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Brain Based Learning: Another Passing Fad?

Aylin GRAVES & Nil Zelal AKAR

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2. include the following reference in all copies: Graves, A. & N. Z. Akar. "Brain-Based Learning: Another Passing Fad?", European Languages Conference, Lesvos, Greece, September 2001.

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From the child of 5 to myself is but a step, but from the newborn baby to the child of 5 is an appalling distance.

Leo Tolstoy

Children are great natural learners. They are born to be smart – just think of all the amazing things they learn to do within the first few years of their lives: how to walk, how to talk, and how to do many other complex things. They are walking miracles and living evidence that the human brain has endless capacity to learn. As educators we can benefit from an understanding of the learning principles on which our brain works. The recent paradigm that draws on brain research to explain these principles is called Brain-Based Learning.

Some metaphors that have been used to describe the human brain are “sleeping giant”, “biological computer”, and “the greatest unexplored territory in the world”. Another one is that of the “jungle”. The brain resembles the jungle in that the law of both is the same: survival!

This brings to mind Edelman’s “Neural Darwinism”. He claims that the "genetic processes over thousands of years have led to the development of a generic brain fully equipped at birth with the basic intelligence and physical attributes needed to survive in the modern world". That is why we do not need to teach children how to walk or how to talk. The basic predispositions have been genetically implanted. In other words, they are born with the necessary resources and all we need to do is stimulate these resources because children will either use them or lose them. And thus the brain resembles the jungle: evolution works by natural selection and not by instruction. And the human brain is best at learning what it needs to survive physically, emotionally, socially, and economically.

Understanding the Brain

Two important points have emerged from extensive brain research:

1. The human brain is an “equal opportunity” organ: This is both good and bad news. Good because humans have approximately 100 billion brain cells (neurons). Give or take a few million and that’s what you have in common with the great thinkers from all walks of life. However, bad news follows: it is not the number of these neurons but the connections between them that is important for learning because learning occurs when neurons connect, or in other words, when we form neural networks in our brain. The more connected these neurons are, the better we learn. If we don’t have a neural network for a certain thing, it simply doesn’t exist for us. That’s why it’s difficult to grasp new concepts at first -- our brain lacks the neural network.

2. The human brain is designed for survival and not for order or formal instruction: In other words, the “junglelike” brain needs a junglelike learning environment. What does this mean? It means the brain loves complexity and challenge: it learns best by figuring things out, discovering relationships, making sense of a rich environment, and feeling that the new information is important to its survival.

These two are the learning principles of the brain. Therefore, teachers must encourage more neural networks in students’ brains for better learning. The only way to do this is to bring the classroom experience as close to real life as possible.

Now let us look at the neuroscientist Cloniger's “3 Passions of the Brain” :

1. Quest for novelty
2. Hunt for pleasure
3. Desire to avoid harm (i.e. survival)

If these are the 3 passions of the brain, what teaching implications can teachers draw?

1. Try new things
2. Use enjoyable activities
3. Avoid creating worries & fears

Now let's look at the optimal conditions for learning. Brain researchers agree that all learning involves our brain, our emotions, and health. In other words, we learn with our mind, heart, and body.

How does this relate to teaching?

Answer: We need to make sure that each student has the optimal requirements for learning: attentive brains, positive feelings and healthy bodies.

But how can teachers ensure the brain’s attention, positive feelings, and healthy bodies?

1. Use meaningful real-life problems: The brain naturally deletes less critical information to survival. Therefore, always create an authentic classroom context.
2. Use unfamiliar activities: The brain loves new learning experiences and a challenge! Encourage your students to explore and create new things.
3. Set challenging but attainable goals: The famous psychologist Csikszentmihalyi claims that the optimal learning state for the brain is the state of flow. He explains that low skills and high challenge creates anxiety, high skills and low challenge creates boredom, low skills and low challenge creates apathy, and high skills coupled with high challenge creates FLOW. Try to ensure "flow" by choosing the right activities for your students.
4. Be consistent: We non-consciously suggest by our behavior in the classroom that learning is hard or easy, homework is valuable or not, school is important or not. For example, if you are in the habit of going to class late, you suggest to the students that time is not important for you. Therefore, practise what you preach and keep in mind the impact of the collective whole.
5. Use multi-sensory activities: Acknowledge the diversity of your students. Have a large repertoire of activities to appeal to each type of learner: Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic.
6. Make sure there is enough lighting in the classroom: Lots of strong natural lighting is needed for an alert brain.
7. Make sure the temperature in the classroom is right: High temperatures are not the brain’s friend. Heat decreases accuracy, dexterity, and speed.
8. Make sure there is enough fresh air in the classroom: Stale air starves the brain. Perhaps the most critical need for the brain to work regularly is oxygen!.
9. Talk to your students about the importance of nutrition: Better nutrition means better mental alertness. Tell your students they need amino acids and protein for better learning. Also, remember that a dehydrated body will not be willing to learn. Tell your students to bring fresh water to the classroom and take a sip every now and then.

We've focussed on the passions of the brain, optimal biological conditions for learning, and ways to ensure these conditions. Now let's explore ways of using this information in our classrooms.

1. Assign fewer but more complex and challenging projects.
2. Make learning relevant to your students' real lives. Show them what they’re learning is critical to their survival.
3. Create more multi-status roles for your students: they can learn, teach, coach, observe, discuss, assess, etc.
4. Widen the diversity of input: use computers, journals, guest speakers, the neighborhood, etc.
5. Choose more meaningful, student-selected topics.
6. Make learning your top priority. Teach your students to become life-long learners.
7. Celebrate learning as a joyful process and celebrate even mistakes.
8. Base learning in your classroom on curiosity, need, and relevance. Avoid extrinsic rewards.
9. Respect the brain’s biological needs in learning.
10. Make the physical environment pleasant, clean, and attractive.

A school should not be a preparation for life. A school should be life!

E. Hubbard

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Aylin's English Teacher Education Site
Prepared by Aylin Graves, 1999
Last updated December 2006.