Reinventing Schools Through Brain-Based Learning

Renate Numrnela Caine and Geoffrey Caine

After three years of imme.rsion in brain-based learnin.g theory and practice, Dry Creek Elementary ScHool has internalized a

together. 'Theaward was not based on standardized test scores (these were still ,Eelatively low), but on ~he SChQ6PS commitment to the ideas expressed in the California Elementary Task Foree report "It's Elemel1taty," which is highly compatible with brain-based instruction. in addition. the National Edu ation Association produced a :film about the school that aired on the Learning Channel last October,

more meaningful. mode.1 of ho,w and students learn.

The o¥erwhell\ling maj<i>rity 01' teacher's ... are u,nable to n<lIJll,e or rles(}tlb.e. a theory lilf.leanring tbar~nderlies what they do in tite classroom but what they dowhat any ef us de,es--is. 110 less informed by theoretical assumptions .... Behind the practice of presenting a colorful dinosaur sucker to ~ 1 t grader who 'stays silent on-command is a theory that embodies distinct as urnptions.abeut the nature Qfknowledge, the pl.1l~ibiliry 0f choice, and Wl13t it means to be a human. being.

I r: M€lkin.g C~l~ne.€ .. tjOflS-11. ea~hing and' the Human Brain (Came. and Came 1994), we

outlined a new 'theory of b0W people learn

ba ed on current research in thecognitive and neuro ciences. We wanted to demonstrate that OUr theory could serve as a practical guide for a dynamic way of approaching teaching and learning.

We, together willi oureelleague Sam Crowell, have appliedour :ili~ory in several schools, amO'ng them Dry Creek Elementary a K-6 elementary school in Rio Linda, California, Most children at this Chapter 1 school come from lowsocioeeonomio=and eften dysfuncticnal=-families. They have done poorly Oll standardized test. And the school ha had an exceedingly high student turnover rate--49 percent of all students in the 1993-"94 academic year:

When we begsn working at D~y Creek, we expected smdems to impreve academically, bot not anti 1 the end of this, the tmird, academic year of the program. Yet the standardized test scores

of student who have been here lnce the beginning of our program have shown steady improvement. Particularly impressive are the academic strides

of pedal education students.

Much to our delight and the delight of the school and eornmunity, the California education department: presented Dry Creek with a distinguished scheol award. tG~ai;d the end of our first year

Dry Creek has temporarily accepted Our notion of an apprentice community as an ultimate goal, That is, a oommnnity in which students can experience and test many of the relationships and ideas they will need in the real world in a safe, nurturing, and challenging context In this environment, each student i engaged in multiple epprenticeships=-te other students, b teachers, and to cOLniTIunity members ..

Inbraln·baS8d leamlng. students USB stories aId com.IBl1h8m8s to IIn~ Infu,,"8Bon and undemanding.

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It is important to note that the staff originally had a vision of the kind of learners they wanted their students to become and that they were engaged in a process of change. But they had no vision of what the school itself would Iook like. In effect. the entire school set out to discover its own strengths and to reinvent itself ba ed upon a

mall-group process; continuous reflection on the brain-based theory of leaming.and input from shared experienees, from us, from subject matter experts, and from outside consultants.

Dry Creek has taught us about the reality of translating our theory into the everyday life ofa school with few resources and an extraordinarily high student turnover rate. The school has made our theory come alive,

Tradiliona~ TeachIng and Learning Based on our own observations and discussions almo t an teachers at Dry Creek had embraced the traditional model of learning and teaching-their mental model, They were not unusual. in thi~ respect. Must teachers have' a mental model of teacher roles and Iearning=-deeply held a sumptions that are, we believe, physiologically entrenched asa result of eady experiences insoheol.

Traditionally instruction has focused on memorizing what we call surface knowledge, It has been, for the most part, teacher-dominated, a delivery model to whioh traditional resources, such as textbooks lectures, and pos ibly videos or movies, are closely tied. Traditional assessment is based on quantitative data. If is carried out with mult,ip).e-cboice and true-false tests that are designed to find out whether students can answer the teacher's or textbook's questions.

In this context, teachers see di dpline as maintaining the "good behavior" that enables students to absorb information that an official curriculum or teacher plan determines. Students must do so on an inflexible schedule, because learning time is


closely guided by an external (artific:ial) time schedule, which. is antithetical to reflection. Pinally computers are largely ab ent, or used only for paper-and-penci I tasks.

Braln-B,ased Teaching and Learning

The traditional mental model of learning is being challenged in m3Ti1Y quarters, but alternative theories are still fragmented and limited to supporting specific approaches, sucb as-thematic instruction, cooperative learning meaningcentered curriculum, and 0 OD. By contrast, brain-basedteaching and learning takes a holistic approach. looking at teaching de¥.elopm.entany, socioculturally, and in other broad ways.

Specifically how does our theory differ from traditional instruction? Above all, we-want instructicn to shift from memorizing information to meaningful learning. Brain-based learning tresses the importance of pauerning, that is, the fact that the brain-does not easily learn things that are-not logical or have no meaning. Because OUT natural tendency is to integrate information, we resist. learning isolated bits of information. Because the specifics of instruction are alwaystied to larger understandings and purposes, we believe teachers must help their students ee the meaning of new information, We expect to see teachers and students using srorie and complex themes

and metaphors to link information

and under tanding and we expect computers to be used for all types

of work.

Brain-ba ed learning also stresses theprinciple that the brain is sparatte! processor-it performs many functions simultaneously. Therefore all meaningful Iearning is complex and nonlinear. Thismeans that teachers must lise all available resourcesincluding community resources and multiple apprenticeship-to orchestrate dynamic learning environments. Thes.e environments cannot be linked to an artificial time sehedule based upon some general need for order or convenience, ] nstead, chedules

hould be tied to the actual time it takes a student to explore a point of view or to master a task, much as in a professional, research, or business

etting. Yet, as Margaret Wheatley noted in Leadership and the New Science (1.992), there must be a sense of coherence and orderliness, as well as the sort of safety that naturally engenders ri k, We'v,e learned that when the community is orderly and coherent, children with special needs can be included in normal classrooms.

In OUl' ystern, there is 00t necessarily one right. way for students to handle an assignment. Teacher ' must overcome the natural preference for conveying information tied to clear

Dry Creek has taught us about translating our theory into the everyday life of a school with few resources and an extraordinarily high student turnover rate.

directions and opportunities for students to do it right rather than to explore and experiment, Accordingly, assessmeni.includes but moves beyond, paper-and-pencil tests. There l' authentic a . essment of all types, and stuclents participate in evaluating their learning process and progress. 111 addition.outsids expert and expert panel. may. be called upon to help assess students' achievements.

As for discipline teacher/student interaction are governed by a totally different as uraption, Students are seen as-and are expected to see themselves as-re pousible for both their own behavior and group progress.

Viewing it another way, brain-based learning i .. a re pan e to a set of questions, which Wheatley (.1993) beautifully formulated:

• What are the sources of order?

• How do we create organizarlonal coherence where activities corre poneto purpose?

• How do we. create structares that, rnoee with change that are flexible and adaptive, that 'enable rather

than eonstrain?

• How doweresolve personal needs for freedom and autonomy with erganizatienal needs for prediction and control?

PUH~ng TheOry iql0 PractiGe

At Dry Creek, we were not interested in achieving these change through direct teacher trainingor teaching specific skills, but in using Our theory and practice with the entire school. We wanted to change assumpfons about schools, learning, and teaching; to encourage teachers' own efforts to implement brain-based instruction. We hypothesized that if we contributed to theory, process, and instruction.and if teachers had sub tantial opportunities to learn how they learn, everyone would move toward brain-based learning,

OUr ultimate objective was to unleash the creativity in teachers and other staff, so they would take chances based on a much broader curriculum. Ina sense, brain-based learning is improvisationak no two "lessons" are ever the same. Teachers find oonneetions among everything from prepackaged math find science materials to music, art, and computers,

Another goal was to provide academic enrichment, We wanted to empower teachers through greater content knowledge .. Many of the reachers we have encountered are academically impoverished, When they limit children to their own learning, they do them. an epormoLls disservice ..

Changing the Menial Model

When we first attempted to apply our theory in schools we discovered all kinds of problem. Educators who had welcomed eur book's ideas saw implementation as another matter entirely. Most wanted instant elutions: they didn't understand that they would have to change powerful assumptions about learning and. teaching that guide their daily decision ,and that this does not happen ovemighL

We believed. that our theory propenly understood would influence teaching decisions. But. we were aware that before the theory could drive change, it had to become a menta] model-a' deeply ingrained assumption, generalization, or even picture or image thatinfluences how we understand the world and how we t~e acbOn,"1!.S Senge defined irC 1990"

p. 8). Although our behavior may not be consistent with our espoused theories Senge noted, i1 is consistent with OUI mental model-c-ourt'theojies-inuse." Yet. be said, "very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effeets they have on cur beha vior, "

.1.11 effect, when our theory of brainbased learning becomes a mental model, It becomes pos ible to integrate learning.jnstrucrion, curriculum, and the system as a whole, because all share common roots. For this to happen, however, the entire system must be reconfigured. We must do more than simply integrate ubjects that used to be separate and instead recognize styles and intelligences that used to be di regarded. A certain dynamism is needed to trigger selforganization and change, Such a shift cannot be imposed or put together in a fragmented or mechanistic way; it must be allowed to emerge. naturally. The tinting and intensity of each stage depends on the school itself.

At. Dry Creek, our objective for the first year was to bu ild the appropriate atmosphereand to generate awareness of what bram-basededucationaetually

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requires. We were primarily; inferested in creating fertile soil in which advanced teaching and learning could flourish. Aceerdingly, we formulated no teaeher or student outcomes for the year, altl10ugh We did expect that ultimutely student performance would be excellent on any measure that the state of California mandated.

A change in mental models is a perceptualchange .. For it to come about three elements must beat work simultaneously:

1. Relaxed alertness. that is, creation efa challenging, bu: noruhreatening, environment. Since brain-based learning requires refleeti011 and other aspects of active

processing, Dry Creek teachers had to be free toexplore Ideas in an environment that WaS as nonjudgmental as possible.

A secure environment counteracts "downshifting," that is, the tendency under stress to shift to a defensive mode and become less flexible and open to new mformarion and ideas. Our own teachi1~g experience alerted us to the fact that teachers tend to be extremely reluctant to share their thoughts on education, particularly with their eolleagues. This reluctance gl'OWS stronger when time limit-s are imposed externally, Often, the unarticulated need for power status, and territory, exacerbated by lack of communication, destroys the original vision. In our workshops, downshifting has been an important hurdle

There is authentic assessment of all types, and students participate in evaluating their learning process and progress.

to overcome. Predictably, teachers reverted to the tried-and-true, particularly when faced wcllh open-ended projects.

We-attempted 10 counter downshifting in several ways .. Pirst, we decided to allow a long period (five years) for restructuring so as to lower pressure and give genuine change a chance, Second, we formed 'proce-ss" groups, which meet for two hours three times a month. These g(OUPS serve as low-threat, high-ehallenge think tanks, giving teachers the freedom to reflect on the purpose and function of learning, teaching, and schools, They also help teachers learn to trust themselves and Que another and to play with thoughts and ideas. Finally, We have countered downshlft:i:qg by making participation voluntary, although we would like all adults to participate. (UltimalefY, almost everyone at Dry Creek has volunteered. )

2. Orchestrated immersion in complex experience. Children leatn not only from teachers but also from brief events, ongoing activities and all sorts of social interactions-in short, from the entire experience and ph ysical context. We therefore decided aU adujts=-custodian, librarian, secretary cafeteria worker, as well as teacher and administrator-should be included in the process. In each of the process groups, we purposely included an interesting mixture IOf people wirh different functions. We wanted all participants to see themselves as teachers, contributing either directly or .indirectly to children 's learning. (11)e custodians, in fact, are highly regarded

by the teachina staff, and are emerging as real-life c()l;nseltxrs for students.)

In addition, we set out to have our theory and p.riLociples embedded, as much.a possible in the day-to-day routine of the school. And we also applied the principle of orchestrated Immersion to all adults', We immersed them in our writings and periodic workshops and gave them other opportunities 1:0 bring their own understandings to bear at any point.

3, Continuous actiee processing of ongoingchanges and experiences to consolidate the emergent mental model. To create a genuine teaming community in which staff internahze our theory of instructlon, staff must reflect on and actively process tile ideas in a social. setting. We therefore provided each participant with our book Minds/nfts (Caine et &1. 1994), which guided thean through the principles of brain-based learning and openended experimentation, The book has also been a gentle focus for the process groups in their meetings. It encourages them to reflect on how they themsel ves have teemed and do learn, and to relate those insightS to specific teachllig situations.

Beooming a Lear.niou Community

We have spent much Dry Creek creating acoherent community, where common practices and routines and cele~tati.ons provide continuity, In a two-day retreat at the beginning of the year, all staff members were Involved in a mixture ofcreative self-direction wlthsome very precise guidelines. The retreat Included It ceremonial or formal way of starting each meeting.a process for the €ltde:rJy sharing of individual' opinions about some general principles or pithy sayings or extracts from a book, exploration of one of the brain principles, ana a ceremonial or formal closing.

In addition, all process group members participated in a four-day workshop on brain-based instruction, Here, the eommunity worked to

understand the meaning of orderliness andcoherence, where people are connected by mutual caring in an intellectually challenging climate. We examined authentic assessment innovative instruction methads, and ways to become mere creative.

After three years of work, Dry Creek is now a: teaming community, witb cross fertilization of learning in the schoolas a whole. This is refleeted in a; host of ways. Parent-staff interactions are far more positive and friendly. CIa rooms have been redesigned to reflect a more natural, dynamic approach to learning. Natwithstanding the extreraely high student turnover rate, staff have maintained their interest and enthu. rasm.

Perhap one of the mo t exciting re-sults bas been the jelling of the process groups .. Within aheut two months, people who rarely a sociated with on another had bonded quite closely, and their commitment to the

chool asa whole was.stronger, This was powerfully reflected in the. anony- 1110U survey that the principal, Cindy Tucker, conducted. Some typical comment:

It's great getting 10 know group members in anew-way .... There's.a feeling of excitement here .... People are working with their colleagues

baring the kids in their elas ies through peer tutoring, cross-age work. 'and study buddies. We're not as isolated a' we used ro be .... The process was

ofteo.exlrlausting, 'but it ~ia;~ a. rich place (.0 be as an edueato:1,l. The biggest change I see is that yes, thl ~ a community of learners. It s moving from my cla s to our kids.

Trials and Rew,ards

It has not been all clear sailing, of course. Some teachers tuck resolutely to lecture and directed instruction. even while studyiugabour diametrically opposite wayS of looking at instruction. They were looking for direction from us-s-ccckie-cutter types of directions, Yet they also experimented and began to do things that leoked very much like brainbased instruction,

Our major breakthrough occurred several month ago. As pan of our inservice, we invited four lead teachers to present to. their colleagues. math and science programs irnplementing brain-based instruction. We then began teacher demonstrations with team feedback.

The shill. in mental model is in:variabl y a messy process and teachers need to develop a great deal of tolerance for ambiguity. We have learned that genuine restructaring ultimately mustresult in systemic change within the individuals as well as the school and the broader community. The dance between letting go of old beliefs and taking on a new way of thinking and perceiving is delicate antI complex. At Dry Creek thel entire

cOnl'tnunity is engaged in intellectual discussions that Im:k theory to practice, applying the force of a coherent, orderly mini-society.

The pressures of time were, and continue to be, daunting. The entire process would' have been too difficult, if not impossible, without outstanding and continued leadership from the principal and the assistant to the principal, Chris Halverson. Fortunately there also was support from many parents. And. the distrietoffered consistent support, agreeing to allocate all monies for staff development t!:ays to this one program.

Many schools areimd thecountry are organizing their school days differently.Jt is important to emphasize that neither the schcols nor the teachers themselves need 10 come up witb the. same solutions. hi fact, we have continually adjusted OUT process to Dry Creek's particular needs and experiences. Dry Creek, in tum, continues to prove that our theory works with average teachersand children .•


Caine, R. and G. Caine. (1994). Making Connections: Teaching and ine HUman Brain, Menlo Pock, Calif.: AddisonWesley.

Ca'ine,G" R. Caine, and S. Crowell. (L994). Mill(/shifts. Tucson, Ariz.:

Zephyr Ptess,

Kohn A. (1993). Punished by Rewards.

Boston: Houghton M" Company.

Senge, P. M. (1 990} . The Fif~h Discipline:

The Art and Praotice Of the. Learning Organization, New York: Doubleday, Wheatley M. J. (1993). Leadership and the New Science. San Francisco: BerrettKoehler.

Renate Nummela Caine is Associate Professor of Education and Executive Director of the Center for Research in Integrative LearningITeaching, California Statel:lniversity, San B.ernarcdino. Ceoffrey Caine is. a consultant specializing in adult learning and an Adjunct Member of Faculty, WhiteheaC!l Center for Lifelong Learning, University of Redlands, California. Both are partners in Caine L.eaming, P.O. Box 184.7, IdyllWild, CA 92549.

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