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Brain- Based Education

Page history last edited by Brittany Shavers 9 years ago

Brain-based learning is a comprehensive approach to instruction using current research from neuroscience. Brain-based education emphasizes how the brain learns naturally and is based on what we currently know about the actual structure and function of the human brain at varying developmental stages. Using the latest neural research, educational techniques that are brain friendly provide a biologically driven framework for creating effective instruction. This theory also helps explain recurring learning behaviors, and is a meta-concept that includes an eclectic mix of techniques. Currently, related techniques stress allowing teachers to connect learning to students' real lives and emotional experiences, as well as their personal histories and experiences.


Historical Context


For 2,000 years there have been primitive models of how the brain works. Up until the mid 1900s the brain was compared to a city's switchboard. Brain theory in the 1970s spoke of the right and left-brain. Later, Paul McClean developed a concept of the Triune Brain which refers to the evolution of the human brain in three parts.  In this theory McClean hypothesized that survival learning is in the lower brain, emotions were in the mid-brain, and higher order thinking took place in the upper brain.  Currently, brain-based education embraces a more holistic view of the brain -- one that is more systems-based and gestalt -- the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.


During the last two decades neuroscientists have be doing research that has implications for improved teaching practices as they have obtained much information on how the brain works from  autopsies, experiments, and different types of scans -- MRIs, EEGs, PET and CAT scans. Information has been gleaned as neuroscientists construct clinical studies that use double blind, large, diverse, multi-age, multicultural groups of people to gather reliable information. This information 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. Thus, technology in medicine has paved the way for many new learning innovations.


Specifically based on conclusions from research in neuroscience, professors from major universities have taken this information and incorporated it into books about learning. In accordance with these suggestions classroom practices can be modified by teachers applying new theories of teaching and learning based on recent findings. Some noted authors in this area are Marian Diamond, U. C., Berkeley; Howard Gardner, Harvard University; Renate and Geoffrey Caine; Thomas Armstrong; Candace Pert, Eric Jensen; etc.  


Core principles directing brain-based education are:


  • The brain is a parallel processor. It can perform several activities at once.

  • The brain perceives wholes and parts simultaneously.

  • Information is stored in multiple areas of the brain, and can be retrieved through multiple memory and neural pathways. 

  • Learning engages the whole body. All learning is mind-body: movement, foods, attention cycles, and chemicals modulate learning. 

  • Humans search for meaning is innate.

  • The search for meaning comes through patterning.

  • Emotions are critical to patterning, and drive our attention, meaning and memory.

  • Meaning is more important than just information.

  • Learning involves focused attention and peripheral perception.

  • We have two types of memory: spatial and rote.

  • We understand best when facts are embedded in natural spatial memory.

  • The brain is social.  It develops better in concert with other brains.

  • Complex learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by stress.

  • Every brain in uniquely organized.

  • Learning is developmental. 

          (Caine and Caine)

Impact on Best Practices


This form of learning also encompasses such newer educational concepts like:  

  • mastery learning,

  • experiential learning,

  • learning styles,

  • multiple intelligences,

  • cooperative learning,

  • practical simulations,

  • experiential learning,

  • problem-based learning,

  • movement education.


Implications and suggestions for best teaching practices and optimal learning: 


There are interactive teaching elements that emerge from these principles. 

Orchestrated immersion: Learning environments are created that immerse students in a learning experience. Primary teachers build a rainforest in the classroom complete with stuffed animals and cardboard and paper trees that reach to the ceiling. Intermediate teachers take students to a school forest to explore and identify animal tracks in the snow and complete orienteering experiences with a compass. Junior high teachers take a field trip to an insurance company to have students shadow an employee all day. High school teachers of astronomy have students experience weightlessness by scuba diving in the swimming pool.


Relaxed alertness: An effort is made to eliminate fear while maintaining a highly challenging environment. Teachers play classical music when appropriate to set a relaxed tone in the classroom. Bright lights are dimmed. Vanilla candles are used to calm students and peppermint scents are used to stimulate the senses. All students are accepted with their various learning styles, capabilities and disabilities. A relaxed accepting environment pervades the room. Children are stretched to maximize their potential.


Active processing: The learner consolidates and internalizes information by actively processing it. Information is connected to prior learning. The stage is set before a unit of study is begun by the teacher preparing the students to attach new information to prior knowledge so the new information has something to latch onto. (Jensen; Caine & Caine)

Impact on Curriculum and Assessment


Curriculum–Teachers must design learning around student interests and make learning contextual.


Instruction–Educators let students learn in teams and use peripheral learning. Teachers structure learning around real problems, encouraging students to also learn in settings outside the classroom and the school building.


Assessment–Since all students are learning, their assessment should allow them to understand their own learning styles and preferences. This way, students monitor and enhance their own learning process.


Twelve design principles based on brain-based research


  • Rich, stimulating environments using student created materials and products are evident on bulletin boards and display areas.

  • Places for group learning like tables and desks grouped together, to stimulate social skills and cooperative work groups.  Have comfortable furniture and couches available for casual discussion areas.  Carpeted and areas with large pillows who prefer not the work at a desk or table.

  • Link indoor and outdoor spaces so students can move about using their motor cortex for more brain oxygenation.

  • Safe places for students to be where threat is reduced, particularly in large urban settings.

  • Variety of places that provide different lighting, and nooks and crannies.  Many elementary children prefer the floor and under tables to work with a partner.

  • Change displays in the classroom regularly to provide a stimulating situations for brain development.  Have students create stage sets where they can act out scenes from their readings or demonstrate a science principle or act out a dialogue between historical figures.

  • Have multiple resources available.  Provide educational, physical and a variety of setting within the classroom so that learning activities can be integrated easily.  Computers areas, wet areas, experimental science areas should be in close proximity to one another.  Multiple functions of learning is our goal.

  • Flexibility: This common principle of the past is relevant.  The teachable moment must be recognized and capitalized upon. Dimensions of flexibility are evident in other principles. 

  • Active and passive places: Students need quiet areas for reflection and retreat from others to use intrapersonal intelligences.

  • Personal space: Students need a home base, a desk, a locker area.  All this allows learners to express their unique identity.

  • The community at large as an optimal learning environment: Teachers need to find ways to fully use city space and natural space to use as a primary learning setting.  Technology, distance learning, community and business partnerships, all need to be explored by educational institutions.

  • Enrichment: The brain can grow new connections at any age.  Challenging, complex experiences with appropriate feedback are best. Cognitive skills develop better with music and motor skills. (D'Arcangelo)

Interesting Facts


Utilizing  both music and art: 

One of the key tenets of brain-based education is that attention follows emotion, and both music and art often tap into the emotional areas and thus are natural conduits for remembering and connecting information.

Music: Music can lower stress, boost learning when used 3 different ways:

  • as a carrier - using melody or beat to encode content, 

  • as arousal - to calm down or energize, 

  • as a primer - to prepare specific pathways for learning content) impacts the immune system, and is an energy source for the brain.


Art: Art is an important part of brain-based education in that it provides many learners with avenues of expression and emotional connection and release. It is important at many levels. For instance, it is important in technology in order to create aesthetically pleasing PowerPoint presentations and multi-media displays that showcase work and make the information and facts presented memorable. Art can be metaphoric creating simple icons or images that ground larger more complex ideas. Multicultural awareness is improved through the study of art as it instantly connects viewers to different cultures. Indeed, due to the diverse power and inherent potential of art to create deep emotional connections and aid in memory retrieval, some educators think the arts should be named as the fourth R.

 Problems with Brain- based Education

Research indicates that many aspects of cognitive development that are closely related to brain development do not continue to expand after late childhood, despite the efforts of current education. Examples are general intelligence, field independence, and ego development.



The statements above has been condensed, synthesized, and summarized from:


Caine, G., Nummela-Caine, R., & Crowell, S. (1999) Mindshifts:  A Brain-Based Process for Restructuring Schools and Renewing Education, 2nd edition. Tucson, AZ:  Zephyr Press.


Caine, G., Nummela-Caine, (1997) Education on the edge of possibility. Alexandria, VA: ASCD--Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 


D'Arcangelo, M. (2000). How does the brain develop? A conversation with Steven Peterson. Educational Leadership, 58(3), 68-71.


Jensen, E. (1998) Teaching with the Brain in Mind.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD--Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 


Jensen, E. (2000) Brain-Based Learning.  San Diego: Brain Store Incorporated. 


Jensen, E. & Johnson, G. (1994) The Learning Brain.  San Diego: Brain Store Incorporated.

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