©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
How does the brain learn? I wish we really knew! It could make life so much easier for everyone—parents, students, teachers, and you! Although we may never discern just how this miracle occurs, research is beginning to crack open the door and allow us to peek through. The human brain is the exciting new frontier of the 21st Century. In 1996 Ned Herrmann estimated that our knowledge of the brain doubles every ten years. Current studies on brain function and intelligence are forging new perspectives that may unlock the way human beings learn.
Much like fingerprints, each human brain is unique. One complication in assembling this puzzle revolves around some of those differences in human brains. For example, there is some uncertainty regarding what brain uniqueness really means and any potential connection between often-subtle differences / behaviors and learning outcomes. Another involves inconsistency among studies and their conclusions, ethical limitations related to research projects, and personal bias among those who attempt to understand perceived outcomes and make related practical applications. Of necessity, and unlike animal experiments, studies involving humans are correlational rather than experimental. Nevertheless, what is being uncovered about brain function can be extremely helpful, even if emerging knowledge is imperfect and somewhat tentative.
Although we still see through a glass darkly in terms of how the brain actually learns, we know with some impunity how the brain naturally learns best. That knowledge is at once exhilarating and depressing: exhilarating because with some effort and innovation the educational process could be enhanced significantly for most students; depressing because millions of brains are experiencing less than optimal learning as they move through or drop out of the educational process in a variety of environments, some of which are demeaning if not downright punishing.
It can be helpful to evaluate a number of factors against the backdrop of what we thought we knew about the brain and/or about learning. In some cases the outcome conclusions of emerging studies run counter to the strategies that have been touted as desirable for generations or that have been perpetuated simply out of inertia in the face of the perceived magnitude of reform.
The majority of teachers who taught me, with whom I worked during my years as a school nurse, and who taught my stepsons and their friends, had learned to organize their lessons and to present information in a sequential style. Recently I googled “sequential lesson plans” on the worldwide web and found in excess of 657,000 sites as compared to only 18,400 for nonsequential lesson plans. Quite a difference! Notwithstanding this sequential teaching-style emphasis, the brain actually earns best through multiprocessing. It needs multipath, multimodel, and multisensory experiences to create as many associations as possible. It is insufficient to merely read or hear about a topic. The more complex the topic, the more likely the brain is to learn when learning experiences are accompanied with rich sensory input, which also helps to enhance the retention potential.
Unfortunately, this multipath, multimodel, multisensory combination is not readily available through today’s style of formal instruction. The whole brain needs to be engaged in order to facilitate learning. Therefore, whole-brain learning needs to be the preferred model. Reading aloud can help. It can enable the student to get more out of the reading and reinforce his / her speaking ability at the same time. Jim Tralese, author of The Reading Aloud Handbook, wrote that the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children at home and in the classroom. It is deemed more important than worksheets, homework, assignments, book reports, and flashcards. One of my cherished memories from childhood is my 7th grade teacher reading to us for 30 minutes every day after lunch. I can still hear her voice when I think of Anne of Green Gables!
Optimal learning appears to occur in a five-stage sequence. It is important to be patient in this process because the most valuable and deepest learning may not produce tangible results immediately. Effective cognitive learning takes time, as compared to reactionary knee-jerk learning that occurs after you touched your hand to a hot stove or were yelled at because you asked a question. It would follow that all five stages need to be included for the brain to learn best:
- Preparation (priming and pre-exposure) — The brain receives an opportunity to develop a conceptual map as it is shown how the process will proceed. This provides not only a framework for the new learning but also primes the brain with possible connections.
- Acquisition (direct and indirect learning) — The brain receives information directly (e.g., handouts, lesson plans, reading assignments) and indirectly (e.g., reviewing related visuals and/or multi-media). Acquisition options need to be provided for students who have a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic sensory preference.
- Elaboration (error correction and depth) — The brain explores the interconnectedness of the topic through a variety of explicit (e.g., reading, listening, discussing, completing work sheets) and implicit (e.g., role play, life experiences, simulations, field trips, guest speaker) methods. Through the process of experimentation and feedback inaccurate perceptions are purged and neural networks are strengthened.
- Memory Formation (associations and encoding) — The more associations that are created in the brain the better chance that the information will be encoded in long-term memory and be available for recall at a later date. Many factors contribute to the issue of retrievability. These can include rest (especially REM sleep time), appropriate nutrition, the quality and quantity of associations created in the brain, emotional intensity, stage of development, prior learning, student states (e.g., downshifted), and so on.
- Functional Integration (extended usage) — Learning is much more than simply getting neurons to communicate with each other in a predictable sequence. It involves getting the neurons to fire together frequently enough to wire themselves together so that the information can be recalled and applied in multiple applications. Connecting the information to something the student already knows can be key. So can orchestrating celebrations to engage emotions and reinforce a love of learning.
It's somewhat of an oxymoron. All brains are basically very much alike and yet each brain on the planet is different, so learning environments need to be flexible. Each brain develops so uniquely that completely normal development can differ by a spread of two or more years between learners of the same chronological age. This has huge implications for classroom configuration, grade-related standards, and the forced silence and physical inactivity demanded by many teachers—who believe mistakenly that a quiet and controlled environment is best for learning.
Classroom seating needs to be flexible. Educators Rita and Ken Dunn in 1978 found that at least 20% of learners are significantly affected—positively or negatively—by seating options or the lack of them. The traditional straight-row arrangement is predominate in most educational settings. Try a variety of seating arrangements (e.g., circles, U shapes, V shapes) and vary them periodically. As one researcher put it, move the chairs to open their minds. Some studies have shown that an increase in physical space between students leads to increased on-task time and decreased disruptive behavior. Student affect toward a class is related to that student’s learning, so give students as much choice as feasible in selecting their own seats no matter what arrangement is selected.
Some brains learn best while sitting in a traditional chair position while others need a nontraditional body position (e.g., the student is sitting or lying on the floor, curled up or stretched out on a couch, or sprawled in beanbag furniture). Still others do better when standing or walking around.
In a flexible environment, students are not only permitted but also encouraged to get up and move around. When I am presenting a seminar one of the first things out of my mouth is: Please feel free to stand up and stretch at any time, sit on the floor at the side of the room, or pace back and forth in the rear. Attendees repeatedly tell me “when you gave me permission to move anytime I wanted to, somehow I didn’t need to move as much as usual....” How interesting!
Studies have shown that 50% of the adolescents studied needed extensive mobility while learning. Half of the remaining 50% needed occasional mobility, and the remaining 25% of adolescents needed at least minimal movement opportunities.
Directed physical movement in the classroom is a rarity, unless it is an instruction to “sit down.” Not only that, in some schools physical education periods and recess have been reduced if not eliminated altogether. Research by J. Della Valle and associates in 1984-1986 indicates that making learners remain in their seats and expecting them to be quiet may not be a very good idea, because the brain is activated during physical movement, which helps optimize its performance.
According to Michael Gurian, author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently, young children, especially boys, need to move around as they learn. At all ages stretch breaks and sixty-second movement breaks are very useful. Physical movement in class helps to manage stress and stimulates imagination and learning. It increases blood flow in the neocortex and increases the movement of glucose in the limbic areas where emotional processing seems to enhance neurotransmission to the limbic (emotive) and left-brain (verbal) areas. Even allowing a boy to play with something silently in his hand (e.g., nerf ball) can be beneficial because the movement stimulates his brain.
Students need to be encouraged to stand and stretch frequently. Studies by Max Vercruyssen, PhD, of the University of Southern California, have concluded that standing up creates more attentional arousal, increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain by 10-15%, and can speed up the processing of information by 5-20%.
Learning can be enhanced by:
- Including physical education and movement activities in lesson plans
- Having students stand for part of the lesson
- Directing them to have a relevant discussion with another student.
Once the brain’s attention systems have been activated, flexibility predisposes that students are allowed the choice of sitting or standing.
Since the 1940s, society has basically been operating under the paradigm of the behavioral contingency model of externally imposed rewards and punishments. Long term, however, it appears that internal motivators yield higher performance than external motivators. Studies have shown positive outcomes when the brain is encouraged (e.g., “You’re on the right track,” or “Give it your best effort”) rather than praised, rewarded, or punished. Carol Dweck of Columbia University found that rewards for effort are more encouraging in the long run than rewards for success. Encouraging creativity for its own sake appears to be more effective than enticing someone to produce creative results with external rewards.
It can be a bit disheartening to realize that the entire traditional system of grading is basically an external reward-and-punishment system. The brain operates differently under the context of reward. In the presence of extrinsic rewards behaviors become more stereotypical, rigid, narrow, and predictable. Yes, the performance of repetitive tasks can be enhanced temporarily, but extrinsic rewards or punishment can quickly inhibit intrinsic motivation and learner creativity. In the long term, extrinsic rewards or punishments do more damage than good toward motivating the so-called underachiever.
Intrinsic motivation is required in order for learners to:
- Be creative
- Have higher levels of self-esteem
- Develop the ability to be reflective
- Have greater subject interest
Drs. Geoffrey and Renate Caine contend that learner thinking is “downshifted” in the presence of any behavior-oriented threats and anxiety, such as is often seen under typical educational reward systems.
It would require much more space and detail than is within the scope of this article to describe adequately the components of brain-compatible environments. Here are a few examples to stimulate your thinking:
- Water: Plenty of pure water is available and ingested so the brain is kept well hydrated. This can range from eight to fifteen glasses of water per day depending on learner size, level of activity, and environmental climate.
- Temperature: The room temperature consistently falls within a comfortable range. Some studies indicate a good baseline to be somewhere between 70-72 degrees Fahrenheit (22-230C), give or take a few degrees.
- Humidity: The room humidity is managed effectively. Depending on who you ask, indoor humidity needs to be maintained between 35% and 50%. (Recommendations can range from 20% to 65%.) Levels that are too low can increase general discomfort due to the drying out of mucous membranes in the nose and throat. This can trigger dry skin and itchy eyes and increase susceptibility to colds and respiratory illness. Humidity that is too high contributes to a musty odor and/or a clammy feel to the air. This can serve as a breeding ground for mold, mildew, and fungus, all of which can cause serious health problems.
- Lighting: Natural or full-spectrum lighting is optimal for learning. Studies at Cornell University in 1974 showed that full spectrum lighting increased students’ visual acuity (perception) and decreased their fatigue levels. In 1988 Psychiatrist Wayne London, compared before and after illness absentee rates by swapping standard florescent lighting for Vitalite full-spectrum lighting that simulated natural light. The results showed that students in classrooms with full-spectrum lighting missed 65% fewer days than students in fluorescent-lit classrooms. According to Dr. Richard Wurtman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, artificial lights typically used indoors provide only about one-tenth of the light available outdoors under a shade tree on a sunny day.
- Air: There is a constant supply of fresh, uncontaminated, and highly oxygenated air. The brain is one of the most metabolically active organs. Good levels of oxygen in the blood can positively impact brainpower. Although only 2% of the body’s weight, the brain gets 20% of the blood flow. In a resting state the brain uses 20% of the oxygen supply and burns 20% of the body’s supply of nutrient glucose. Statistically significant results of studies related to carbon dioxide levels in classrooms (an indication of low ventilation rates) showed that high carbon dioxide levels were associated with low student scores on concentration tests. Unfortunately, learners in a closed classroom typically exchange only 10-25% of their lung’s capacity with each breath. Previous learning time is wasted when students are in an oxygen-deprived state. Research suggests that the learning process in a school would be improved by approximately 2% by simply increasing the ventilation rate from five to 15 cfm/student.
- Plants: Live indoor plants are present. Studies by the Federal Clean Air Council and by NASA showed that live indoor plants raised indoor oxygen levels and increased productivity by 10% (e.g., green color, ability to increase negative ions in the air, ability to remove pollutants). A single plant may impact 100 square feet of space. Preferred plants for enhancing indoor learning environments include bamboo palms, areca palms, lady palms, rubber plants, philodendrons, and yellow chrysanthemums.
- Aromas: Specific aromas have been found to impact learning. Research by Weiner and Brown in 1993 reported that certain aromas inspire individuals to set higher goals for themselves, take on greater challenges, and get along better with others. Neurologist Alan Hirsch discovered that groups exposed to the aroma of peppermint solved puzzles 30% faster than the unexposed control groups. In another study, thirty-second bursts of peppermint scent every five minutes resulted in a 15-25% improvement in performance during a forty-minutes test of vigilance. Basil, lemon, cinnamon, and rosemary seem to have a similar positive effect.
- Movement: The classroom is set up not only to permit but also to encourage physical movement. Physical exercise is still one of the best ways to stimulate the brain and boost learning. This may require the use of moveable desks or tables and chairs. Exercise of the brain must be balanced with physical exercise, which helps to enhance circulation in the brain and body, increases oxygen levels in the blood stream, enhances lung capacity, and leads to improved concentration. According to Dr. Larry Abraham in the Department of Kinesiology at University of Texas at Austin, “Classroom teachers should have kids move for the same reason that physical education teachers have kids count.” What does appropriate movement look like? Imagine this:
- The school day itself provides a minimum of 30 minutes of directed physical movement in the classroom.
- Students stand frequently, have frequent breaks for water, stretching, or walking around, and receive five-to ten-minute breaks every 90 minutes at a minimum.
- Learners are encouraged to deep breathe frequently and to maintain good posture.
- Cross-over movement is encouraged (e.g., touch right body parts using the left hand or foot and vice versa, clap) to integrate learning. These types of movements require the hemispheres to communicate with each other across the connecting tri-bridge (e.g., anterior commissure, corpus callosum), which is essential to being able to read and write.
- Physical movement is utilized to increase the rate of new learning through activities such as role playing, charades, pantomimes, classroom scavenger hunts, singing rhymes while jumping rope, and etc.
- Breathing: breathing is encouraged through the left nostril for a few minutes prior to right-brain learning (to stimulate the right hemisphere) and through the right nostril for several minutes prior to left-brain learning (to energize the left hemisphere). It is preferable when students are able to breathe through the nose (as opposed to mouth breathing) because this helps to keep the brain cool.
- Emotions: Positive emotions are utilized in the classroom. Teachers and care providers role model emotional intelligence, a skill that may be more important to overall success in life than even I. Q. Learning seems to occur best when positive emotions facilitate neurotransmitter interactions that help messages cross synapses. The emotional climate in the classroom is managed to reduce the downshifting or primal thinking that occurs during student anxiety or distress. This can be accomplished by offering any number of strategies to relax the learner including something as simple as saying, “Sooner or later this will become easier for you.”
- Humor: A relaxed nervous system enhances learning. When appropriate humor (e.g., jokes, cartoons) is scattered throughout the learning period, the resulting laughter can help students to feel better and improve both individual and group performance. The classroom does not turn into a comedy club or the teacher into a stand-up comic, but laughter flows freely and easily. Some studies have shown that a good sense of humor and frequent laughter are hallmarks of effective leaders (as opposed to those who were judged in the study to be less effective leaders). Brains love to learn, especially if mentors role model a love of learning, and the judicious use of humor and laughter. Used together, these strategies can positively impact the learning process.
- Color: Colors used in the room are selected with care and with an eye to brain function. For example, yellow is the first color distinguished in the brain and is often recommended for classrooms. Studies by Deborah Sharpe, author of The Psychology of Color and Design, found that the color yellow is connected with cheer, happiness, and fun. Faber Birren in his book Color and Human Response, reported that in general yellow elicits positive moods, while the color green is good for productivity and long-term energy.
- Time: New information and integrative activities are presented at different times. For example, new information is presented during the morning hours. Activities that help integrate the new information with prior learning and with personal experience occur during the afternoon hours.
- Evaluation: Performance is compared to the student’s own previous performance rather than to the performance of another student’s brain. According to some, the practice of comparing students against each other is not only erroneous but also may be one of the most irrelevant and damaging assessment strategies ever established. Based on innate giftedness (and perhaps on the competence of the teacher), some students can obtain an outstanding outcome for a specific project or subject with very little effort. Others may devote a large amount of effort and realize only a moderate or even mediocre outcome. Consequently two measures need to be utilized consistently: one measure for effort and another measure for outcome. These two measures could then be reported separately or as an average of the two.
In one sense at least the human brain does not have a single favorite or learning style. It is capable of changing on a daily basis and even from hour to hour depending on what is going on in the learner’s life and in the current environment. When preparing learning materials there has often been an underlying assumption that students will all pretty much learn in a similar manner. This approach ignores the important issue of individual differences in personal cognitive style. There is no learning style or model that is right for everyone since each brain develops uniquely. And there certainly is no one-size-fits all. Each student will likely have a preferred learning style, defined as an individual's consistent approach to organizing and processing information during thinking.
Learning style does not appear to be related to intelligence and reflects qualitative rather than quantitative differences between individuals in their thinking processes. Between 1980-1990 forty-two experimental studies were conducted based on the Dunn and Dunn Learning Style Model. Results showed that students whose preferred learning styles are accommodated would be expected to achieve 75% of a standard deviation higher than students who have not had their learning styles accommodated. Whole brain learning is the goal, so learning activities that include strengths of both hemispheres need to be designed and implemented on a regular basis.
A plethora of models have shown up on the scene in an attempt to positively impact whole brain learning. Some models address learner responses (e.g., McCarthy 4-MAT 1990, Meyers-Briggs 1995). Others deal more with how learning is processed (e.g., Gregorc/Butler 1979, Ned Herrmann 1988).
Models can offer useful frameworks. Nevertheless, the most important thing to remember is simply to provide the student with as many different learning opportunities and options as possible. The easiest way to do this may be through offering a wide variety of potential assignment choices, as in what Dr. Kathie Nunley calls “layered curriculum.” This type of curriculum is designed to provide assignment options that include several choices in each general type of learning style.
The brain is designed to learn. So brains will learn! But unfortunately what they learn may not have been the intended or desired outcome. Instead, many learn to:
- Hate school
- Dread learning
- Avoid instructors
- Feel less-than-bright
- Dope out
- Drop out of the educational process if not out of life altogether
A contributor may be that a great deal of what brains learn occurs at a subconscious level. According to Emmanuel Donchin, director of the Laboratory for Cognitive Psychophysiology at the University of Illinois, as much as 99% of cognitive activity may be nonconscious.
Where to from Here
We’ve known for some time, at least at some level, that traditional styles of education don’t work for many brains. Most styles are actually brain-antagonistic. Fortunately, the results of research studies are encouraging. Much as early navigators traveled and mapped the world, pioneer explorers in the field of brain-function are shedding light on how the brain learns best. What is being uncovered could change the very fabric of traditional education and benefit human beings all over this planet. It could if culture, society, church, school, business, and governmental wisdom:
- Stopped perpetuating what doesn’t work well due to challenges involved in dismantling and rebuilding the ship of education mid-voyage
- Embraced the very revolutionaryness of current study findings and implemented updated strategies.
In some ways the prospect is daunting. It is not an impossible stretch, however. Not if we are willing to increase our own knowledge base related to how the brain learns best and take appropriate personal action (e.g., practically apply what we learn). As the old proverb puts it, many small steps a journey makes. When each individual is doing something constructive on a daily basis, consistently and continually, the collective outcome could result in remodeling the ship.
Eric Jensen, President of Jensen Learning, Inc. in San Diego, California, a former teacher and current member of the International Society for Neurosciences, is deeply committed to making a positive, significant, and lasting difference in the way the world learns. Many parents, teachers, educators, students, researchers, and even interested observers share a similar passion.
It is no longer a question of can we? We know we can provide learners with brain-compatible environments and with curricula that support the way in which the brain naturally learns best. The question is will we? For the sake of millions of brains on this planet, I sincerely hope the answer is yes!
NOTE: References may be found on Taylor’s website under Brain References (e.g., Learning and the Brain links).