For thousands of years, teachers have taught students about every academic subject imaginable from Philosophy to Art, from Geometry to Biology, from Literature to History, and so on. During that time, many teachers were convinced that the best students were those who paid the most attention to their lectures and spent the most time reading, and rereading, all of their homework assignments. Other teachers noticed that many students responded better to more creative ways of teaching than lectures and reading assignments, and adjusted their curriculum accordingly.
Many teachers succeeded in regularly reaching students and inspiring them to learn, while others didn’t. The history of Education is also replete with teachers who treated each student as an individual and teachers who believed that treating every student the same was important. Of course, everyone who has ever been a student remembers teachers who were enthusiastic and energetic as well as teachers who treated the classroom as the location of their regular job rather than their passion.
There have been teachers of all sorts for centuries, but until the past 20 or so years they all had something in common—their teaching wasn’t based on detailed knowledge of how brains work. Neuroscientists, though, have learned more about how the brain works since the 1990s than scientists learned in previous millenniums, reported “Brainbased Education — An Overview.”
Leslie Owen Wilson explicitly stated in the Brainbased Education article that for 2,000 years scientists had “primitive models” of how the brain works and the information learned since the 1990s “has helped determine how human learning actually occurs.”
”In essence, these scientists have been peering into the little black box in order to determine how the brain processes and retains information,” wrote Wilson. “Thus, technology in medicine has paved the way for many new learning innovations.”
The left brain/right brain theory wasn’t known until the 1960s and the lower brain/mid-brain/upper brain theory that stated that the upper brain was responsible for the most sophisticated thinking wasn’t detailed until a 1990 book by Paul MacLean.
Research on the brain accelerated in the 1990s with the 1994 “Core principles directing brain-based education“ that were formulated by Geoffrey Caine and Renate Nummela Caine, reports the article “Brain-based learning.“ The 15 principles include:
- “The brain is social. It develops better in concert with other brains.”
- “Complex learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by stress.”
- “Every brain is uniquely organized.”
Once the neuroscientific work on the brain was accomplished, educators became more involved in applying what the neuroscientists learned. All eight book titles cited as references in the Brain-based Learning article were written between 2002 and 2011.
Today, more and more teachers are basing their interactions with students on the field of brain-based learning instruction, which the CogniFit article “Brain based learning: What is it and how to apply it” describes as a new educational discipline that “unites the knowledge of neuroscience, psychology, and education, with the objective to optimize the learning and teaching process.” The ramifications of this new educational discipline have been profound in classrooms all over the world.
10 Things to Know About Brain-Based Learning Instruction
Here are 10 beneficial things to know about brain-based learning instruction. They all have helped teachers improve the educational experiences of many of their students immeasurably.
1. Healthy Bodies Help
One of the core principles of brain-based education is “Learning engages the whole body. All learning is mind-body: movement, foods, attention cycles, and chemicals help drive and modulate learning.” The practical lesson that teachers, students AND parents should learn from this principle is that the brain works better when learners exercise more and eat healthier foods that energize them. In the classroom that might mean students taking standing and/or walking breaks instead of sitting for hours. Twice-weekly Physical Education classes aren’t enough.
2. Healthy Psyches Help
Another core principle is “Emotions are critical to patterning, and drive our attention, meaning and memory.” In other words, happy students can think better than unhappy students other things being equal. The practical lesson of this principle is that teachers should be conscious that criticizing students can impair their thinking while praising them can have the opposite effect. “Healthy self-esteem is fundamental for optimal learning,” reports the CogniFit article. “Feeling that they are able and capable, keeps them motivated to learn.”
3. Brains Help Each Other
Knowing that one of the core principles of brain-based learning instruction is that students’ brains develop better when they interact with other students’ brains is beneficial by itself. More importantly, though, is how teachers should apply this knowledge. Group activities in class and group projects outside class can help students learn from other students. For centuries, many educators thought students were motivated by competition with other students, but brain-based learning experts believe that cooperation is often a better way to learn.
4. Teaching Improves Memory
Benefit No. 4 does NOT refer to professional teachers. We’re talking here about students improving their memory by teaching other students. This is a corollary to the group activities benefit. Teaching others ranks as the most effective way to retain information according to “A dozen important brain-based concepts,” which was also written by Wilson. Many teachers have long used the practice of superior students teaching inferior students. This concept shows that teachers should utilize all students as teachers.
5. Practice Improves Memory
“Practicing immediately after exposure to materials” is also a very effective way for the brain to retain information, wrote Wilson, who listed “rehearsal increases retention” as one of his 12 important brain-based concepts. The article “6 Quick Brain-Based Teaching” puts it this way — “Our brain can memorize, but our best learning is the trial & error learning.” Noting that brains rarely understand material correctly the first time, the article cites asking questions, checklists, computers, and peer teaching as examples of using trial and error.
6. Lectures Don’t Work
Lectures are the LEAST effective way to transfer information to a brain’s long-term memory with only 5 to 10 percent of information retained after 24 hours, wrote Wilson. Many teachers noticed this long before studies of the brain confirmed this, but many other teachers are STILL clinging to the old ways. Wilson quotes author David Sousa as saying “Lecture continues to be the most prevalent model in secondary and higher education but produces the lowest degree of retention.” Discussion, by the way, is in the mid-range of information retained one day later.
7. Info Should Be Meaningful
“Meaning is more important than just information,” is one of the core principles. The Education World article “Brain-Friendly Teaching: From Sensory to Long-Term Memory” details how teachers should maximize the odds that information they convey will reach students’ long-term memories. Teachers can do this by grabbing students’ attention within 20 seconds of introducing a topic by making the information meaningful to them. Students, for example, might be more interested in Math if it was discussed within the context of prices for a phone they want.
8. Speaking And Writing Work
Another way to move information from the sensory memory, the shortest-term memory, to long-term memory, is to ask them to convey what they have learned in their own words via speaking and writing. This process is called “recoding” by many brain-based learning instruction experts. Students should summarize what they have learned rather than repeat it. At higher levels of learning, students should summarize the new information AND analyze its importance. This whole process also has the practical effect of improving students’ oral and written communication skills.
9. Many Strategies Work
Brain-based learning instruction has produced lots of good news for teachers seeking strategies that will reach students. In the Education World article “Brain-Friendly Teaching: Strategies to Improve Memory,” educational neuroscience consultant Marilee Sprenger (she calls herself “Brain Lady,” seriously) recommends storytelling, humor, games, analogy, metaphor, and movement. “Stories have emotional components that attract the amygdale, the emotional center of the brain,” the article says. Yes, we could have had lots of sentences like that in this article.
10. Lots Of Stress Harms Brains
High stress levels can cause chemical changes in the brain that impair its performance. “A dozen important brain-based concepts” explains that the hormone cortisol can severely harm thinking when it’s released because of stress. “Brain based learning: What is it and how to apply it” reports that low stress levels help motivate students to perform, but recommends creating a “positive emotional environment” in class so there isn’t too much stress. Basically, teachers should be calm and nice to students. Yelling and criticizing raises stress levels.
Thanks to brain-based learning, educators now have more information about how to reach and inspire students. In other words, they don’t have to teach the way that teachers taught for thousands of years.
“Brain-based learning is motivated by the general belief that learning can be accelerated and improved if educators base how and what they teach on the science of learning, rather than on past educational practices, established conventions, or assumptions about the learning process,” says “The Glossary of Education Reform” in its article “Brain-Based Learning.”