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Martha Morris' Page

Brain-Based Learning

I am an elementary principal in Michigan who is interested in making the classroom experience more engaging and interesting for students so as to promote their learning and achievement.

Introduction: Brain-Based Learning is a study into the connections between neuroscience and learning. Many scholars and scientists are attempting to use the understanding of brain development and its natural functioning in order to improve instruction. The theory is that educators who use brain-friendly techniques will see better results in the classroom. Brain-based education has implications for arts education, physical education, and socialization.

websites, controversies, articles, conclusion

Some websites for more information:
http://www.brains.org/ Provides curriculum help, dozens of articles, and links for information on hot topics on brain research.
Brain Based (Compatible) Learning gives further information on professional development related to brain-based learning (Part of Teacher Tap)
Brain Based Education Overview gives the history, principles, and implications of brain-based education.

The theory of Brain-Based Education is not without controversy. There are supporters, like Eric Jensen, and detractors, such as John Bruer. In Kappan Magazine (Feb. 2008), several authors contribute their ideas about the efficacy of Brain-Based Education.

Eric Jensen, in "A Fresh Look at Brain-based Education," gives 10 powerful connections between the brain and education: 1) the growth of neurons; 2) the influence of social conditions on the brain; 3) the ability of the brain to rewire and remap itself; 4) the effect of Chronic Stress; 5) Gene expression determining the outcomes for students; 6) the effect of good nutrition on brain functioning; 7) The role of the arts and the arts' impact on the brain; 8) the value of exercise to the brain; 9) the rehabilitation of brain-based disorders; 10) the discovery that environments alter our brains. The author contends that neuroscientists are not teachers and teachers are not neuro researchers, but working together, in conjunction with other disciplines such as cognitive and developmental psychology, they can positively impact educational practice.

Robert J. Sternberg replies in the same issue that brain research has yielded too many contradictory findings for educators to be certain of which policies to adopt. In The Answer Depends on the Question, Mr. Sternberg argues that science has not provided unequivocal implications of the brain on educational practice. It has not proved that intelligence is related to brain size or definitively determine which multiple intelligence a child possesses. The author investigates whether the relationship between race and intelligence can be concluded from brain research. It seems that these two authors are not arguing the same issue or looking for the same information from brain-based education.

Other authors jump into the argument, including Dan Willingham and Judy Willlis. These authors both support the importance of brain research on educational practice, but argue for careful application of the findings, as well as using the findings in context with other types of research on educational practice.

Here is the ASCD website that offers several resources on The Brain and Learning
In this issue, John Bruer writes about brain research and what it can and can't do for education in Brain Science, Brain Fiction. In the Brains Behind the Brain, 5 researchers identify the most important implications of brain research on classroom practice. There are articles in this issue about the brain and science, art, and multiple intelligences.
  • It helps to understand the Cerebral Cortex, or the anatomy of the brain and our physical response to learning. No two children learn in the same way, so we must teach them to think for themselves and find their way to learn.
  • Neurons are the only cells that process information. Educators need to connect neurons to create learning and memory. Repetition, reading, and exercise connect neurons. We educators are challenged to make an enriched classroom environment in which these activities are taking place.
  • Humans are driven to search for meaning and we learn through interaction with others. Educators need to create a "relationship" for the students with the subject at hand to produce learning. Our brain is not able to pay attention for long periods of time. Interest increases attention, and emotion generates interest. Educators need to pay more attention to emotion to get students involved in learning.

Many researchers believe that there is benefit in studying neuroscience and brain functioning to improve instruction and learning in the classroom. Here are several articles that provide information about the brain and education:
Brain-Based Suggestions for Teaching Reading

Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention

December 15, 2009 - The Dana Foundation
"Scientists’ understanding of how our brains enable us to read has advanced significantly in the past two decades. In Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention, French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene points out that humans did not have time to evolve reading-specific brain circuitry; instead, our brain “recycles” existing networks for the task. Dehaene not only explains how we learn to read (and what causes reading problems such as dyslexia) but also analyzes scientific insights in the contexts of education and culture.

In this excerpt, Dehaene points out that although caution is necessary when applying the science of reading in the classroom, certain elements of how we learn to read are firm. For example, he challenges the notion “that there are hundreds of ways to learn to read.” As for how teachers might put scientific advances to use, Dehaene says the first step is to make sure children learn how to take words apart and recompose them, associating letters with sounds. Ensuring that students understand not just the mechanics of reading but what the words mean is vital for helping them master this uniquely human ability, he writes."

I am intrigued by this author and this article. He states that there is nothing automatic in the brain that allows reading to occur. The same processes are necessary for each of us to learn to read: the same steps, the same sequence must be practiced to the point of automaticity in order for reading to occur. We must "aim to lay down an efficient neuronal hierarchy, so that a child can recognize letters and graphemes and easily turn them into speech sounds." The next steps of reading - spelling, comprehension, application - are not possible without these first steps.

"The punch line is quite simple: we know that conversion of letters into sounds is the key stage in reading acquisition. All teaching efforts should be initially focused on a single goal, the grasp of the alphabetic principle whereby each letter or grapheme represents a phoneme." Kindergarteners must learn the letters and the various sounds of letters in order to become proficient readers. They must later be able to combine letters and identify the sounds made by the combinations. They must learn the rules before they learn the exceptions. It is best to take time and make sure the reader is confident before more complex language rules are introduced.

Reading Practice Can Strengthen Brain 'Highways' by Jon Hamilton was a story played on National Public Radio. In a study on reading and the brain, researchers found that after 100 hours of intense reading intervention, not only did reading improve, but the white tissue in the brain improved as well.

Boys Brains vs Girls Brains and Learning to Read
This article from Scientific American discusses the similarities and differences in the way boys' and girls' brains work. It has some great suggestions for teaching boys and helping reduce the reading gap.

How To Teach Students About the Brain

In How To Teach Students About the Brain (Educational Leadership, Dec. 2009), Judy Willis explains that "if we want to empower students, we must show them how they can control their own cognitive and emotional health and their own learning. Teaching students how the brain operates is a huge step. Even young students can learn strategies for priming their brains to learn more efficiently." She knows, because she has taught both 5th graders and 7th graders about how their brains learn. She recommends using the website: Neuroscience for Kids.

The Brain and PE

For a discussion of how physical activity is beneficial to general cognitive functioning, read Why We Should Not Cut PE from Educational Leadership, Dec. 2009. In this article, Stewart G. Trost and Hans van der Mars explain that the elimination of PE to increase time for reading and math will not improve student achievement, but instead "in studies that did show physical activity had an effect[on achievement], increasing instructional time for physical education resulted in improvements in academic performance." In a study of 12,000 students, the CDC found that students who were physically active were 20% more likely to achieve an A in math or English.

SPARK is a groundbreaking and fascinating investigation into the transformative effects of exercise on the brain, from the bestselling author and renowned psychiatrist John J. Ratey, MD. (From Amazon.com): Did you know you can beat stress, lift your mood, fight memory loss, sharpen your intellect, and function better than ever simply by elevating your heart rate and breaking a sweat? The evidence is incontrovertible: Aerobic exercise physically remodels our brains for peak performance. In SPARK, John J. Ratey, M.D., embarks upon a fascinating and entertaining journey through the mind-body connection, presenting startling research to prove that exercise is truly our best defense against everything from depression to ADD to addiction to aggression to menopause to Alzheimer's. Filled with amazing case studies (such as the revolutionary fitness program in Naperville, Illinois, which has put this school district of 19,000 kids first in the world of science test scores), SPARK is the first book to explore comprehensively the connection between exercise and the brain. It will change forever the way you think about your morning run---or, for that matter, simply the way you think

See Matt R.'s page for more information about the positive effects of physical education. He has a great video of how exercise "pumps up the brain."

Watch CBS News Videos Online

Here is a great article about adult learning as it relates to brain research:
Brain Friendly Learning for Teachers
Online June 2009 | Volume 66
Revisiting Teacher Learning
David A. Sousa asks how we can create professional development for teachers that engenders deep learning? Brain-based learning is not just for students. In order to engage teachers in meaning professional development, the PD must be brain-compatible. Sousa writes, "Four key factors affect the intensity of a learner's intrinsic motivation in any given situation: emotions, feedback, past experiences, and meaning. These factors are all connected and influence one another to some degree." The article explains how each of these factors affects learning and how to engage them for quality professional development.


Brain-based learning is a much larger topic than I had anticipated. There are supporters and detractors, which I should have expected, but was surprised by. Detractors believe that neuroscience is better left to the scientists and has no place in the classroom and brain science has limited use for classroom teachers. Much has been learned about neurology and the brain, but the application of the results of the studies have not been proven to unequivocally improve classroom instruction. Supporters argue that understanding the physiology of the brain, understanding how stress and exercise impact brain effectiveness, studying and applying how the arts improve brain functioning. All of these have great impact on improving instruction and making more of an impact, say the supporters.

I think it is very important to understand which activities and exercises cause the brain to respond and therefore enhance learning. Knowing that the additional reading practice causes the brain not only to respond and learn, it also causes actual brain growth. Exercise, art, feedback, practice, and tying emotion to learning will make all lessons meaningful and memorable for students, and this is because of their impact on the neuron connections in the brain.