Learning How the Brain Learns

by Alanna Mitchell

Back in January, Grade 4 teacher Carol Peterson, OCT, started patching an extra 20 minutes of gym into her pupils’ days. The change in her class at Brighton PS in the Kawartha Pine Ridge DSB was dramatic and positive. Afterwards, the pupils – normally restless – got down to work eagerly.

“I feel that every minute I give them to play has a high payback,” she says, noting that some of her boy pupils zoom through a dozen or more pages of in-class writing after the extra gym time.

To Peterson, the rationale for the extra gym time lies in the science of the brain. Like a core group of other teachers and social workers in her school district, she has begun to think about what her students’ brains are doing while they are learning. Then she figures out how to teach to their brains’ natural learning systems instead of fighting with them.

This includes using music and encouraging students to move frequently, because these practices help build connections among the neurons in the brain.

“It’s become very powerful in my classroom,” she says.

She knows it’s not the way most teachers think about teaching, but Peterson has a Bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and is fascinated by science and wants to know more. She’s taken lots of workshops on how the brain learns and reads prolifically about what learning looks like inside the brain.

“I believe this works,” she says.

I feel that every minute I give them to play has a high payback.

Peterson is part of a fledgling movement around the world that is matching new scientific knowledge about the brain with teaching practices. The movement can be controversial – with distrust among some educators and scientists – but it is growing, and many scientists and teachers believe that the marriage of the two fields could revolutionize education.

Ontario is making some strides in this area. Staff members in the student-achievement division of the Ministry of Education have been looking at brain-science concepts, and the Toronto Catholic DSB is planning a research project on the topic.

Why now? Because about a decade ago, scientists figured out how to look inside the brain and watch it learn. They do that through several new technologies, the main one being functional (or real time) magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which allows them to track the microscopic electrical and chemical impulses in the brain.

They have discovered what some are calling the neural theory of learning. The theory defines learning as communication among nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain. That’s unlike the traditional, education-based definition of learning, which tracks differences in achievement – as in, can the child do this math test? – rather than differences in the very structure of the brain. (Of course, the two are connected.)

Forging pathways

The trick to learning – and teaching – is to know how to forge strong pathways among neurons. The more parts of the brain that are activated as a person learns, the stronger the pathways. The more pathways used, the stronger the learning and recall. That’s why moving the body, listening to music and generally using as many senses as possible while learning something helps the brain to retain and recall the information. Learning actually sculpts the brain.

Many teaching practices prevent neurons from communicating and shut down the process of learning. Those include standing at the front of the room reciting information without explaining why the student needs to know it.

The implications for education are immense and will require tremendous creativity on the part of educators who will put new practices to the test in the classroom. Imagine thinking about what parts of the brain are at work as each child is learning. Imagine teachers applying knowledge of how the brain learns in everyday lessons, and then assessing and sharing results.

For Robert Wager, OCT, course director for technical education in the faculty of education at York University and one of those educating in-service and pre-service teachers about how the brain works, it means setting the stage for improving Canada’s economic and intellectual health.

“Imagine if we had everyone thinking at a higher level,” he says, pointing to potential increases in Canada’s economic output.

In other words, we could build better brains if we wanted to. Lots of them.


Robert Wager, OCT

Building better brains

Current neural theory of learning has several broad implications. Perhaps most important, findings imply that all brains are created equal. Brain scientists now believe that only about 20 per cent of the brain’s capability is genetically based, whereas about 80 per cent is built after birth. Neither race nor culture nor wealth are factors. A rich brain is the same as a poor brain. Birth is not destiny. Learning is destiny.

This is a huge shift for many. For decades through the last century, influential psychologists argued that intelligence was encoded in a child’s DNA. You were born either smart or dumb. Some early childhood programs, such as the Head Start program in the US, were even criticized by some scholars as throwing good money after bad genes. And although those ideas have been proven wrong by robust studies, their influence lingers.

Blue and pink brains?

What of all the books out there that tell us that men’s and women’s brains are different? This may be one of the strongest myths. According to Lise Eliot, author of Pink Brain Blue Brain, a boy brain and a girl brain have few differences at birth, and differences that do exist, such as size, are relatively insignificant.

Still, as we raise girls and boys in our society, we teach them to be different. We build their brains to be different. So, by the time they get to school, some girls do seem different from some boys. That doesn’t mean that they actually learn differently, though. While attitudes and interests may be different, so far no brain study has shown that male brains learn differently from female brains.

The differences in learning between boys and girls are tiny compared to differences between individuals within the species as a whole, where scientists find that some people like to learn by moving their bodies or through listening and writing or through art or music or through doing.

Say, for example, you extravagantly praise a girl’s verbal skills and the athletic skills of a boy. The girl is apt to keep practising her verbal skills; the boy is apt to keep on jumping for hoops. As they keep practising, they build the parts of their brains (and bodies) that make them good at those skills. The girl will eventually be better with words than the boy, and he will be better at basketball than she is. It doesn’t mean that these skills are inborn.

Here’s an example from a study quoted in The Learning Brain (see bibliography). If you look at international math scores in the US and China, you find that boys in both countries do better than girls. Chinese girls, though, do better than American boys – unless they move to the US, where they tend to become worse at math than American boys.

Teachers who have looked at this research suggest that explaining to students how their brains work and then allowing them to run with that knowledge – to modify their own behaviour – is a great way to help them improve their learning.

Teachers can also pursue what is known in athletic circles as cross-training:

In the process, you’ll build different parts of your brain and perhaps learn new skills.

Seeing the brain as a great platform for building, rather than a limiter, allows us to plug into its natural learning systems. And the fuel that feeds these systems may be our emotional engagement.

Emotion dynamics

The starting point is emotion, say Zachary Stein and Joanna Christodoulou, two PhD students at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, who led a course on neuroeducation for teachers last summer. This is not emotional intelligence, which is another field altogether. It’s about why humans have emotions in the first place.

“We tend to think that emotions are over here and cognition is over there, and if we can get rid of emotion, then we can really learn,” says Stein. But they are not separate, they are “radically interconnected.”

Emotional thought is the platform for learning, memory, decision making and creativity, neuroscientists have discovered. None of this happens without emotion. In fact, the more intelligent you are, the more emotional you can be. And vice versa: the more emotional, the more intelligent. One study referred to in We Feel, Therefore We Learn (see bibliography) has shown, for example, that if a brain’s emotional centre is damaged, a person will be severely disabled, unable to make even the smallest decisions.

Stein says that 20 years ago scientists who described the human cognitive system didn’t even talk about emotion. But current findings show that emotion has a deeply encoded biological function that ensures survival, even if it’s sometimes unconscious. Survival requires that we thrive socially and culturally as well as physically. For example, when we feel at risk socially or culturally, it’s just as serious to us as when we don’t have enough to eat, or when we see a rock crashing down on us from above. So, when we manage our relationships – with parents, friends, teachers, partners – we’re triggering the same functions as when we protect the physical integrity of the body.


Joanna Christodoulou and Zachary Stein

Nonetheless, notes Christodoulou, we’re not always conscious of the fact that our goals – including emotional ones – are about survival.

One of the biological keys to teaching, she says, is to take on responsibility for understanding your own emotions. As well, to be effective, you need to plug into the emotions of the students and the class.
She suggests that teachers consider that their students are likely juggling a range of emotional goals within the classroom while they learn. And that’s apart from other day-to-day joys and traumas – the puppy who arrived at home yesterday after school or the parents’ announcement last night that they’re divorcing – that affect the child’s general mood and ability to lay down strong neural pathways.

“There’s not much you can do without emotion,” says Christodoulou. So it’s important to think about a student’s emotional goals. That means realigning your own goals as a teacher, and at some point, that may allow you to shape or even shift the way students see their goals.

“There are fireworks when the emotional goals of school and student are different,” Stein says. “Maybe the student can’t even articulate that. But your responsibility as a teacher is to remain open to the way students see the world.”

For Megan Webster, a Grade 10 and 11 English and ethics teacher from St. George’s School of Montréal who attended the course led by Stein and Christodoulou last summer, it led to big changes right in the first week of classes last fall. She says that, before, she would have just outlined the syllabus. Instead, she took the time to discover who her students thought they were and who they wanted to be.

“I thought a lot about goal setting and how important it is to frame our curriculum in terms of the students’ life goals,” she says.

She also spent time in the crucial first week explaining class routines, including how students should hand in assignments or get in touch by e-mail.

“It’s an investment in building comfort,” Webster says. “Now, everything is upfront so there are no surprises, and students have as few things to worry about as possible.”

And she’s instituted time for reflection at the end of each class, when students can write in special notebooks about what’s on their minds, including their emotions.

She decided to name her units according to the big ideas the units contain rather than by the works the students will study. So the former Othello unit has become the motivation unit. She thinks the title change helps explain to students why they are studying this piece of literature – in answer to their need for learning to have meaning or the “so what” question of learning.

I thought a lot about goal setting and how important it is to frame our curriculum in terms of the students’ life goals.


Megan Webster

Understanding deferral

In May 2009, Jonah Lehrer wrote in the New Yorker about another area that brain scientists have been looking at, known as the “marshmallow test.” It got its name from a psychology experiment conducted decades ago in the US.

In the late 1960s psychologist Walter Mischel devised a test for four-year-olds. He put each child in a room with a plate of marshmallows and told the children that if they could wait for 15 minutes or so until he came back, they could have as many marshmallows as they wanted. If they couldn’t wait, then they could have only one marshmallow.

About 30 per cent of the children held out. Decades later, in the early 1980s, Mischel followed up with the same individuals and found that those who had waited had done far better on college entrance exams and, indeed, in life.

According to Lehrer, this experiment and subsequent research have confirmed that the brain skills needed to wait for the marshmallows are excellent predictors of academic success. Yet studies also conclude that as many as half of North American children lack these skills, which are known as executive function or self-regulation. They allow us to inhibit impulses, sustain attention, plan, prioritize, and come up with strategies for sticking with and implementing a plan. The really exciting thing is that, like math and reading, these skills are learned. We can all learn how to get more marshmallows.

When students are taught executive function or self-regulation skills, their brains are calmed and become more ready to learn. Calm brains build connections among their neurons more easily. Conversely, when a child is hungry or upset about a fight she’s having with her best friend or worried about a big essay due in her English class, she won’t be learning new material. Her brain will be in shut-down mode.

So how do you teach executive-function skills?

It’s clear that these skills become more complex as a person gets older, and that they need to be upgraded at different ages.

In kindergarten, a student might learn executive function through a game like Simon Says, where it’s important to follow instructions, or by holding a picture of an ear as he’s listening to another student read aloud.

For a teenager, the skills will be different and a little more abstract. Older students may benefit from learning how their brains work, understanding and articulating their goals and motivations, and learning strategies for accomplishing those goals, with examples and practice.

Scientists say that modelling self-regulation is also critical. So a teacher who screams or a principal whose rulings seem unfair or arbitrary to students will make it harder for those students to learn good self-regulation.

Identity and meaning

These are biological imperatives driven by the changing adolescent brain, not frills that the education system can take or leave.

Research on adolescent brains has had huge implications for teaching. The teen years are a time of incredible growth, reorganization and change in the brain. During this time, the brain is pruning connections it doesn’t need any more and making the remaining connections stronger and swifter.

The brain becomes capable of abstract thought and dizzying creativity, when it needs to put pieces together to make a whole, when relevance of information to the outside world becomes critical, when forging a personal sense of identity within a community is often the most important task. These are biological imperatives driven by the changing adolescent brain, not frills that the education system can take or leave.

So what can be done? The answer is to harness the teenage brain’s passionate quest for identity and meaning.

Markville SS in Markham is doing some fascinating work in this regard. The school is part of a pilot project that Wager is conducting through York University. Wager taught Markville staff about how the brain works, and pre-service teachers from York have been placed in the school. The teachers are consciously trying to set rich, deep questions for students that will stimulate brain development.

In a career studies course, the general topic is employment trends in Canada from 1900–2000. Having provided readings and assigned research on expert analysis, teachers have now asked students to track the employment of their own relatives during the 20th century – both inside and outside Canada – and come up with some analysis and critical thought about trends.

The idea, says Mark Melnyk, OCT, head of the history department at the school, is that the students’ findings will be relevant and interesting to them, and therefore the larger messages will have meaning and stick – unlike material learned by rote for an exam and quickly forgotten.

The teachers are waiting to see how the experiment will turn out, and they’re excited because they think the students will really want to do the course work. Stephen Bewcyk, OCT, the principal at Markville SS, says that the excitement has been building over the three years that the school has participated in this pilot study.

It’s fun for both teachers and students. Teachers who have been teaching the same material for years or decades are enthused. The students’ research brings something new to the classroom for teachers as well.

Before, says Bewcyk, teachers were sometimes reluctant to share successes and failures from their classrooms. Now, they see themselves as researchers and partners, and they’re keen to share their experiences and figure out why approaches work or don’t work.

“I have certainly seen changes happening here,” he says.


Pink Brain Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps – And What We Can Do About It, by Lise Eliot, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009

The Learning Brain: Lessons for Education, by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Uta Frith, Blackwell Publishing, 2005

We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education, by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio, in Mind, Brain, and Education, vol 1, no 1, 2007

Don’t, by Jonah Lehrer in The New Yorker, May 18, 2009

Dynamic Mapping of Human Cortical Development During Childhood Through Early Adulthood, by Nitin Gogtay, Jay N. Giedd et al, in PNAS, vol 101, no 21, May 25, 2004

Structural Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Adolescent Brain, by Jay Giedd, Annals of the New York Academies of Science, vol 1021, 2004

Brain Development During Childhood and Adolescence: A Longitudinal MRI study, by Jay N. Geidd et al, in Nature Neuroscience, vol 2, no 10, October 1999