Brainbased Education – An Overview

brainmazertWhere did it start ?- An overview of brainbased education 

©Leslie Owen Wilson (2013, 2005, 2001)      Contact Leslie
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Important!  The length of student retention is directly proportional to their age of their developmental brain and the model or method usedlecture being least effective at 5%-10% after 24 hours, with discussion mid-range, and teaching others, or practicing immediately after exposure to materials being the most effective at about 85-90%. Simply put, if you want students to remember, do something memorable or have them do something memorable, as better methods of teaching add to long term retention. (These percentages emerged in the 1960s as a result of studies conducted by the National Training Laboratories, now housed in Alexandria VA.)

Even with all of the emerging statics on retention, author David Sousa notes – “Lecture continues to be the most prevalent model in secondary and higher education but produces the lowest degree of retention.”


Brainbased learning has hatched a new discipline now entitled by some as educational neuroscience, or by others mind, brain, and education science (Sousa, 2011). Whatever we call this “not really new” discipline, it 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, also known as embodied learning.


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 city’s 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 in cognition. 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, David Sousa; etc.

Titus Dalisay has created a great tool in the Open College site to explore brain parts and functions.


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 help drive and modulate learning.
  • Humans search for meaning is innate.
  • The search for meaning comes through patterning and seeking to find those patterns.
  • Emotions are critical to patterning, and drive our attention, meaning and memory.
  • 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 many different examples of interactive teaching elements that emerge from these principles like:

Orchestrated immersion: Learning environments are created that immerse students in a learning experiences. Primary teachers build a rainforest in the classroom complete with stuffed animals and cardboard and paper trees. 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 learning environment, teachers may play classical music when appropriate to set a relaxed tone in the classroom. Bright lights are dimmed. Scents are used to stimulate mood and attentions – 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, or disabilities. A relaxed accepting environment pervades the room. Children are stretched to maximize their cognitive potentials in teaching environments that are supportive, comfortable, and non-threatening.

Active processing: The learner consolidates and internalizes information by actively processing it. Information is intentionally 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. This also requires time to reflect on materials that have been presented. In essence new information is tethered of grounded in past learning or experiences. (Jensen; Caine & Caine; Sousa)

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. (D’Arcangelo)

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 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 too. In essence, students should be exposed to multiple methods of assessment. (Jensen)

A revolutionary concept:

Neurologists used to believe that the brain was static and could not change. Today neural science tells us that the opposite is true. The human brain is mutable and with training and exposure some functions can be assumed by other portions. This is called “neuroplasticity.” Metaphorically this is like having a piece of property in a neighborhood that is flooded and uninhabitable and moving that dwelling or rebuilding a lost dwelling to another piece of real estate. This is not always the case but neuroscientists are finding that the brain is much more adaptive than we originally thought.      (Zull)


The statements above have 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; 2005) Teaching with the Brain in Mind, Revised 2nd edition.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD–Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Jensen, E. (2000; 2008) Brain-Based Learning:A new paradigm for learning. 2nd ed.  Thousand Oaks, CA. Corwin Press..

Jensen, E. & Johnson, G. (1994) The Learning Brain.  San Diego: Brain Store Incorporated.

Sousa, D. (2006, 2011) How the brain learns, 4th edition. Thousand Oaks, CA. Corwin Press.

Zull, J. D. (2002) The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. Stirling, VA. Stylus Publishing.

Here is an extensive bibliography on brainbased learning 


Other Links to brainbased concepts