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September 1998


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Brain-Based Teaching
Brings Explosion of Research into the Classroom

Teachers are applying research on how the brain learns to their practice with Brain Gym, pulse learning, mindmaps, water bottles on desks and lots of encouragement for their students.

Purpball.gif (183 bytes) More Information on Brain-based Teaching

By Brad Robertson

The students in Liz Jones-Twomey’s Grade 3 class in Waterloo Region have water bottles on their desks. They are encouraged to drink, not just at recess, but often throughout the day. The class is allowed to eat fruit and vegetables during class time. Throughout the school day, the teacher and her students participate in specific physical exercises to stimulate their brains.

There is a lot of movement, laughter and constant encouragement in Jones-Twomey’s classroom. The students are studying not only what to learn, but how to learn. Their teacher bases her program on the new Ontario curriculum and delivers it through brain-based learning.

Recent research on the brain and how it works have received unprecedented interest in the last two or three years. Teachers are signing up for workshops and seminars to discover the latest research on the brain and how it can help their teaching. These sessions show teachers how they can access both sides of the brain more effectively and productively to make learning easier and teaching more effective.


One of the foundation blocks of brain-based learning is the belief that all knowledge is embedded in other knowledge. The brain works best when it can connect one idea onto another one.

Renate Caine, professor of education at California State University and educational consultant Geoffrey Caine have spent much of their careers researching how the brain works most effectively. In Making Connections, Teaching and the Human Brain, they write that the brain has the capacity to learn and understand much more when it sees how subjects relate to each other instead of memorizing isolated facts and skills. They point to thematic teaching and integration of the curriculum as two key approaches to facilitate learning.

Teachers familiar with this research give overviews before beginning a topic or new subject. Because the brain is naturally curious, they put up posters, signs and bulletin board displays on a particular topic before it’s introduced. Then they integrate this new learning into what the students already know and make connections by allowing the students to see how this all fits into the big picture.

One very powerful way to make these connections is to mind map the information. Mindmapping incorporates graphics, colour, pictures and key words on one piece of paper. Students can learn to make these maps with the central idea or topic they are studying at the centre, with branches drawn to represent minor ideas or components. This not only synthesizes the subject, but is an excellent way for students to show the teacher that they understand what they’ve been taught.


With mindmapping introduced to the students, brain-based classrooms feature mindmaps on past subjects, mindmaps on what is currently being taught and a display of what is coming up next. The brain needs to see the connections of what the student is doing in class relative to their lives. A brain-based teacher has to answer the question "What’s in it for me?" for each student.

Teachers who find connecting with their kids an on-again, off-again thing can take some comfort from recent research into timing of their lessons. David Sousa, a former superintendent of education and author of How The Brain Learns, published by National Association of Secondary School Principals, recently spoke to the Association of Supervisory Officials of Ontario. He said that the brain learns best at the beginning and at the end of a learning episode. This primacy-recency effect has major implications on how we teach, as learners remember the most at the start of the class and the second most at the end of the class.

Sousa says that in a 40-minute period students’ attention is strongest for the first 20 minutes, then the brain needs down time for approximately 10 minutes. The last 10 minutes is the next best teaching time.

In secondary schools, with an 80-minute class, the prime time for teaching is the first 30 minutes of the class with a down time of 30 minutes followed by excellent teaching time for the last 20 minutes.

Pulse learning theory tells teachers that learners need a diffusion time after a focused session. The best lesson with the most retention is focused, diffused, focused.


This research tells teachers that these key times in a lesson are crucial in reaching their students. Students retain more material when their lessons are shorter and they have more breaks. Learners, no matter what age, will go into downtime throughout a lesson.

Teachers who, with the best of intentions, give the last 10 or 15 minutes of the class to pack up, clean your desk, or – because of good behaviour, do something quiet – are actually missing out on key learning time.

The water bottles are on each student’s desk in Jones-Twomey’s classroom because of another finding of research on the brain and education. Water assists learning and thought. Neurophysiologist and educator Carla Hannaford has studied for many years how water and certain movement exercises can improve our learning potential.

In Smart Moves, Hannaford writes that water increases the ability of the blood to carry oxygen to the brain by 100 to 1,000 per cent. The more students drink water, the more energy they have. Students who are bored or listless and who lack concentration may be dehydrated. That’s why Jones-Twomey and a growing number of teachers like her remind students to drink water before a lesson and allowed them to drink it during class.


Brain-based teachers also do specific physical exercises with their students to assist in learning. Brain Gym was devised by Paul Dennison, who heads California’s Educational Kinesiology Foundation. It’s based on the belief that the left and right hemispheres of the brain do not always function in conjunction with each other and certain exercises or movements help to connect them. The exercises are particularly useful in times of stress or when learning blocks occur.

Sharon Robertson, an elementary school principal in Waterloo Region, uses Brain Gym exercises with her staff and students. Teachers in her school are adapting Brain Gym activities into their daily routine. She firmly believes that movement through Brain Gym activities enables her students to access parts of the brain previously inaccessible to them. The changes in learning are often immediate.

The teacher may start the day off by engaging her students in specific physical movements like cross crawls (crossing the arms to touch the knees), brain buttons (applying pressure on specific points near the neck to stimulate blood flow to the brain) and hook-ups (crossing the arms and legs in a way that automatically induces calm).

Teachers who use these techniques often report that their classes are more manageable and ready to learn each day.

But Normand Frenette, associate professor at OISE/UT, cautions that there is no magic science to teaching and learning. He says brain-based learning can be very seductive to teachers, who may rush to incorporate as many strategies as soon as possible. Frenette says long-term studies are needed to authenticate the value of the explosion of research on how the brain learns.

Nevertheless, teachers like Liz Jones-Twomey are responding to brain-based educational innovations in the way good teachers have always done – they’re reading, learning, experimenting and using whatever works well for them and their students in the classroom.

Brad Robertson is principal of Westvale Public School in Waterloo. He can be contacted at

Where to Look for More Information
on Brain-Based Teaching

David Sousa, How the Brain Learns (National Association of Secondary School Principals, 1995) looks at the last 15 years of research on how the brain works and what it means for our students. The author provides insights into effective teaching strategies and effective learning that make the best use of memory, attention and recall patterns. "Practitioner Corners" blend research with teaching strategies. A practical book in an easy readable format for teachers at every level of education.

Eric Jensen, Brain Compatible Strategies (Turning Point Publishers, 1997). Jensen has spent most of his life connecting brain research with applications to the classroom. He has written many other books on this topic including The Learning Brain (Turning Point Publishers, 1994) and Superteaching (Turning Point Publishers, 1995). In this book you will find specific activities that are not only fun to do with your students, but have a direct research-proven link to how we learn. Jensen does not include a lot of technical background for his activities, but he does include an extensive resource listing for each one. Many of the activities would be referred to as good teaching, even though we didn’t know why they worked. This book gives you the rationale for your good teaching strategies as well as some excellent ideas for new brain-compatible ones.

Eric Jensen, Introduction to Brain Compatible Teaching (Turning Point Publishers, 1998). Brain-compatible teaching is a research-based, multidisciplinary approach to the question of how our brain learns best. This book introduces the reader to the basics and provides a good grasp on the core differences between the brain-compatible approach to learning and the traditional approach. A must read for teachers who are reading about brain-compatible teaching for the first time.

Don Campbell, The Mozart Effect (Avon Books, 1997). You know that music can affect your mood... make you happy, sad, reflective, inspired. Now we know that music has much more power than we ever believed. Campbell outlines research on the link between learning, creativity and exposure to music and shows how sound and music can stimulate learning and memory and how some music is able to slow down the brain’s waves so that it is more susceptible to learning.

Carla Hannaford, Smart Moves (Great Ocean Publishers, 1995). Neurophysiologist and educator tells us why we must move to learn. She also tells us in a very readable format what specific movements will help our learning potential.

Others to look for are Caine and Caine’s Making Connections (Addison Wesley, 1994) and Colin Rose’s Accelerated Learning for the 21st Century (Delacorte Press, 1997).

Some worthwhile web sites are: Jensen Learning Corp.; Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development; Learning Research and Development Center; and Education Commission of the States