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What Do We Mean By "Brain-Based" Teaching?

MARCH 18, 2019

Many educational programs and strategies claim to be "brain based." But what does that actually mean? And is there any learning that is not "brain based"?

Defining Brain-Based Teaching and Learning

Of course, by definition all learning takes place in the brain. Where else would it happen? But some teaching methods and activities are more brain friendly than others.

When we talk about an activity or program being "brain based," what we really mean is that it aligns with the way the brain functions naturally. A brain-based program or strategy uses findings from cognitive science to create learning materials, activities or classroom strategies that align with the brain's natural processes and preferences. By leveraging insights from neuroscience, we can help students learn more efficiently.

To create more brain-friendly classrooms, educators and curriculum designers need to understand how the brain learns. Brain-based programs and strategies are designed to tap into the way the brain processes, filters, stores, and recalls information to optimize learning.

Neuroplasticity and Learning

Understanding brain-based teaching and learning strategies starts with an understanding of what happens in the brain when we learn. When we learn something new, our brains actually change themselves in ways that can be seen and measured by neuroscientists. This ability of the brain to physically change itself is called neuroplasticity.

The human brain is made up of brain cells called "neurons"—more than 100 billion of them. These neurons communicate with each other using electrical signals and chemicals called neurotransmitters. All of our thoughts, emotions, and reactions are a result of neurons sending signals to each other (firing) in our brains.

Every stimulus causes neurons in the brain to fire in a particular pattern. One pattern may mean "Ouch! Something hurt my left index finger." Another pattern may mean "the face I am seeing now belongs to my best friend." When students experience new ideas and activities in the classroom, their brains are firing in new patterns.

Neurons that fire together repeatedly form strong connections with each other—or, as neuroscientists say, "Neurons that fire together wire together." These strongly wired connections between neurons are how the brain encodes and retrieves information. Recalling information causes a cascade of brain activity that uses the same patterns that fired to encode it in the first place. As students build connections between ideas, they are connecting these ideas physically in the brain through patterns of neural activity.

Building Brain-Friendly Classrooms

Brain-friendly classrooms use activities and methods that help students encode, recall and connect ideas more efficiently. Understanding what the brain likes to pay attention to, how it decides what information to put in long-term storage, and how it activates neural pathways to recall information later can help us design learning activities that increase the chances that students will remember facts, understand complex ideas, and build connections between ideas. Well-designed learning activities do more than simply present information. They help students activate cognitive processes to support effective encoding, recall, and connection.

For example, we know that the visual cortex is the largest system in the human brain and the best adapted to process complex stimuli. Our brain is primarily an "image processor" rather than a word processor. Activating the visual cortex when we present new, complex information improves memory and recall. Our brains have also evolved to look for patterns in the world around us. Engaging these pattern-seeking processes helps us remember and assign meaning to information.

Emotion and meaning are also important factors in learning. We are wired to pay attention to things that have meaning or that trigger emotional responses. This goes back to basic survival: we want to engage with things that have positive effects and associations, and avoid things that have negative effects and associations. This is why a positive learning environment is so important for students.

These and other insights from neuroscience have huge implications for teaching and learning. Understanding what the brain naturally wants to pay attention to, and why, is the foundation for building a brain-friendly classroom.

Download Our White Paper for More!

Want to know more about brain-based learning? Download our new white paper: The Building Blocks of Brain-Based Learning—The Research Base for Thinking Maps. You'll learn:

  • How the brain processes, filters, stores, and retrieves information
  • The six building blocks of brain-based learning
  • How Thinking Maps taps into the way we are already wired to learn


Continue Reading

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