What is “Brain-Based Learning”?

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brain-based-learning2The Organ of Learning
To many, the term “brain-based learning” sounds redundant. Isn’t all learning and teaching brain-based? Advocates of brain-based teaching insist that there is a difference between “brain-compatible” education, and “brain-antagonistic” teaching practices and methods which can actually prevent learning.

In his book, Human Brain and Human Learning (1983), Leslie Hart argues that teaching without an awareness of how the brain learns is like designing a glove with no sense of what a hand looks like–its shape, how it moves. Hart pushes this analogy even further in order to drive home his primary point: if classrooms are to be places of learning, then “the organ of learning,” the brain, must be understood and accommodate:

All around us are hand-compatible tools and machines and keyboards, designed to fit the hand. We are not apt to think of them in that light, because it does not occur to us that anyone would bring out some device to be used by human hands without being sure that the nature of hands was considered. A keyboard machine or musical instrument that called for eight fingers on each hand would draw instant ridicule. Yet we force millions of children into schools that have never seriously studied the nature and shape of the human brain, and which not surprisingly prove actively brain-antagonistic. (Hart 1983)

Granted, the brain is infinitely more complex than the hand. Although Hart does not deny the brain’s vast intricacy, and he admits to his own deliberate simplifications regarding the brain’s design, he argues that some knowledge, even if it is partial and simplified, can still be applied “to design brain-fitting, brain-compatible instructional settings and procedures.” Such settings and procedures would emphasize “real-world” exposure. The school, in Hart’s words, would become an “exciting center where there is constant encounter with the richness and variety of the real world” as opposed to a “dreary egg crate of classrooms…almost empty of anything real one might learn from.”

Twelve Brain/Mind Learning Principles
Among the many supporters of Hart’s approach to educating with the brain’s functions and design in mind are Renate Nummela Caine and Geoffrey Caine, authors of Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain (1991), Unleashing the Power of Perceptual Change: The Potential of Brain-Based Teaching (1997), and Education on the Edge of Possibility (1997). They build on the idea of brain-compatible learning with a list of twelve “brain/mind learning principles.” These principles, according to Caine and Caine, synthesize research related to the brain and learning from many disciplines and present it in a form that is useful to educators. The twelve principles, they continue, can function as a theoretical foundation for brain-based learning, and offer guidelines and a framework for teaching and learning.

Their explicitly cautious approach to bridging neuroscience and teaching practices reveals a fundamental and important dilemma: how to achieve a balance between taking advantage of new research findings that have important implications for education, and avoiding grand (and potentially irresponsible) conclusions with tenuous scientific basis. In Making Connections, where Caine and Caine’s approach to brain-based education is formalized, they state the need to refrain from prematurely over-concluding, given the dynamic nature of current brain research: “Both in the neurosciences and in education, we will no doubt learn more in the years to come. Though we make strong recommendations and suggestions, the book has an open-ended quality.”

Like Hart, Caine and Caine choose to interpret brain research holistically. And the “12 Brain/Mind Learning Principles,” though the name may lead you to believe otherwise, are not based solely on the findings of neuroscience. Instead, these principles and the ideas generated from them come from a wide range of additional disciplines, including cognitive psychology, sociology, philosophy, education, technology, sports psychology, creativity research, and physics. As Caine and Caine explain, all of the principles are “the result of a cross-disciplinary search.”

These principles are not, the authors are the first to admit, definitive or closed to revision; as more is discovered about the brain, how we learn and remember, educators will need to update their knowledge:

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.

Where Did the “12 Brain/Mind Learning Principles” Come From?
Principle 11–”Complex learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat”–illustrates how each principle is derived from a mixture of disciplines. In Education on the Edge of Possibility, Caine and Caine illustrate the origins of Principle 11, a principle that many brain-based learning advocates discuss, but the cross-disciplinary origins of which few actually reveal. The effects of perceived threat, or distress, on cognitive functioning led Caine and Caine to identify the optimal state of mind for learning, “relaxed alertness,” one of three central elements accompanying complex learning. To translate into practical terms, no one who has experienced the “fight or flight” fear response would identify this state as optimal for learning. “Brain-based learning” theory is a combination of common sense and brain science–in this case, the brain’s physiological reaction to stress–making neuroscience a useful partner for improving education.

The research areas that contributed to principle 11 include: “Stress Theory; Anxiety Research; Self-Efficacy; Neurosciences; Sports Psychology; and Creativity.”

Practical Use of Brain/Mind Principles
Caine and Caine do not use the principles to prescribe any single teaching method. Instead, the principles are intended to provide a framework for “selecting the methodologies that will maximize learning and make teaching more effective and fulfilling.” They may open doors for educators, increase teaching options, or serve as a guidepost to educators already working to implement brain-compatible teaching practices. 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)

Three Conditions for Learning

Caine and Caine conclude that “Optimizing the use of the human brain means using the brain’s infinite capacity to make connections–and understanding what conditions maximize this process.” They identify three interactive and mutually supportive elements that should be present in order for complex learning to occur: “relaxed alertness,” “orchestrated immersion,” and “active processing.”

  1. An optimal state of mind that we call relaxed alertness, consisting of low threat and high challenge.
  2. The orchestrated immersion of the learner in multiple, complex, authentic experience.
  3. The regular, active processing of experience as the basis for making meaning.

(Caine and Caine 1997)

Real-life Examples
Rather than offering a list of “how to’s,” Caine and Caine provide many illustrations of how these three elements may manifest themselves in real-life learning situations. They analyze, for instance, the success of famous math teacher Jaime Escalante, whose students from the Los Angeles barrio passed the calculus advanced placement exam in astounding numbers. They claim that Escalante, whose teaching career was portrayed in the movie “Stand and Deliver,” was using brain-based practices: “Although we question his textbook approach to the content of the subject, he understands his students and the world students live in. In his classes, calculus becomes a way of life, is a source of pride, and is linked to deeper understanding of how mathematics opens doors to further study and the individual student’s future.”

As the term “orchestrated immersion” implies, the teacher becomes the orchestrator, or the architect, designing experiences that will lead students to make meaningful connections. A second grade teacher’s successful efforts to teach punctuation, specifically commas, periods, and exclamation points, serves as a good example of how a teacher may use what students already know to teach what is abstract and unfamiliar. After giving her students verbal explanations of what each of these punctuation marks means (the comma, “slow down”; the period, “stop”; and the exclamation mark, “emphasis”), the teacher had her students read out loud. But the verbal explanations she had given them did not affect the way they read.

Finally, exasperated, she had them put on their coats and follow her outside. She told them, “I am going to read to you and I want you to walk around in a circle. When I say ‘comma’ I want you to slooow down, whenever I say ‘period’ I want you to stop dead in your tracks, and when I say ‘exclamation mark’ I want you to jump up and down….” She tried this for five minutes with perfect success. When they went back inside and read, all of them slowed down at the commas, paused at periods, and used emphasis at exclamations points.

Teaching and the Organ of Learning
Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain includes many wonderful real-life examples of how the three elements of relaxed alertness, orchestrated immersion, and active processing occur in successful teaching situations at all levels, from elementary school to college and beyond, and with a variety of methods. Current neuroscience research does not yet fully and accurately explain why such real-life examples are effective. Nevertheless, teaching, and a need for understanding how “the organ of learning” works, are now linked as never before.

Neuroscience is currently so dynamic that this connection, although secure, will inevitably grow and change and strengthen. The educator’s role will increasingly take on an added and “brain-based” dimension — that of remaining open to and curious about a growing field of information. Interpreting information in a way that leads to appropriate and responsible classroom practices is a crucial, and often overlooked, link in building this bridge between education and research on, in Hart’s words, “the most complex apparatus we know of in the universe,” the human brain.

Lisa Chipongian is a writer and editor who lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and works as an Associate Research Specialist in the Psychology Department of the University of Wisconsin — Madison.

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[…] The Organ of Learning To many, the term "brain-based learning" sounds redundant. Isn’t all learning and teaching brain-based? Advocates of brain-based teaching insist that there is a differen…  […]