Brain-Based Learning Strategies

What is Brain-Based Learning?

Brain-Based Education is the purposeful engagement of strategies that apply to how our brain works in the context of education.

Written by Eric Jensen


brain with wheels turning




Brain-based education is actually a “no-brainer.” Here’s a simple, but essential premise: the brain is intimately involved in, and connected with, everything educators and students do at school. Any disconnect is a recipe for frustration and potentially disaster. Brain-based education is best understood in three words: engagement, strategies and principles. You must engage your learners and do it with strategies that are based on real science. (I’m a big fan of cognitive science, neuroscience, psychology and other mind/brain sciences).


What is brain-based education? It’s simple: it’s the engagement of strategies based on how our brain works.






How reputable is brain-based education? Harvard University now has both a master’s and doctoral degrees in this field, known as the “Mind, Brain and Education” program. There’s also a peer-reviewed scientific journal on brain-based education, which features research reports, conceptual papers, reviews, debates and dialogue. Now that I’ve reminded you that brain-based education is the “real deal,” there’s one more thing.


There are what you and I might call “macro strategies” and “micro strategies.” The micro strategies are very situation specific. For example, when you are giving directions, only give one a time, because the brain needs time to process the location, the action and the qualities of the action (“Go find your teammates and wait quietly at your team stations.”). I provide these in our actual workshops because they require demonstration and context to maximize the understanding and transfer. Here, we’ll focus on macro (the “big picture”) strategies. These are the “biggies” that reap huge rewards. But you’ll need to use your own experiences to customize them for your situation. Trust me; they all are achievement boosters, so here they are.


Principle to Strategy Number One

It’s confirmed: Physical education, recess and movement are critical to learning. How? We now know that we can grow new neurons through our lifetime and that they are highly correlated with memory, mood and learning. This process can be regulated by our everyday behaviors, which include exercise. The optimal activity is voluntary gross motor, such as power walks, games, running, dance, aerobics, team sports and swimming. We also now know that early childhood movement wires up the brain to make more efficient connections. Schools can and should influence these variables.

Practical school applications: Support more, not less physical activity, recess and classroom movement. It raises the good chemicals for thinking, focus, learning and memory (noradrenaline, dopamine and cortisol). Students need 30-60 minutes per day to lower stress response, boost neurogenesis and boost learning. For the first few weeks of school, expose students to a variety of physical activities. Then, offer choice. That’s critical because voluntary activity does more good than forced activity, which may cause an overproduction of cortisol.


Principle to Strategy Number Two

It’s confirmed: Social conditions influence our brain in multiple ways we never knew before. School behaviors are highly social experiences, which become encoded through our sense of reward, acceptance, pain, pleasure, coherence, affinity and stress. In fact, poor social conditions, isolation or social “defeat” are correlated with fewer brain cells. Nobody knew this occurred five or ten years ago.

Practical school application: Do not allow random social groupings for more than 10-20 percent of the school day. Use targeted, planned, diverse social groupings with mentoring, teams and buddy systems. Work to strengthen pro-social conditions. Teacher-to-student relationships matter, as do student-to-student relationships.


Principle to Strategy Number Three

The brain changes! All educators should know the brain can and does change every day. In fact every student’s brain is changing as they attend school. The ability of the brain to rewire and remap itself via neuroplasticity is profound. Schools can influence this process through skill-building, reading, meditation, arts, career and building thinking skills. The evidence is compelling that when the correct skill-building protocol is used educators can make positive and significant changes in the brain in a short period of time. Without understanding the “rules for how our brain changes,” educators can waste time and money, and students will fall through the cracks.


In fact, neuroscience is exploding with discoveries about the brain as being highly malleable. We used to think about the paradigm as either genes or experience. We now know it can be a hybrid of both. We now know that environments can trigger genes to express themselves in ways we never would have predicted—if you know what to do. You can upgrade a student’s capacity for memory, processing, sequencing, attention and impulsivity regulation. Why not teach these skills to give students the tools to succeed?


Practical school application: Give teachers a mandate of 30-90 minutes a day and 3-5 times per week to upgrade student skill sets. Teach attentional skills, memory skills and processing skills. Progress requires focus, “buy-in” and at least a half-hour a day.


Principle to Strategy Number Four

Chronic stress is a very real issue at schools for both staff and students. Recent studies suggest 30-50 percent of all students feel moderately or greatly stressed every day. In some schools, the numbers are double that! For those from poverty, the numbers can be higher. These pathogenic stress loads are becoming increasingly common and have serious health, learning and behavior risks. This issue affects attendance, memory, social skills and cognition. Some stress is good; chronic or acute stress is very bad for behavior and learning.

Practical school application: Teach students better coping skills, increase student perception of choice, build coping skills, strengthen arts, physical activity and mentoring. These activities increase sense of control over one’s life, which lowers stress. All of these can reduce the impact of stressors.


Principle to Strategy Number Five

Schools are pushing differentiation as a strategy to deal with the differences in learners. That’s close, but not quite the truth. In fact, instead of there being mostly “typical” students with some with “differences” the brain research tells us the opposite. Let’s find out how common it is to have a “healthy brain.” Of those who responded to the UCLA “healthy brain” student advertisement and considered themselves to be normal, only 32 percent passed the initial telephone screening process. Of those who qualified for the in-person health history and physical examinations, only 52 percent passed these screening procedures.


Now we can do the math: only 11 percent of those individuals who believed they were healthy/normal even qualified for brain imaging. Of the original 2000 students, just over 200 ended up meeting the criteria. The actual study concludes by saying, “The majority of individuals who consider themselves normal by self-report are found not to be so.” Let me repeat: almost 90 percent of human brains are atypical, damaged or in some way not healthy. That does not mean that many students have not compensated; they have.


Practical school application: Make differences the rule, not the exception at your school. Validate differences. Never expect all students (fourth-graders, for instance) to be on the same page in the same book on the same day. That runs counter to an extraordinary research databases that shows variations in maturation rates and other brain differences. Allow kids to celebrate diversity, unique abilities, talents and interests. Give them the skill sets, relationships and hope to succeed.


Principle to Strategy Number Six

New evidence suggests the value of teaching content in even smaller chunk sizes. Why? The old thinking was that students could hold seven plus or minus chunks in the head as capacity for working memory. But that science is outdated. The new research says two to four chunks are more realistic. In addition to this shorter capacity for working memory, our mid-term “holding tank” for content, the hippocampus, has a limitation on how much it can hold. It is overloaded quickly, based partly on learner background and subject complexity. There are other reasons our students get overloaded quickly with content. Learning and memory consume physical resources such as glucose and our brain uses this quickly with more intense learning.


Practical school application: Teachers should teach in small chunks, process the learning, and then rest the brain. Too much content taught in too small of a time span means the brain cannot process it, so we simply don’t learn it. Breaks, recess and downtime make more sense than content, content and more content. Here’s the guideline: the less background the learner has and the greater the complexity of the content, make the time chunk of content shorter (use 4-8 minutes). The greater the background knowledge, the less the complexity, the longer you can make the “input” stage (8-15 min. is acceptable). Under no condition, should there be more than 15 consecutive minutes of content input. Share this with your colleagues. But share it in a small chunk, and then allow time for processing it.


Principle to Strategy Number Seven

The role of the arts in schools continues to be under great scrutiny. But five neuroscience departments at five universities (Oregon, Harvard, Michigan, Dartmouth and Stanford) have recently completed projects studying the impact of arts on the brain. The results suggest that arts are far better than earlier believed. They show that certain arts boost attention, working memory, and visual spatial skills. Other arts such as dance, theater and drama boost social skills, empathy, timing, patience, verbal memory and other transferable life skills.


Practical school application: Make arts mandatory and give students the choice of several, and support with expert teachers and the time to excel at it. Right now, evidence suggests that you get the most value from 30 to 60 minutes a day, three to five days a week. Arts support the development of the brain’s academic operating systems in ways that provide many transferable life skills.


Principle to Strategy Number Eight

Humans have the remarkable capacity to display many emotions, but only six of them are “hard wired,” or built in at birth. This is profound because it tells us that unless children get these emotional states taught to them early (ages 0-3), when they enter school, they’ll be emotionally narrow. Kids rarely ever get the emotional skills built in to be ready for school. This leads to more discipline problems and weakened cognitive skills in school. This means we’ll have kids at school who do not understand appropriate emotional responses (e.g. cooperation, trust, shame and humility) unless we teach them at school. Many kids are not getting these taught at home. You class should offer quick, daily skill-building with blended-in-daily practice.


Otherwise students will misbehave, not understand directions, fail to be respectful to teachers and show no empathy when others are in pain. There are more early childhood kids in day care (60-80 percent) today compared with two generations ago (10-12 percent). This is also profound because out of the possible hundreds of emotional states, only a few are good for learning (e.g. anticipation, curiosity, suspicion, confusion). Most states are, in fact, bad for learning.

Practical school application: This suggests two things. One, we must teach appropriate emotional states as life skills (e.g. honor, patience, forgiveness and empathy) and, second, it’s important to read and manage the other emotional states in the classroom. In good states, students learn well and behave better. Insist that teachers build social skills into every lesson. Ask that they use the social structures that are advocated in cooperative learning programs every day. The better the social skills, the better the academics. Many good programs are in books, workshops and online. Why put effort into this area? Kids who learn patience, attention, empathy and cooperation will be better students.


Principle to Strategy Number Nine

There have been stunning strides in rehabilitation of brain-based disorders, including Asperger’s, learning delays, dyslexia and autism. The discovery that aggressive behavioral therapies, new drugs and revolutionary stem cell implantation can be used to influence, regulate and repair brain-based disorders has been amazing. Innovations suggest that special education students may be able to improve far more than we earlier thought.

Practical school application: Make sure all teachers (not just special ed) learn the latest in dealing with special education learning delay recovery. Most kids can be brought back into regular ed classes, but not with inclusion-only strategies. It takes consistent hour-a-day skill-building or the student won’t change. Learn the right skills and go to it 3-5 days a week.


Principle to Strategy Number Ten

The recent brain/mind discovery that even memories are not fixed but, instead, are quite malleable is powerful. Every time you retrieve a memory, it goes into a volatile, flex state in which it is temporarily reorganized. This is highly relevant for teachers and administrators who are responsible for student learning and classroom testing. Every time students review, they might change their memory (and often do). Yet, without review, they are less likely to recall their learning. It suggests that teachers use several strategies to continually strengthen memory over time instead of assuming that once learned, the memory is preserved.


Practical school application: First, teachers should review the content halfway between the original learning and the test. If content is taught Monday and tested on Friday, then review should be on Wednesday. Second, teachers should mediate the review process with students through structured reviews such as written quizzes or group work that ensures quality control. Otherwise the material is more likely to get confused and test scores drop.


Brain-Based Education Insider

This is a new paradigm which establishes connections between brain function and educational practice. A field has emerged known as “brain-based” education and it has now been well over 20 years since this “connect the dots” approach began. In a nutshell, brain-based education says, “Everything we do uses our brain; let’s learn more about it and apply that knowledge.”

If your question was, “Are the approaches and strategies based on solid research from brain-related disciplines or are they based on myths, a well-meaning mentor teacher or from ‘junk science?’”, now you know the answer. We would expect an educator to be able to support the use of a particular classroom strategy with a scientific reasoning or studies.

Each educator ought to be professional enough to say, “Here’s why I do what I do.” I would ask: Is the person actually engaged in using what they know, or simply having knowledge about it, but not actually using it? Are they using strategies based on the science of how our brain works? Brain-based education is about the professionalism of knowing why one strategy is used over another. The science is based on what we know about how our brain works.


Jensen is an internationally-known educator known for his ability to translate neuroscience into practical classroom applications. He’s written over 20 books, including Teaching with the Brain in Mind. His teacher workshops emphasize connecting brain research to student achievement. For more information, visit

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