Saturday, 14 January 2012

Brain-based Research Informs Instructional Design

From Tomorrow's Professor

Historically, relatively little was known about the inner machinations of the brain. In the last few decades, brain research has exploded, with possibly its greatest ascent coming in the 1990s. In fact, the 1990s were declared "officially" as the "Decade of the Brain" by a United States House of Representatives Joint Resolution in 1989, signed into law by President George H. W. Bush (House Resolution #174, July 1989).

By most accounts, translation of the findings of the key brain research fields of cognitive science and neuroscience into practical education applications has been slow. The reasons for this are myriad; Jensen (2005) suggests that much of the answer is grounded in the differences between brain research and traditional educational research. Brain research tends to utilize paradigms of basic research and clinical research, whereas educational research tends toward more applied or action research.

However, as Zull indicates, educators know intuitively that when people learn they also change. Or, in other words, "learning makes a difference" (2004, p. 68). And the capacity to affect transformation in students and lives is part of the lure of education as a vocation. This premise about change, though, informs some of the contemporary discussions regarding brain-based learning theory, challenging the notion that the brain is static or fixed.

Even so, researchers are often hesitant to proclaim bold conclusions, couching their findings (correctly) as limited by the research design, the controlled nature of the study and a number of other factors. Educators, however, are often looking for "answers" that they can immediately apply to the classroom. This structural tension has certainly contributed to the adoption curve of potentially relevant cognitive and neuroscience research findings. Wolfe (2001) also notes that educators are wary of fads and the newest "breakthrough," which may also contribute to the lack of early adoption.

In The Art of Changing the Brain, Zull (2004) examines the causal factors to creating learning, or changing the brain. He cites "practice" as the first change agent, explaining that when learners practice something, the "neurons that control and drive that action fire repeatedly. If a neuron fires frequently, it grows and extends itself out to other neurons .... These signaling connections are . . . synapses .... These networks are the physical equivalent of knowledge" (p. 69).

Like practice, Zull (2004) cites emotion as an equally significant change agent for learning. He explains that the chemistry associated with emotions have a powerful impact on the learning experience for students. According to Zull, "Emotion and thought are physically entangled" (p. 70). Damasio (1994) asserted that "somatic markers" match bodily experiences with cognitive experiences. In addition, he suggests that the learning environment also has an impact on the learning by creating "background feelings" that also affect the mood of the learning. This hypothesis implies that the better learning feels, or the more positively learners associate good feelings with the learning process, the more likely they are to be motivated and engaged.

These two principles imply that instruction must contain both practice and emotion in order to promote the change educators recognize as learning. Zull (2004) explores the following possibilities:

Don't Explain: Instructors often blame themselves when explanation alone seems to fail. However, brain-based research implies that because explanation may create minimal opportunity for either practice or emotion, it can only be marginally effective as the sole instructional approach.

Build on Errors: Instructors often see their role as "eradicators of error." However, mistakes may also provide fertile opportunity for new knowledge by taking erroneous thinking and contrasting it or building on it with new information.

Engage the Whole Brain: Instructors should provide experiences and assignments that engage all aspects of the cerebral cortex: "sensory cortex (getting information), integrative cortex (making meaning of information), integrative cortex near the front (creating new ideas from these meanings), and motor cortex (acting on those ideas)" (p. 71).

Researchers are just beginning to explore the impact that stress has on learning. Some initial studies conclude that the effectiveness of learning is compromised when the learner is stressed or fearful. According to Goswami (2008), "One important function of the emotional brain is assessing the value of the information being received. When the amygdala is strongly activated, it interrupts action and thought and triggers rapid bodily responses critical for survival" (p. 44).

The National Research Council's Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education 2000 volume How People Learn (Bransford & Brown, 2000) has been hailed as another critical step in formulating an all-encompassing connection between previously unattainable primary research in neuroscience, social psychology, cognitive psychology, developmental biology and psychology and more practical application in the field of education. This volume traces the development of the science of learning and summarizes a wide range of research into how learning occurs and the effects of teaching and teachers on learning, formulating specific key findings and principles. Much of this volume is focused on how children learn, but the authors specifically suggest that the implications are analogous for adults. This would seem to be especially true in the domain of developmental education in the college environment.

The volume elevates three findings that are supported by a wide range of research as key findings. The first finding indicates that students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught, or they may learn them for the purpose of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom. In addition, to develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must: (a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge; (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework; and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and applications. Finally a "metacognitive" approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them.

In addition, these findings also challenge the "myths" often associated with brain-based learning. Among these include the ideas associated with "left brain" and "right brain" learning, the capacity for learning at "critical periods" of the brain's development, and the notion that effective learning interventions need to be timed with brain development (Sternberg, 2008).


Bransford, J., & Brown, A. L. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school: Expanded edition. Washington, DC: National Research Council, Committee on Learning Research and Educational Practice.

Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes' error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: Grosset/Putnam.

Goswami, U. (2008). Neuroscience and education. Jossey-Bass reader on the brain and learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Jensen, E. (2005). Teaching with the brain in mind (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

Sternberg, R. (2008). The balance theory of wisdom. The Jossey-Bass reader on the brain and learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wolfe, P. (2001). Brain Research and Education: Fad or Foundation? Retrieved December 6, 2006 from

Zull, J. (2004). The art of changing the brain. Educational Leadership

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