Brain Based Learning: 8 Facts Every Teacher Needs To Know
Brain based learning is not a passing fad or the latest classroom panacea dreamed up by so-called experts. It’s the process by which all human beings learn and every teacher needs to know about it and become proficient at using its power in the classroom.
Brain based learning is in some ways a confusing term. It suggests that there is a special kind of learning, different from other kinds of learning. In fact, all learning is brain- based learning.
That’s pretty obvious when you stop to think about it:we cannot learn anything without the brain, so everything human beings ever learn is made possible by our brain function. And what distinguishes us from other living creatures is that our brains are more developed, which in turn gives us greater capacity to learn, which makes us smarter and therefore superior to other living beings.
The first relevant point about brain based learning for teachers is that we now understand much more clearly the actual processes that take place in the brain that enable us to learn and, just as importantly, the interference to those processes that stop us learning effectively.
So we need to accept that creating the best conditions in class to allow the brain to function at its best is a responsibility for all teachers with all students in all classrooms every day.
If all learning is brain based, we need to find a better term than brain based learning to describe more subtly the processes involved. The term ‘brain-compatible learning’ or ‘brain-friendly learning’ is a better way to describe what we should be striving for as teachers to help our students learn effectively.
Research over the last 20 years or so has given us a much clearer picture of which classroom practices work ‘with the grain’ of the brain and also the opposite of that, which classroom practices work against the grain of the brain. There are some activities that actually hinder the functioning of the brain and make it much more difficult for learning to take place. This is the opposite of brain-compatible learning and is often known as brain-antagonistic learning.
Neuroscience is confirming what many have instinctively thought was true.
Thanks to advances in brain scanning technology, neuroscience has made great progress in explaining the actual processes that take place when the brain performs different functions.
These advances in neuroscience have allowed us to ‘join up the dots’, or at least some of them, in our picture of how the brain works. This is having a profound effect on our thinking of the roles the brain plays in the learning process.
We can define brain based learning in a form of words that is helpful to standardise the approaches teachers can take in the classroom to present the most effective learning challenges to students.
A definition of brain based learning might look something like this:
“… a structured and comprehensive approach to learning and teaching that uses the best information we currently have about how the brain works to enable learning to take place as fully and as easily as possible, taking account of the fact that individual learners are at different stages of intellectual development and that learning is a natural phenomenon and is both a factor in and a consequence of a biological framework.”
Of course, any attempt at a definition of a process as complex as learning can never give the full picture, but at least it’s a starting point. There’s a lot more to say when attempting to understand the essence of brain – based learning.
One of the leading proponents of brain based learning, Eric Jensen, expands the definition like this:
“Brain-Based Education is the purposeful engagement of strategies based on principles derived from solid scientific research. Other research in related fields such as social neuroscience, psychoimmunology, behavioral genetics, psychobiology, cognitive science, neuroscience and physiology also play a role. Brain-Based Learning is also the application of a meaningful group of principles that represent our understanding of how our brain works in the context of education.
For Jensen the importance of brain based learning is that it is based on research findings across a range of different but related disciplines, which together give educators the chance to piece together some coherent thinking about how to construct learning activities that are more likely to engage the learner in making sense of their experience.
It is generally accepted that there are 12 core principles that govern brain based learning, especially in relation to the formalised learning that takes place in schools and classrooms.
The much-quoted 12 principles of brain based learning theory were ‘established’ as a result of the ground – breaking research done over 20 years ago by the researchers Geoffrey and Renate Caine and have informed all subsequent thinking about how to apply brain – based learning in an educational context.
The 12 core brain/mind principles are:
- Learning engages the physiology.
- The brain/mind is social.
- The search for meaning is innate.
- The search for meaning occurs through patterning.
- Emotions are critical to patterning.
- The mind/brain processes parts and wholes simultaneously.
- Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral perception.
- Learning always involves conscious and unconscious processes.
- We have at least two ways of organizing memory: A spatial memory system and a set of systems for rote learning.
- Learning is developmental.
- Complex learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat.
- Each brain is uniquely organized.
Caine and Caine are careful to point out that these 12 principles have been established not just from research purely in the field of neuroscience but also from findings in related disciplines such as cognitive psychology, philosophy and sociology. To some extent this strengthens rather than weakens their case – there are plenty of critics of brain based learning – because it suggests that there are certain ‘truths’ about human behavior that are confirmed by the fact that certain phenomena appear in several different areas of research.
Perhaps the biggest influence the 12 brain/mind principles identifed by Caine and Caine have had on education is that they move educators on, for once and for all, from the starting point that our students in class are a ‘blank canvas’, simplistically reliant on the educator to fill it up.
Following on from the 12 core principles, Caine and Caine found that, in order to make brain based learning successful, educators need to ensure that 3 core teaching strategies are present in the learning context.
The 3 core strategies are:
orchestrated immersion – in short, learners need to be put into a carefully constructed context that will enable them to focus on the information and experience necessary to achieve the learning outcomes: deep learning won’t just happen by itself.
relaxed alertness – the brain learns best when it is challenged to engage with information and experience but in a context where the threat of failure, [in its widest sense] is absent.
active processing – the brain needs to work things out for itself rather than be ‘spoon fed’ information; this has huge implications for classroom activities, where traditionally many learning activities have been learning ‘inactivities’ which produce passive learners.
Fact #7 It is possible to design learning in a generic brain-compatible way.
In other words, no matter what the academic subject or intellectual discipline, it is possible to adapt any course of instruction in such ways that activities and programmes are created and carried out that allow students to learn in optimal ways. These design principles include consideration of factors such as:
the learning environment
providing a range of different kinds of learning spaces
stimulating wall displays
reducing stress on learners
among other considerations.
Brain based learning is as much an approach as a theory.
The facts behind this kind of learning are still very ‘new’ in so much as the technological developments that have allowed research to advance are very recent. It is sometimes said that we have discovered more about the brain in the last 25 years than we knew for the 2000 years before then.
Some experts caution educators not to jump too soon to unfounded conclusions. For example, some researchers believe that evidence of brain structure, function and activity that neuroscience has revealed in laboratory conditions, should not be necessarily assumed to be directly transferable to a classroom situation. It is clear that much more detailed observation over time of how neuroscientific knowledge supports learning in class is necessary.
We started this discussion by trying to answer the question ‘What is brain based learning?’. The answer is simple: according to Eric Jensen it’s:
…’the engagement of strategies based on body / mind / brain research…..it is not a panacea or magic bullet to solve all of education’s problems. Anyone who represents that to others is misleading them. There is not yet a “one size fits all” brain-based program, model or package for schools to follow. ‘
This last point is really important. Learning and teaching, whatever name we give to a particular theory, is the result of a combination of influences that need to be understood and carefully managed in order to engage learners into making sense of what they experience.
And that’s the challenge, a challenge that all educators will have to meet, because the challenge will not just disappear if we ignore it. Once the ‘genie is out of the bottle’ – and it is – there’s no putting it back.
So if you’re an educator of any kind, you cannot afford to ignore brain based learning. It’s not going away, precisely because it has always been with us, it’s just that now we understand it better and our knowledge will continue to grow.
Watch this video and hear Eric Jensen explaining what all educators need to know about brain based learning.
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