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11.3: How can brain research help teachers understand their students?

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    by Valerie R. Singleton

    Learning Objectives

    1. The reader will be able to discuss the two main arguments for and against brain base education.

    2. The reader will be able to understand recommended educational approaches from brain research and its effects on learning.

    3. The reader will gain a base knowledge of how to apply lessons from brain-based learning research to classroom settings.


    The world of education is becoming more and more complex. Oftentimes the array of educational research and teaching models can be a bit daunting for the novice teacher. How can a new teacher be sure which strategies are the most effective when most teaching strategies have been backed by years and years of research? Most education models seem legitimate and useful and this can be overwhelming. With dropping graduation rates, poor test performance, stretched budgets and the stress of accountability teachers are hard pressed to keep classroom instruction interesting, meaningful and fun. Teachers are now more than ever being challenged with the task of keeping students engaged. There has been a paradigm shift to students becoming active learners and teachers taking on the role of guides to knowledge and learning independence. ( Erlauer, 2003 ) Brain research and its effects on learning is definitely not a new area of research. In the past there have been a variety of theories ranging from right brain vs. left brain learners, gender studies, and many other theories in between. ( Willingham, 2006 ) This article will review the core principles of brain based education, the implications for best teaching practices, and the twelve classroom design principles based on the mainstream research.

    What is Brain Based Learning?

    Brain-based learning is an instructional-design model based on the idea that learning activities are more effective if they occur in an atmosphere that is compatible with the way the brain learns. Brain based education centers around the principle that learning is more productive if the learner is in a natural, challenging, yet non-threatening environment. Learning is a natural condition of humans. However, humans do not learn to be more effective on the job, or to be more gifted with numbers than words. Humans learn to survive. The main tenet of brain based learning is that if the environment is conducive to natural learning then learning will not only take place, but flourish.

    Brain Based Learning: Fact or Fiction

    Most researchers of brain-based education would be the first to admit that many of the findings of brain-based learning research are still in the early stages. Two of the pioneer researchers in brain based learning, Renate Nummela Caine and Geoffrey Caine have published several books and articles on brain based research and have brought focus to the subject. The Caines came up with 12 principles based on brain based research which outlines its implications in the classroom. The 12 principles will be discussed in detail later in the article. But first, it is important to point out that there are some scientists who believe that although neuroscience has made great strides in finding out how the brain works, it is a bit premature to try and use those findings in the classroom. Neuroscience is a vast discipline filled with mystery, and only in the past 15 years have scientist been able to uncover some of those mysteries through use of MRI (Magnetic resonance imaging) and PET scan (Positron Emission Tomography). (Erlauer, 2003) Other scientist have cautioned educators from getting drawn in by all the research because many of the findings used to support classroom instructional models is not brain based at all. Most of the research is based mainly on already existing psychological theories based on cognitive research. (Bruer, 1999) Neuroscience and psychology are very similar. The main difference is that neuroscience is the science of the brain and how it functions, and psychology is the science of the mind and human behavior. (Bruer, 1999) Psychology has been considered to be a soft-science for many years. Neuroscience is a hard science. Hard sciences are generally grounded in rigorous methodology and hypothesis formation. Soft sciences are usually not as rigid and there is much room for speculation. John T. Bruer explores this dichotomy in a Phi Deltan Kappan journal article, In Search of…Brain Based Education. Bruer contends that most of the evidence available against traditional models of education can be supported by 30 years of research in constructivism and cognitive development not brain research. (Bruer, 1999 ) As mentioned previously some scientists will agree that brain research has accomplished much in the last decade. Daniel Willingham, a renowned cognitive scientist and professor, cautions educators to be aware of the different levels of analysis present when trying to bridge neuroscience and effective classroom practices.

    Nonetheless despite skepticism many scientists have found enough validity in the research to press forward in changing the face of the American classroom. Eric Jensen, Renate Nummela Caine, Geoffrey Caine and Laura Erlauer have designed educational models which integrate brain based research into the classroom. The next section will survey some of the principles and implications their research has had on education.

    Integrating Brain Based learning into the Classroom

    With all the information out in the world about brain based learning how does a teacher successfully integrate the best teaching practices into their classroom. It is important for a teacher to know that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Whenever trying to implement a new strategy into the classroom it is always best to start small. When I first began teaching my aunt, who is also a teacher, told me to never stop learning. She advised me to attend conferences regularly, and pick two good strategies to incorporate into my classroom. I intend to incorporate some of the strategies I have read about in my research with caution. Renate Nummela Caine and Geoffrey Caine created the 12 mind/brain principles for integrating brain based research into the classroom. According to Renate Caine, “ These principles are not meant to represent the final word on learning. Collectively, they do, however, result in a fundamentally new, integrated view of the learning process and the learner. They move us away from seeing the learner as a blank slate and toward an appreciation of the fact that body, brain, and mind are a dynamic unity.” Following is the complete list of the twelve brain/mind learning principles, as defined by Caine and Caine:


    1. The brain is a complex adaptive system.

    2. The brain is a social brain.

    3. The search for meaning is innate.

    4. The search for meaning occurs through patterning.

    5. Emotions are critical to patterning.

    6. Every brain simultaneously perceives and creates parts and wholes.

    7. Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral attention.

    8. Learning always involves conscious and unconscious processes.

    9. We have at least two ways of organizing memory.

    10. Learning is developmental.

    11. Complex learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat.

    12. Every brain is uniquely organized. (Caine and Caine 1997)

    Each of these principles has specific implications for the classroom which are fully illustrated in their book Education on the Edge of Possibility. Eric Jensen took the principles base on the Caine research and developed a teaching model which breaks down teaching preparation to three distinct phases. The first phase is the preparation and planning stage, next phase focuses on the learning process and then finally the last stage is for reflection and processing of information. (Jensen, 2005) If a teacher uses Jensen’s teaching model and integrates the following three interactive elements Renate Caine writes about in her book Making Connections then setting up a classroom which takes a brain based approach would be a less challenging process.

    • Teachers must immerse learners in complex, interactive experiences that are both rich and real. One excellent example is immersing students in a foreign culture to teach them a second language. Educators must take advantage of the brain’s ability to parallel process.

    • Students must have a personally meaningful challenge. Such challenges stimulate a student’s mind to the desired state of alertness.

    • In order for a student to gain insight about a problem, there must be intensive analysis of the different ways to approach it, and about learning in general. This is what’s known as the “active processing of experience.” (Caine, 1991)


    Bruer, J. T. (1999). In search of . . . brain-based education. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(9), 648. Retrieved February 16, 2009, from Questia database:

    Caine, R.N. & Caine, G. (1991). Making connections: Teaching and the human brain. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

    Caine, R.N. & Caine, G. (1997). Education on the edge of possibility. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

    Erlauer, L. (2003). The brain-compatible classroom: Using what we know about learning to improve teaching. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Retrieved February 10, 2009, from Questia database:

    Jensen, E. (2005). Teaching with the brain in mind (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

    Willingham, Daniel. (2006). “Brain-based” Learning: More Fiction than Fact. Retrieved February 8, 2009. American Educator. /american_educator/issues/fall2006/cogsci.htm.