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Brain-based Learning

This learning theory is based on the structure and function of the brain. As long as the brain is not
prohibited from fulfilling its normal processes, learning will occur.

People often say that everyone can learn. Yet the reality is that everyone does learn. Every person is born with
a brain that functions as an immensely powerful processor. Traditional schooling, however, often inhibits
learning by discouraging, ignoring, or punishing the brain's natural learning processes.

The core principles of brain-based learning state that:

1. The brain is a parallel processor, meaning it can perform several activities at once, like
tasting and smelling.
2. Learning engages the whole physiology.
3. The search for meaning is innate.
4. The search for meaning comes through patterning.
5. Emotions are critical to patterning.
6. The brain processes wholes and parts simultaneously.
7. Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral perception.
8. Learning involves both conscious and unconscious processes.
9. We have two types of memory: spatial and rote.
10. We understand best when facts are embedded in natural, spatial memory.
11. Learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat.
12. Each brain is unique.

The three instructional techniques associated with brain-based learning are:

1. Orchestrated immersion--Creating learning environments that fully immerse students in

an educational experience
2. Relaxed alertness--Trying to eliminate fear in learners, while maintaining a highly
challenging environment
3. Active processing--Allowing the learner to consolidate and internalize information by
actively processing it

How Brain-Based Learning Impacts Education

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

What Brain-Based Learning Suggests

How the brain works has a significant impact on what kinds of learning activities are most
effective. Educators need to help students have appropriate experiences and capitalize on those
experiences. As Renate Caine illustrates on p. 113 of her book Making Connections, three
interactive elements are essential to this 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."

A few other tenets of brain-based learning include:

Feedback is best when it comes from reality, rather than from an authority figure.

People learn best when solving realistic problems.

The big picture can't be separated from the details.

Because every brain is different, educators should allow learners to customize their own

The best problem solvers are those that laugh!

Designers of educational tools must be artistic in their creation of brain-friendly environments.

Instructors need to realize that the best way to learn is not through lecture, but by participation in
realistic environments that let learners try new things safely.

Renate and Geoffrey Caine, Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain.

Leslie Hart, Human Brain, Human Learning.

The content on this page was written by On Purpose Associates.

Brain-Based (Compatible) Learning
What is brain-based or brain-compatible learning?

How can brain research be integrated into the classroom?

How does brain research relate to technology integration?

Brain-based learning has been called a combination of brain science and

common sense. Hart (1983) called the brain "the organ of learning." He
advocated learning more about the brain in order to design effective learning
environments. Caine and Caine (1991) developed twelve principles that apply
what we know about the function of the brain to teaching and learning. These
principles were derived from an exploration of many disciplines and are viewed
as a framework for thinking about teaching methodology. Read Caine and
Caine's (1994) Mind/Brain Learning Principles for the principles with brief
descriptions, the longer descriptions, or to Caine's Website for a diagram. The
principles are:

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.

For complex learning to occur, Caine and Caine have identified three conditions:

1. Relaxed alertness - a low threat, high challenge state of mind

2. Orchestrated immersion - an multiple, complex, authentic experience
3. Active processing - making meaning through experience processing

The nine brain-compatible elements identified in the ITI (Integrated Thematic Instruction) model
designed by Susan Kovalik include: Absence of Threat, Meaningful Content, Choices, Movement
to Enhance Learning, Enriched Environment, Adequate Time, Collaboration, Immediate Feedback,
and Mastery (application level).
We learn....

10% of what we read.

20% of what we hear.

30% of what we see.

Overview of
50% of what we both see and hear.
Brain-based Education
70% of what is discussed with others

80% of what we experience

95% of what we teach

William Glasser


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. 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.


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 citys 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
• 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)

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

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)

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. (DArcangelo)

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.

Use more diverse forms of assessment:

Maintaining portfolios is important for reflective improvement and self-assessment.

These help teachers, parents and students observe demonstrated growth over time.
Teachers also need to maintain appropriate content mastery through regular testing
programs. And, demonstrations, writing and art are ways of assessing students
progress, as are pre and post surveys and tests useful in assessing students progress.
Both verbal and written self-assessments are important parts of proving academic
growth, and interdisciplinary and cross-curricular projects provide realistic
assessment tools. In essence, students should be exposed to multiple assessment
methods. (Jensen)

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.