Teaching and Learning with the Brain in Mind, Sophie MacColl

Guest Post by Sophie MacColl, MVPS Middle School Faculty and MVIFI Agent

This summer, eight faculty members from across the school—two from each division—participated in a ‘Learner at the Center’ research grant. We were investigating questions such as

  • What does it mean ‘to learn?
  • How might we transform MV to be even more learning-centered and learner-driven?

My division partner and I focused our research on neuroscience. We were interested in how the brain processes information and teaching/learning strategies that jibe with those processes.

Below is an organized version of the notes I took while reading Teaching with the Brain in Mind by Eric Jensen. Within each section, the left column mentions brain (and other) data. The right column focuses on strategies that mesh with the accompanying aspects of the brain.


Brain Data Corresponding Strategy/Lesson Components


“Rules We Learn By”

Engagement – The brain responds to what is biologically relevant (needs and novelty for example). Also, attention and making meaning are exclusive; external output (more content) conflicts with the processing of prior content.     Students choose relevant, meaningful learning. During a low time, raise amine levels (the brain’s uppers) with activities involving change, movement, small learning risks, artificial urgency, or excitement.
Repetition – It strengthens connections in the brain.   – Pre-exposure: create a poster summary, use vocab words before students must know them, video clips, props, advanced organizers

– Previewing (typically at the start of) a lesson may last for 30 seconds to 3 minutes: allows students to access prior knowledge; might use a handout, a simple explanation, students questions or brainstorming activities, teacher- or student-led overview, a “heads up”

– Priming: can use similar ideas as above

– Reviewing: Ss create a quiz, Ss summarize learning in paragraph and then pair-share, graphic organizers, create rhyming one-line review (choreograph and present to class)

– Revise (or Reconstruct, not Review): What we remember is often not accurate, so revision allows us to correct our memories.

Input Quantity – Our frontal lobes can take in only 3-7 chunks of information before we simply overload and begin to miss new incoming data. The organization and distribution of memory in the hippocampus takes time, and much of this work occurs while we sleep. Learning improves with short sessions and rest intervals versus constant exposure to new material.  

“Many schools have a curriculum that is too wide and too shallow. We need to make some hard choices about what to offer, and policymakers and others need to stop their endless demands to add more content. If anything, a more brain-based approach would focus on critical-thinking skills, strategic decision making, learn-to-learn skills, cooperative alliance making, and strengthening of emotional intelligence.”    

Coherence – Content is more likely to get our attention and become meaningful if it is emotional (not bland), specific (not general), novel (not familiar), if it is related to familiar/prior info, if we are both active and reflective with it, and if we learn it in context/in the field. Get a sense of S prior knowledge/neural connections by having them create webs about topics. It is key to know that each web of thousands of connected neurons/prior knowledge cannot be removed by what a teacher says. No F on a test, no disappointed look, and no gentle verbal connection will erase faulty, incomplete, or incoherent sets of prior connections (why revision is so important). You have to work with what students have rather than erase or fix.
Timing – The brain’s ultradian rhythms change blood flow and breathing and thus affect energy, mood, and cognitive abilities. The cycles last about 90 to 110 minutes, so there are about 12-16 cycles over a 24-hour period. If you have a peak at 9 am, your low will occur about 45 minutes later. Your next peak of energy will occur at about 10:50 to 11 am. The brain becomes alternately more efficient in processing either verbal or spatial information. Novelty and movement (esp cross-lateral) can increase blood flow. Block scheduling (✓) gives a better chance of catching a high period for all students. If you typically focus on verbal tasks at the start of class and spatial later on, for example, begin alternating so that students have a chance to experience both in high periods. Because of these highs and lows, portfolios (✓) can sometimes be more effective than tests at measuring progress.  
Error Correction – Trial-and-Error Learning is key, because the brain rarely gets it right the first time. We must make mistakes and get enough appropriate, immediate feedback from them to learn. Active learning is ideal for this, as feedback is built in to activities such as call-response, discussion, games, answering questions, problem solving, building, and debating. Active learning involves motion and emotion (activates more pleasure structures in brain than does more passive learning), so it brings more neural resources to the learning process. More ideas: model building, peer editing, gallery walks, pair-sharing, spell-check, student presentations with audience feedback, playing competitive games, using a video/audiotape/mirror, doing author’s chair or fishbowl processes, using a checklist or rubric to evaluate performance.
Emotional States – Positive (dopamine) and negative (cortisol) emotional events get priority in memory. Risk, excitement, urgency, and pleasure can release these chemicals in the brain.

– Risk (public speaking, pair-sharing, having to role model something, meeting new people)

– Excitement (public performance, science fair, debate, field trip, relay races)

– Urgency (need more than a deadline, start activity with less time than needed then add bonus minutes as needed)

– Pleasure (finishing on time, getting less than the expected amount of HW, taking home something built in class, being able to sit with a friend, other privileges)



1) The area of the brain most associated with motor control is the cerebellum. Researchers have traced a pathway from the cerebellum back to parts of the brain involved in memory, attention, and spatial perception. Amazingly, the part of the brain that processes movement is the same part of the brain that processes learning.

2) Exercise is known to increase the baseline of new neuron growth.

3) Terrence Dwyer’s research shows that exercise supports success in school. His research found that exercise improves classroom behavior and academic performance and that even when an experimental group got four times more exercise per week than a control group, their “loss” in studying time did not translate into lower academic scores. Breaks at midday and early afternoon provide a greater benefit to the students than an early morning recess.

4) Educators should purposefully integrate movement activities into everyday learning: not just hands-on classroom activities, but also daily stretching, walks, dance, drama, seat-changing, energizers, and physical education.



– A state is a moment composed of a specific posture, breathing rate, and chemical balance in the body.

– Emotions drive attention, create meaning, and have their own memory pathways. All emotional events receive preferential processing in the brain, and the brain is typically overstimulated when strong emotions are present. Because emotions give us a more activated and chemically stimulated brain, they help us recall things better and form more explicit memories. The more intense the arousal of the amygdala, the stronger the memory imprint.

– Fear/Threat/Stress – Under intense stress, blood flow decreases in various parts of the brain that are linked to cognition. Occasional or moderate stress is, for the most part, a healthy state. Children exposed to consistent moderate stressors over which they have some control usually tune out to be highly resilient.

– Joy/Pleasure – Positive emotions during the learning experience create a great association in the brain. An increased positive affect leads to improved flexibility in behavior and judgment. High levels of dopamine are associated with greater flexibility in the brain’s executive attentional system. This frontal lobe system contributes heavily to school success, because it is associated with working memory, decision making, and judgment functions. In many students, too much internal focus can promote feelings of negativity; however, dopamine promotes an external focus.

– Sadness/Disappointment – Our brain systems are set up to experience pain and sadness longer than joy. Laughing has strong but transient effects on the nervous system, while crying/sadness has more moderate but sustained effects. This state isn’t always bad. We are more likely to remember an experience with a negative bias than one with a positive bias. If we remember it better, we may be less likely to repeat the behaviors or actions that contributed to the experience. So it’s okay for students to know they’ve disappointed you or themselves. It’s okay for them to be sad about a poor effort if they can become mobilized by the emotion.

– Anticipation/Curiosity – It’s the anticipation of positive events that drives up the pleasure in the brain even more than the reward itself (while the actual reward can do more harm than good).

Suggestions for Engaging Learner Emotions

– Stable emotional states can be a problem. Anyone in a particular state for too long, too often runs the risk of stabilizing that state in the nervous system. A student who shows up in a state of defiance is not a problem. What is a problem is your allowing that state to persist. The longer it persists, the more familiar and comfortable that state becomes to the nervous system of the student.

– Compelling questions–If the questions you ask students do not change their state from reflective to eager, change the questions. Instead of “What do you think of Winston Churchill’s role…” ask “If you were the leader…”

– Role-modeling–Infectious enthusiasm works. Model the love of learning, and show enthusiasm about your job. Let students know what excites you. Build suspense, smile, tell a true emotional story, show off a new CD, read a book, or bring an animal to class.

– Celebrations–Pep rallies, guest speakers, debates, clubs, sports, drama, community service. Teacher acknowledgment of student work, music, food, fun.

– Physical activity to engage emotions.

– Engineered controversy–debates and more

– Physical Rituals–clapping patterns, cheers, chants, movements, songs

– Getting personal–journals, discussion, sharing, stories, reflection



– Social connection is so important. Researchers have found that social isolation is just as devastating a health risk factor as is smoking or high blood pressure. Social status can modify levels of serotonin (social chemical) in the brain, which is highly implicated in attention, memory, aggression, and the growth of neurons.

– The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that is critical for sophisticated social cognition, matures slowly and often does not reach complete maturity until we are well into our teens and 20s. This means that students are not even close to being born with social skills–it’s something they have to be taught. (occipital cortex – responds to social cues)

1) Most students do better when they are in groups with others of the same academic level. Though low-ability students gain from being in high-ability groups, medium ability gain most in a medium ability group, and high-ability students gain somewhat in a high-ability group.

2) Groups of 3 to 4 tend to be better than larger or smaller groups.

3) Too much social grouping can create excessive familiarity or dependence, so 5-20% of class time in groups is best.

4) Ask students how much time they want to spend alone, in pairs, and in groups/teams.


Motivation / Engagement

Extrinsic Motivation – Complex behaviors are usually impaired, not helped, by rewards. The brain quickly habituates to rewards. We have an adaptive brain, a dynamic brain that changes in response to the environment, which means that what worked at one time may not work for long. Although learners improve when they’ve received an initial reward, over time, the performance of many of them will actually drop as their actions are being rewarded. Dopamine is activated as much by the prediction of pleasure as by the pleasure itself. So if rewards are used, occasional surprise rewards are best.  
Intrinsic Motivation – A common source of demotivation is due to the perception that class assignments or tasks are irrelevant. Be sure to ask learners how they feel about a project up front. Maybe a simple alteration in the project would make it worth doing. As the process proceeds, add feedback and debriefing sessions. Give students choice.  
Emotional States – One approach is that motivation and engagement is really an issue of state management. – Read your students’ states constantly. Is the state (frustration, etc) appropriate for the next action/behavior I want? Change the state first, and then a change in behavior is easy. For example, get students in an active state before introducing an activity. Have them stretch or walk, and then ask them to form groups while they are already standing. In a standing state, students are more likely to want to do something similar to it.

– Manage student emotions and teach them to do it too. Rituals, drama, movement, and celebration are useful tools. If Ss are in a negative state, give them a topic to talk about that allows them to express themselves and to direct their focus toward something more positive. Music, activities, short walks, good stories, stretching, games, and going outside are all good ways to influence/change states.  

– Ss need transition time from their personal lives to their academic lives and from one teacher to the next, a “getting ready to learn time”. Such rituals might include a morning walk with a partner, time with teammates to discuss personal problems, and a review of the previous day’s learning.


Critical Thinking

– All cognition is built from lower-order brain systems including (1) sensory and motor systems (2) auditory and language systems (3) attention and executive functions (4) social and emotional systems (5) memory systems (6) behavioral and reward systems. These systems need to be coaxed into cross-modality to perform at higher levels.

– Some key thinking skills: maintaining focus and attention (managing personal states); locating and prioritizing resources; making distinctions in relevance, similarities, order, and differences; being able and willing to ask for help (social confidence); reading and summarizing content; being able to speak, build, or draw linguistic representations; setting goals and using feedback; having self-awareness of personal health and nutrition; generating and testing hypotheses; developing working-memory capacity; being able to organize or map out ideas and info; showing persistence and follow-through in the face of adversity

– Critical thinking skills take time to learn because you’re asking the brain to make changes in cortical organization/connectivity.

– “Higher order” thinking skills all engage the prefrontal cortex. This brain area is primarily responsible for planning, judgment, decision making, working memory, and most other critical-thinking skills. Life experiences will slowly prune and tune this critical brain area. Eventually, neurons in the frontal lobe orchestrate, encode, abstract, and form rules from a learned experience.

– Grades 3-5 would benefit from thinking-skills training for up to 30 minutes, 3 times per week. Grades 6-12 would benefit from up to 60 minutes, 3-5 times per week.

– Many things that we do are so highly embedded in a certain context that our learning drops dramatically in a new environment. So focus on real-world learning: field trips, simulations, role-plays, and away-from-school activities.

– Relevance, activity, repetition, and specificity are key in developing thinking skills. Some of the better strategies related to relevance include use of choice, real-world personal applications, and PBL (see point above as well). In terms of specificity, the practice involved in learning a new skill should move from the particular sub-skill to generalizing the subskill to real-life experiences.

– To develop frontal lobe functions, include daily tasks that require delayed gratification, mental juggling, or persistence. Arts, computer tasks, delicate experiments, or constructing something can work. Frontal lobe function is uneven, fickle, and inconsistent while developing. In some cases, you might teach something five times and the fifth time might be the charm, especially if the brain is suddenly becoming ready for it. In other cases, you might simply plant the seeds for a task and let it go until next year.

– There’s no need for the brain to adapt to change if what it must deal with is the same. Novelty creates a stronger opportunity for new learning and pathways in the brain. Many students begin to develop specific thinking skills but then reach a plateau. This may happen because there was no adaptive advantage to fostering the skills. But when parents, peers, or teachers help provide ways to use the skills, they tend to develop.   

– When students are taught the amazing power they have over their emotional states/cognition–a power they can grasp simply by changing their breathing or posture, or by consciously seizing on a new thought–it’s typically a revelation. Drama, theater, role-plays, journaling about feelings, identifying feelings from a list of options, discussing emotional states with other students and adults, and discussing reading material that deals with the emotions of literary characters are helpful here.

– Developmental schedules vary for girls and boys, so teachers might want to cut each gender some slack in different ways.  


Memory and Recall

  • Memories are the probability of a particular neural firing pattern in a network of cells.
  • The fact that memory resides in so many different locations in the brain means that a single event, such as a class, will activate multiple pathways: What someone saw will be stored in one area of the brain, what was said and heard will be stored in a different area of the brain, and so on. When we recall memories, our brain has to reconstruct the fragmented memory pieces.
  • The more locations in the brain that are engaged in learning and memory, the better the learning and the sharper the recall.
Semantic – Consists of information we pick up from conversations, lectures, DVDs, reading, and visual aids. Weakest of our retrieval systems. We are best at remembering things related to survival (locations of food and housing, how to do things like walk, emotional events such as people treating us well/poorly, and conditional responses related to smell and taste). In general, we are not very good at recalling words, names, equations, or facts: much of what’s taught in school. Of all the kinds of memories we could form, semantic or word-based memories are least related to survival. An item in working memory usually lasts 5-30 seconds before disappearing or being reactivated (processed for meaning). The reality is that for most items, students under age 12 can handle one item at a time. On a good day, those older than 12 can hold 2-3 things at a time. The time limitations of semantic memory suggest that students will remember very little past a few seconds of input unless reinforced. When you ask students to read a chapter, insist that they stop after each page and take some notes. Use a variety of activities that engage partners, such as having one student read while the other maps out the content. If you are lecturing, after just a few minutes let students pair up and reteach. Give directions one at a time. Compare/contrast material. Summarize learning. Make a rhyme. Teach to classmates. Create a visual representation. Analyze and critique material. Consider material from different points of view. Group and regroup material.
Episodic – Learning and memory are prompted by the location/circumstance a person is in personally. The episodic memory process has unlimited capacity, is effortless, and is used naturally by everyone. Vary the learning locations (seats, room, etc). Have stand-up reviews, learning stations, labs, and out-of-the class activities.
Reflexive – Learning can become reflexive either through intense sensory input (trauma, celebration, emotional events) or through repetition. These things trigger the implicit reflexive memories of stored material and engage a different part of the brain than reading, note taking, or essay writing would. Flashcards/raps, for example, might help a student who struggles to retain info read in a textbook. So orchestrate emotions in the classroom. Introduce unusual smells; have celebrations, positive rituals, and acknowledgments; incorporate “gross” things in science displays, for ex; use storytelling and other experiences where suspense or surprise are involved. Emotional responses triggered during or immediately after the learning will help embed the memories.
Procedural – Comes from hands-on learning. Physical activities like role-playing, science experiments, art projects, etc are likely recalled.
  • Reviewing material is most beneficial when done immediately or soon after initial learning. Because various attributes of memories become strengthened by use, greater frequency of activation will influence them. Invest a few minutes in daily/weekly reviews.
  • Short-term memory requires repetition. Long-term memory is emotion dependent.
  • Memories are frozen patterns waiting for a resonating signal to awaken them (why a student trying to remember info for a test might come up with the answer a half hour too late). Why priming and wait time are helpful.
  • Wordplay improves memory. Rhymes, visualization, mnemonics, peg words, music, and discussion help us recall semantic info. Spaced learning—with pauses and intervals for reflection—is key. Without quiet processing time, much learning never transfers to long-term memory.
  • Analysis improves memory. When students organize the material for themselves, they recall it better.
  • Lesson presentation can improve memory. Presenting the most important material in a lesson first thing and last thing can improve recall. Also, wholes taught before parts are recalled better. We also remember almost any learning that was temporarily interrupted—cliffhangers or introducing a pressing, relevant problem to solve and leaving brainstorming for solutions until the next day.


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