something that you have to train your brain to do? When giving information to your students, you need to keep in mind how you present that information, how much to present, and what the most important part of that information is.

This will allow the brain to recognize things that should be stored for long-term memory. The use of repetition, rehearsal, and practice will help your students properly code this information. As teachers, our goal always is for retention. We want our students to remember the information year after year. Students retain the most information within the first 20 minutes of the lesson. Keeping this in mind, you can present the most important information of your unit first and then break down the details later.

The human brain contains around 100 billion neurons. These neurons are changing. Humans continue to produce neurons throughout our lives with connections between neurons constantly being created, strengthened, weakened or removed.

Around 400 BC Hippocrates proposed that the brain was the center of intelligence and was involved in all sensations. In the thousands of years that have passed since then different sciences were developed around this: neural biology, biochemistry, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience. The term ‘brain-based learning’ first appears in print in the 1990 article Understanding A Brain-based Approach To Learning And Teaching, by Renate Nummela Caine and Geoffrey Caine.  

While brain-based learning encompasses methods developed in many fields, educators have often pointed to neuroscience for validation of their ideas. This has at times been criticized, since it can be hard to prove neuroscience research findings within an educational environment. Regardless of the links between neuroscience, research, and learning theory, studies continue to suggest that courses designed following brain-based principles improve student achievement, attitude, and engagement.

Brain-based learning continues to develop and generate design models, but, generally, all brain-based learning includes three key principles:

  1. they promote relaxed alertness through a safe and engaging learning environment
  2. they provide immersive and rich experiences
  3. they allow active and passive processing through active participation, reflection, and breaks.

These three principles are reflected in brain-based learning techniques, such as these:

  1. Trial and Error. Learners should be encouraged to experiment, given space to fail and opportunities for repeated attempts. Experiential learning can encourage trial and error through creative activities, course projects, and role playing.
  2. Interactive curriculum. Students can interact emotionally and socially with course content through repetition. Processing chunks of information can be delivered over time, allowing for review of previously learned material to lead into new content. This can be encouraged by structuring class time, adding visual or audio media to lesson plans, and giving students opportunities to teach back what they have learned.
  3. Teacher and student. Teachers should find ways to be personable, motivating, understanding and supportive. Teacher interest in the subject and in the students has a major impact on the class environment and emotional states of learners. For example, the teacher should provide an explanation of the course and the material, as it relates to the students, their careers, interests, and needs. The teacher may plan research field trips, guest speakers, volunteering games, and other hands-on activities.

Scientists are also studying how sleep is related to memory processing. It is currently believed that long-term storage of information happens during your REM sleep stage. The left side of the brain is responsible for analysis, sequence, time, speech, word letter and number recognition, and it processes external stimuli. The right side of the brain is responsible for holistic thinking, patterns, spatial awareness, context of language, facial place and object recognition, and it also processes internal messages.

With ample evidence of learning generated in these ways, large portions of grades need not rely on final exams or other events that can be stressful to some students. With a focus on interaction, reflection, engagement, practice, and support, brain-based learning is ideal for any learning environment.

Keeping these things in mind when creating brain-based lesson plans, will lead to optimal learning experiences.

The Basic Principles Of Brain-Based Learning

If you want to deliver learning, especially online, that has impact and leads to lasting results, you need to be aware of three brain-based learning principles that will change the way you teach:

  1. Active engagement equals active brains. In our virtual classrooms, we want to avoid the tendency of giving talking-head presentations. Instead, engage your learners with polls, chats, and status checks every two to three minutes.
  2. Neurons that fire together, wire together. Great facilitators know that learning begins with what the learner already knows. Provide context and help learners connect new knowledge to their previous experience. Engage as many senses as possible to build the strongest neural connections for learners. That way they can more easily remember and recall the content. Use dynamic stories and metaphors to help people make connections. If you want people to remember your key messages, you have to introduce those messages with a compelling story. Then, the learning sticks.
  3. Vision trumps all other senses. In the virtual classroom, you must communicate memorable visual messages. That means your slides need to be compelling, your graphics need to support your message, and you need to reduce the amount of text on each slide.

These three brain-based learning principles will help you create virtual learning that has impact.

brain-based learning classroom

Teaching With The Brain In Mind

Brain-based teaching is the active engagement of purposeful strategies, based on principles derived from neuroscience. That is the understanding of the brain. From the early 1980s people have studied the brain to establish the connection between brain function and traditional educational practice.

As neuroscientists learn more about brain functioning, educational psychologists also become more aware of how the brain naturally learns and align their educational practices with this newfound knowledge. This approach became known as the brain-based learning approach.

The disciplines of neuroscience, biology, and psychology have helped to deepen the understanding of the relationship between learning and the brain, because the brain-based learning approach is aligned with how the brain naturally learns best. It incorporates a holistic approach, teaching developmentally, and socioculturally.

The brain is a parallel processor and performs many functions simultaneously, but its main focus is on survival. And so, the brain is poorly designed for formal instruction. While learning, the brain is also processing body rhythms, patterns, attitudes, meaningfulness, emotions, and movement, and even stress and trauma. As such, students should be provided with a learning environment that is optimal for learning. From this approach the following questions arise:

  • how does the brain learn best 
  • how do we create successful learning systems with the brain in mind

Any learning approach should be multi-disciplinary and aligned with the brain’s best way of learning. Present problems cannot be solved with the same level of thinking, and so brain function must be tied to new ways of thinking. The old adage ‘you can lead a horse to water, but can’t force it to drink’ represents the old way of thinking about teaching and learning. Brain-based learning changes this way of thinking to ‘how can we make the horse thirsty, so that it will want to drink’.

As long as the brain is allowed to carry on its normal functioning, learning will occur and educators will need to rethink their strategies to ensure that students capitalize on their learning experiences. Through meaningful, complex, and interactive experiences, brain-based teaching requires three key elements:

  1. relaxed alertness
  2. orchestrated immersion
  3. continuous active processing.

Relaxed alertness requires a non-threatening, non-judgmental environment, but in a mode that challenges thought and opens students up to new information and ideas.

Orchestrated immersion in complex experiences gives students opportunities to learn from a variety of events, activities, and social interactions that are multifaceted.

With continuous active processing of ongoing changes and experiences students are provided with an opportunity to reflect and consolidate new ideas and form mental models.

Brain-based learning has core principles that stress the importance of patterning. This involves combining necessary knowledge and skills to solve complex problems. The brain does not learn things that are illogical and have no meaning, and its natural tendency is to integrate information rather than isolate pieces of information.

All meaningful learning is complex and non-linear, and requires a dynamic learning environment, yet with a sense of coherence and orderliness that allows students to explore different points of view or master new tasks in a safe space. Each brain is unique and learning is both conscious and unconscious, which means that activities must correspond to purpose to create coherence.

With these principles at heart, brain-based education therefore provides opportunities for experiential learning, problem-based learning, and cooperative learning.

Students learn best when solving realistic problems. Online courses allow multimedia to be easily infused, which appeals to different areas of the brain and allows for parallel processing. After processing small chunks of information, students can get immediate feedback from quick self-checks that allow them to evaluate and consolidate their learning.

Problem-based learning allows for the creation of authentic assessments that highlight different learning styles, preferences, and intelligences.

In applying brain-based learning to education, three tenets are explored:

  • application to curriculum
  • instruction
  • assessment

Teachers must design learning around student interests and make learning appropriate, while aligning activities to curriculum standards. Instructional strategies should incorporate real-world problems and encourage students to learn in settings outside the classroom. Authentic assessments should be created, which allow students to reflect on and evaluate their learning while monitoring and enhancing their own learning process.

brain-based learning classroom

Learning can take place only after new information is processed. Try using colored visuals, group discussions, hands-on experiments, movement, music, art and other types of activities geared at the multiple intelligences. Physical activity is greatly encouraged, as movement facilitates memory retrieval. In the e-learning classroom, more diverse forms of assessment can be used, such as blogging and online journaling, using breakout rooms for peer discussions and collaboration, diverse multimedia, online portfolios and quizzes. Scenario-based learning and other computer-aided instruction may be utilized.

The reality is that everyone can and does learn, and with a brain-based learning approach instructional designers need to be artistic in their creation of brain friendly environments that optimize learning experiences.

6 Brain-Based Learning Strategies

All brains function in similar ways when it comes to learning. Here are six practical brain-based strategies that any teacher can use to increase retention of information while giving all learners a chance to improve their communication and collaboration skills.

  1. Brain research suggests that students should receive information in short segments. This increases the student’s ability to focus on the content and is great for addressing learners with limited attention spans. Video lectures are ideal for delivering these short segments; they ensure an exact length and keep the teacher from being distracted by cognitive interruptions that happen frequently during live lectures. They also ensure that the content is consistent for all students and that the information is fully covered in every lesson. Finally, the video lectures can be extremely concise and efficient; they can be 60 to 80 percent shorter than live lectures covering the same information.
  2. Students should immediately use the content after each segment. After each chunk of content is delivered, we can challenge students to discuss the information putting it in their own words. They should be encouraged to connect it to their life experiences, discuss these connections with peers, and ask clarifying questions. One of the best assignments we can give students after they view each chunk is to simply ask them to teach it back to us. It’s a great way to know if they learned what we wanted them to learn.
  3. Students should review the content multiple times throughout each lesson. Repetition solidifies the information in the brain. Students receive the content by way of these short video chunks, which they can review again at a later time and as many times as needed. This creates a self-paced learning resource. The students also repurpose and review the content after each video chunk when they collaborate, discuss. and teach it back.
  4. Students should switch tasks early and often. This will constantly refocus student attention and increase engagement. For example, play a five-minute video segment, then give the students five minutes to collaborate and reteach the segment. spend five minutes recording a few example student lessons, and take another five minutes to watch and discuss the student video presentations. Spending 20 minutes on this active learning experience can be much more impactful than simply lecturing on the same information for 20 minutes while students are passive.
  5. Students should develop an emotional connection with the content. A best practice here is to get students to create something, showcasing their ideas so they own each segment. One of the best and most efficient assignments is to again have students teach back the content having them create and record their version of every lesson. A very powerful strategy for getting students to make an emotional connection to the content is to have them sit in front of a camera and be the teacher, and then afterwards watch their performance on screen. They will experience excitement and cognitive dissonance. This form of reflective practice can be an extremely emotional experience for any learner. That emotion is tied directly to the content.
  6. Finally, students should get up and move as much as possible. Standing and moving around any classroom promotes blood flow to the brain. Movement can increase memory, creativity, attention, and achievement. For example, while the collaboration, discussion, and teach back assignments are going on, students can be put into groups that are required to move around the classroom, using whiteboards and the walls to prepare and present their lessons. Having students of any age sit for long periods of time is not optimal for their learning, so, if tomorrow’s lesson plan is that you are going to tell students a bunch of information and expect them to remember it, use these strategies instead. Students will retain more of the information and it will give them a chance to improve their communication and collaboration skills.
brain-based learning

Brain-Based Learning Methods For Young Children

It’s no secret that every child learns differently. As a teacher, it doesn’t take long to realize just how true that statement is. One of the best ways to help students get what they need with individualized engaging strategies is to differentiate the lesson that’s being taught.

Differentiation is the process of taking a collective goal and breaking into different methods or strategies being presented to the students. This can seem like a daunting task, especially when you have many students. However, students can be placed in groups based upon their learning style and instructional level.

When a teacher differentiates the learning style for their students, they are acknowledging the brain-based learning theory. This theory is based upon the belief that learning can be adapted and improved over time. The field of education is nothing if not adaptive, especially since the pandemic fell upon us all in 2019. Teachers observe their students, see that something isn’t working and improve the method or strategy to fit that child’s needs. This is how differentiation and brain-based learning work together.

One way to implement differentiation is by the use of manipulatives. Most students are hands-on learners. If they’re able to put their hands on what they are trying to learn, they are able to grasp the concept or skill more quickly than just hearing or seeing something being taught.

Another method of differentiation is to allow students to explain themselves and think through their process. Sometimes all it takes is a little extra time for students to be able to adapt their thinking and understand fully what is being taught.

However, nothing can truly be understood if the lesson being taught is not engaging. Students need to want to learn, and they tend to want this more often when they find it interesting. A child’s brain activates once interest is sparked. You may think that an engaging lesson must contain games or videos, however that is not truly the case for every situation.

Through the relationships that are built between students and teachers, only you know what they enjoy. Making a lesson relatable to their personal lives can ensure their interest and engagement. If you see a student struggling with a particular assignment, try to relate it to their lives simply by asking them how can they use this at home or why is it important that they know how to do this. Sometimes, this really gets the creative juices flowing.

Teachers must continue to grow and learn from their experiences with students, because ensuring that our students have what they need to be successful is the most important part of our job.

Working Towards A Growth Mindset

Decades of scientific research has started this mindset revolution and is really shaping our understanding about learning and its implications in the classroom. We also know that neuroscience is showing us that the brain is far more malleable than we ever thought before. The belief that you are born a good mathematician or the belief that you are born a good writer or a good reader needs to be dispelled. At the same time, research is also proving a link between mindset and achievement, so our embedded beliefs about how we feel as learners and what we think really has huge impact on our success.

As teachers, we always get excited when we see a student suddenly become confident in themselves. They’re willing to work a little harder, take a risk with their learning, struggle through a difficult problem or a challenge, and learn from their mistakes. When students start to develop a growth mindset, they start to develop that confidence in themselves. It’s so amazing to see students talk about their understanding of their own brains and how they physically grow.

Brain-based learning helps us come over new and better strategies. It also helps us solve everyday problems. As our students really embrace having a growth mindset and understand the control they have as learners, amazing things start to happen. They’re super excited about learning about the physiology of the brain, they are motivated with that visualization of growing neurons, they take more risks and they start to become more confident without even realizing it.

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Anita Lindquist is the Head of Curriculum in a Secondary School in Stockholm. She is an advocate for excellence in public education and passionate about learning and teaching methodologies.

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