Brain-Based Learning

Below is an article from Lisa Schopf on the tenets of brain-based learning, which is one of the core principles of our FasTracKids program.  For more information on the FasTracKids program, go to our website at or contact your local center to schedule a free trial class!

Four Common Sense Tenets of Brain-Based Learning
Lisa Schopf
Our classrooms are teeming with young neuroscientists! They may not be expressing their findings with sophisticated expositions on the functions of neural pathways or the specific regions of the brain, but they are often aware of the circumstances and experiences that help them learn best. As we share with them the scientific findings that underscore what promotes effective and lasting learning, our students will likely offer us nods of understanding and agreement as they respond with something to the effect of, “That’s what we’ve been trying to tell you!” Much of what we can prove with brain scans and cellular studies is what students have been experiencing, intuiting, and discovering on their own. Here are four tenets of brain-based learning that both students and research validate.
1. Minds learn best when children feel intellectually and emotionally safe.
Early in the school year, my students shared with me that they often prefer questions that require one correct answer derived from recalling the teacher’s lessons. Abstract questions with multiple possible responses made them fearful of “saying the wrong thing.” When we explored together the benefits of open-ended questions that advance thinking skills and parallel the experiences they will have as they grow, we acknowledged that we often consciously and subconsciously choose approaches that allow us to feel safe and successful. In the classroom, that can manifest as a reluctance to offer ideas, to imagine, to thoughtfully challenge, and to fully develop one’s thinking.
However, if we believe that children learn best when they participate, when they engage as active creators of ideas, and when multiple voices contribute, then we should invite our students to help us create a community where equity of voice is a paramount goal. Further, while many students are accustomed to teachers serving as the final arbiters of academic progress, it is more relevant and authentic to create an environment where students actually listen to and learn from each other. Teachers and students must join together to create a collaborative, emotionally supportive environment through clear goal setting, practice, and reflection (Jensen, 2005).
2. Minds learn best when students feel empowered.
Studies show—and children can confirm—that stress and low self-esteem can negatively affect learning (Paul, 2012). While stress can be positive for those who find it motivating, it can have negative consequences for children who doubt their abilities and thus feel powerless in the face of challenges. Therefore, it is critical that we are open with students about the stress they experience and give them opportunities to express their feelings while helping them discover the tools for dealing with academic and social pressures.
When students face a challenging academic task, such as factoring polynomials or identifying the main idea in a passage, we can support them in identifying what, specifically, is making the work hard. Isolating the specific gap in understanding empowers children to “fill” it by addressing the discrete element that is challenging. This is a positive, active step that encourages optimism rather than self-defeating resignation, which shuts down the mind and forecloses learning. Another step that can improve self-confidence is the simple act of sitting: studies show that sitting up straight not only makes a person seem more confident to others but also makes the individual feel more confident in his or her views (Ohio State University, 2009). Students who feel confident ask more questions, share their ideas, and learn from their peers. With this confidence, students are more inclined to deal effectively with stress, embrace their unique abilities, develop learning explorations that are authentic and meaningful, and perceive challenges as opportunities to grow.
3. Minds learn best when bodies get to move.
Physical exercise helps children feel motivated and capable because it helps them integrate information (Jensen, 2005). Most neuroscientists recognize the positive effect physical activity has on cognitive ability, noting that the cerebellum is associated with motor control and houses almost half of the neurons in the brain, directing stimuli to parts of the brain involved with memory, attention, and spatial awareness. We may need to explain that exercise increases blood flow, which then allows more oxygen to the brain, but our students can confirm that walking, running, and throwing helps them stay alert and focused. A number of my students recently wrote persuasive essays encouraging schools to value physical education classes and recess as essential for learning. They brought forth anecdotal evidence to support the scientific findings.
If you visited my classroom at various times of the day, you would see this research applied: a student walks around the room as she offers her interpretation of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, another student stretches out on the floor to work on an essay, and several students take a break to throw a football around outside so they can really engage with a reading when they return. The students suggested these “moves,” believing they would help them learn better, and scientific research corroborates their beliefs.
4. Minds learn best when learners appreciate the value of confusion.
Confusion has a bad reputation. While students may complain about feeling confused at times, they also acknowledge that there are times when such feelings actually spur their motivation and reasoning skills. When children play video games or try to solve intriguing logic riddles, they may not get the answer immediately, but they will stay with the task, try alternate strategies, and learn from each “failed” attempt. Confusion creates a sense of disequilibrium that can motivate children to work to regain clarity and calm (Willis, 2014).
When my students explained to me why they will work through confusion to advance levels in a video game, they highlighted that they are intrinsically motivated to make it to the next challenge, believe that they will eventually be successful, learn from the game’s helpful tips as well as from their prior mistakes, and apply this new knowledge to future attempts. We explored how this process parallels successful learning experiences and noted the stages of learning that begin with students encountering a confusing or intriguing situation, gaining clarity through support and feedback from teachers or peers, learning from their prior errors, and advancing through practice to a stage of mastery. Effective learning is built upon a foundation of students believing they can be successful and feeling intrinsically motivated, both of which stem from a meaningful and authentic learning objective. With activities that replicate or even contribute to real-life work experiences, students can feel a sense of purpose and motivation, propelling them through the different stages of learning as they strive to reach the next level.
In my math class this year, the students decided to invest more immediate real-life purpose into their learning by creating a math carnival that would both extend their learning and offer a fun challenge for their peers in other math classes. A couple of students taught coordinate graphing concepts by developing a game in which participants guess different coordinate pairs to find food ingredients to suit a selected recipe. Other students used Velcro and cut-outs of numbers, operation symbols, and parentheses to create a game they called “Pin the Parentheses on the Equation,” an order-of-operations challenge in which players insert the parentheses to make the number sentences true. Students created more than a dozen games, and each challenged them to not only understand math content but also to apply creative problem-solving skills to orchestrate the logistics of the game. Motivated by a sense of purpose and meaning, students worked with zeal and interest because they felt empowered to create something relevant and authentic to them, rather than working to merely satisfy the demands of an assignment
It is not enough for teachers to be well versed in how the brain works and apply this knowledge to their teaching. Teachers must work with their students to uncover the ways knowledge of brain function can help generate better learning strategies and deeper understanding. Then, our students will be empowered to advocate for themselves, apply the strategies that work best for them, and initiate approaches that will further their learning well beyond their years in the classroom.

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