Research Information

Return to Research Page

The Twelve Principles for Brain-Based Learning

Sonoma County Department of Education

Principle One: The brain is a parallel processor.

Thoughts, intuitions, pre-dispositions, and emotions operate simultaneously and interact with other modes of information. Good teaching takes this into consideration. That's why we talk about the teacher as an orchestrator of learning.

Return to Top

Principle Two: Learning engages the entire physiology.

This means that the physical health of the child -- the amount of sleep, the nutrition -- affects the brain. So do moods. We are physiologically programmed, and we have cycles that have to be honored. An adolescent who does not get enough sleep one night will not absorb much new information the next day. Fatigue will affect the brain's memory.

Return to Top

Principle Three: The search for meaning is innate.

This means that we are naturally programmed to search for meaning. This principle is survival oriented. The brain needs and automatically registers the familiar while simultaneously searching for and responding to additional stimuli. What does this mean for education? It means that the learning environment needs to provide stability and familiarity. Provision must be made to satisfy the hunger for novelty, discovery, and challenge. At the same time lessons need to be exciting and meaningful and offer students an abundance of choices.

Marian Diamond's work is groundbreaking in the sense that she demonstrates that animals that were in an enriched environment, that is, they had lighted cages, more attention, a chance to play in the fields or jump over hurdles, showed a greater amount of brain cell growth. When the brains of these rats were compared with those of rats that had been in dark cages, had been isolated, and had not had the opportunity to engage in play, the rats from the enriched environment showed cortical changes. They had a larger number of glial cells and also a greater number of connections.

We want to know what things mean to us. In education one of the things we have to allow for is for children to have rich experiences and then give them time and opportunities to make sense of their experiences. They have to have a chance to reflect, to see how things relate. One of the richest sources of learning from the point of view of the brain is the learning that is available to us in these experiences.

Return to Top

Principle Four: The search for meaning occurs through "patterning."

Patterning refers to the organization and categorization of information. The brain resists having meaningless patterns imposed upon it. By "meaningless" we mean isolated and unrelated pieces of information. When the brain's natural capacity to integrate information is evoked in teaching, vast amounts of seemingly unrelated or random information and activities can be presented and assimilated. The brain tries to make sense of the information by reducing it to familiar patterns.

Patterning is everywhere. We want to impose our patterns on what we see, and breaking patterns is very difficult. It's as if we spend the first few years as an open system taking in information and experiences and drawing conclusions, and then the rest of our lives we go around proving that what we learned is in fact so.

The ideal process in learning is to present information in a way that allows the brain to extract patterns rather than attempt to impose them. The brain is capable of taking in enormous amounts of information when that information is related in a way so the brain can pattern appropriately.

The ideas behind thematic teaching and integrated curriculum are based on this principle of looking for patterns and seeing interrelated patterns. One topic can be related to all kinds of different topics, and when we do this, the brain tends to remember many more things. This is a way to teach science, literature and social studies -- to bring them together and teach them meaningfully. Patterning is behind that.

Return to Top

Principle Five: Emotions are critical to patterning.

One of the things I would like to erase is this notion of the affective domain, the cognitive domain, and the psychomotor domain. We have been taught that for years even though the evidence from the brain research indicates that this is not the case. In the brain you can't separate out emotion from cognition. It is an interacting web of factors. Everything has some emotion to it. In fact, many brain researchers now believe there is no memory without emotion. Emotions are what motivate us to learn, to create. They are in our moods. They are our passion. They are a part of who we are as human beings. We need to understand more about them and accept them.

One of the problems I have with cognitive psychology is that it tries to explain the role of emotions while adhering to a very traditional scientific model: take it apart, look at the pieces and they will tell you what the whole is about. Try to do that with concepts like love or compassion.

The other thing that is important in terms of the emotions is that we support each other. We are social creatures. We need each other, and we need social activities. When students in the class are more interested in what Johnny is doing tonight or what Mary is wearing, they are acting out of their social nature. The notion of a community of learners and communities in schools working with each other and learning about communication is very critical. The notion of cooperative learning fits here. We should become skilled at these things because they are innate drives in us. But we need to manage them better.

Return to Top

Principle Six: Every brain simultaneously perceives and creates parts and wholes.

We have visited several neuroscientists across the country to discuss our twelve principles with them. One of the things we found was that they were very hesitant to speak with educators because they were frightened of what we would do with the information. Educators had gone wild with the left brain/right brain research. They had based entire consulting firms on it. But to these neuroscientists we had greatly oversimplified it. So as we went back over the research, we said, "Yes, there is something to the hemispheric theory." However, the real message for us as educators is that we need to engage both sides, which in real life we do anyway. As educators, we want learners to use both the left and right hemispheres; we want whole brain strategies. So the left brain/right brain doctrine has some meaning, but it is most useful as a metaphor for the fact that the brain processes parts and wholes simultaneously.

*Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain by Renate Caine

Return to Top

Principle Seven: Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral perception.

Think about this room. What are the peripheral messages inherent in a room such as this one? What are the messages about how you behave? The peripherals play an important role. Children learn from everything. Everything goes into the brain. In the early years they literally become their experiences. Therefore the environment is very important, and if they learn something in the classroom and never use it outside the classroom, then that learning, those connections, stop there. In other societies, children are immersed in learning in the school, in the home, in the community. Their knowledge is used and is expanded upon. They interact with each other in this rich learning environment.

Return to Top

Principle Eight: Learning always involves conscious and unconscious processes.

We learn much more than we ever consciously understand. Most of the signals that are peripherally perceived enter the brain without our awareness and interact on unconscious levels. This is why we say that learners become their experience and remember what they experience, not just what they are told.

What we call "active processing" allows students to review how and what they've absorbed so they begin to take charge of their learning and of the development of personal meaning. Meaning is not always available on the surface. Meaning often happens intuitively in ways that we don't understand. So that, when we learn, we use both conscious and unconscious processes. In teaching, you may not reach a student immediately, but two years later he may be in another class and say, "I get it now." You are a part of that, but you are no longer present.

Return to Top

Principle Nine: We have at least two types of memory -- a spatial memory system and a set of systems for rote learning.

The spatial memory system (or autobiographical system) does not need rehearsal and allows for instant memory of experiences. It is very important for educators to understand these two systems and how they work. In the taxon memory system, things are learned by rote. We memorize information, but that doesn't mean we can use the information. The taxon system has nothing to do with imagination or creativity. It conforms very readily to the information processing model of memory. With this system, students are motivated by reward and punishment; many trials are usually needed; and the brain is easily fatigued since there is stress on a limited number of brain cells. This is the model schools are based on. We have limited education to "programming" these taxon systems and "teaching to the test." Can you see why people would say that our educational system is based on teaching to the test (and forgetting it afterwards) is not very successful?

The locale memory system is very global. It doesn't stress one particular area. When you experience something deeply meaningful, you're creating those new connections. Things go in all at once. The locale memory experiences register automatically. It is motivated by novelty, and it's always operating. You can't stop this system and turn on the taxon system by saying, "stop that and memorize this." Memorization is memorization, not learning.

Learning means that information is related and connected to the learner. If it's not, you have memorization, but you don't have learning. There are still things we have to memorize, things that need to be repeated. Multiplication tables are very useful, but we want to make sure that children understand the concept of multiplication.

The locale memory system puts it all together as a picture. You're not just seeing one piece at a time and adding it together like a mathematical formula and coming up with a whole. That's a big message of brain research: parts are contained in a whole, and the whole has parts. It sounds very simple, but it's not when you start developing lessons.

*Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain by Renate Caine

Return to Top

Principle Ten: The brain understand and remembers best when facts and skills are embedded in natural spatial memory.

The solution is to embed taxon learning by immersing learners in well-orchestrated, life-like, low-threat, high-challenge learning environments. We need to take the information off the blackboard, to make it come alive in the minds of learners, and to help them to make connections

Return to Top

Principle Eleven: Learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat.

In the classroom, "downshifting" is seen as threat related to a sense of helplessness. It has implications for testing and for grading, for the notion of the teacher as the controller, for empowerment, for performance objectives. The learner must be engaged in learning. Not that we throw performance objectives or tests out, but we need to understand what we are doing to the human brain under these conditions.

I am doing some research on how certain conditions affect learners, and if you wonder about dropouts, I can give you a formula that will produce some dropouts: the teacher is in control; there are predetermined outcomes; the student is graded with little regard to feedback; and there are timelines on the activity. This will produce some students who will downshift, will dislike learning, and will be totally demotivated. On the other side, students who "ace" this process become test-taking experts.

The hippocampus, which is located just above your nose and above your ears in the center where they intersect, is part of the limbic system. It has proportionally more receptors for stress hormones than any other portion of the brain. It is also critical in forming new memories and is linked to the indexing function of the brain. It allows us to make connections, to link new knowledge with what is already in the brain. It is like a camera lens, and, under threat related to helplessness, it closes off. We then move back into well-entrenched behaviors. It opens up when we are challenged and are in a state of "relaxed alertness." When the learner is empowered and challenged, you begin to get the maximum possibility for connections. That is why the brain needs stability as well as challenge. If short term stability is lost, then long-term stability must be substituted.

Many children come to school downshifted because they come from an environment of threat. There is threat in the home -- threat related to abandonment of one form or another is probably the most destructive of all. Children from a stable home can take a little downshifting in school and are fine. Children that come from a home where there is instability and a sense of abandonment cannot take short-term downshifting. They need more stability in the classroom.

Relaxation techniques are the only thing we know that will reverse the stress hormones in the body which result from stress related to threat and accumulate over time. We need to stop the incredible treadmill that we are on. Rest is the basis of activity. Notice how fresh you feel after a vacation. We need to teach our children that learning takes time. And children need to understand their natural rhythms. We need an orderly environment. We need to understand ourselves and our own needs better. We need to acknowledge our need for ritual, for orderliness. Our own rhythms are very fundamental to who we are, and we need to work with them.

Return to Top

Principle Twelve: Each brain is unique.

This looks at learning styles and unique ways of patterning. We have many things in common, but we also are very, very different. We need to understand how we learn and how we perceive the world and to know that men and women see the world differently.

Return to Top


The "brain-based learner" downshifts under threat, learns via peripheral events, has a unique brain, learns via conscious and unconscious processes, has various types of memory, and learns best when content is embedded in experience. This is the person who is in our classrooms.

If this is true, what is learning? We came up with the notion that learning is the expansion of natural knowledge. We wanted to make the point that we are always expanding from what we know. Natural knowledge is what we use to make sense of our lives. It is what we know deeply and meaningfully. Learning as the expansion of natural knowledge means not just information that we memorize; it means something we can use.

Then we asked, "What is involved?" We looked at meaning because we saw meaning as the most critical issue in learning. There are three elements: surface knowledge consists of information and procedures. This is what education has been pretty much limited to. If we have enough of this stuff put into the learner, the learner will somehow process it and retain it. Deep meaning includes the drives, purposes, values and beliefs of the learner -- their ways of patterning and seeing the world. When this "deep meaning" connects with "surface knowledge," you have what we call felt meaning, which is this "Aha!" experience that we now define as learning.

Real learning as seen from the point of view of the brain in operation is to see the hemispheres synchronize. The brain waves synchronize at that aha! moment: what I am feeling, what I am thinking, what is my hypothesis -- all this connects with the information and I say, "Ah, I get it."

This is what is involved in the expansion of natural knowledge. It's ok for the child to memorize certain things, but until that connects with their meaning and their predisposition, the real shift in learning doesn't happen. The child can study all kinds of things about science, but until they make sense, it is memorized stuff and you really can't generalize from there to other experiences.

Then we looked at what has to happen in the learning environment, in the classroom, for the expansion of natural knowledge to take place. How do you maximize the conditions for learning? We identified three key factors: immersion in complex experiences; low threat/high challenge; and active processing.

Orchestrated immersion in complex experiences means that I, as a teacher, sit down ahead of time and work out the lesson. I have to think about it beforehand and put together the materials in order to create the kind of natural learning environment that allows my students to make the most of the connections and construct their own meanings. I also prepare the instructions beforehand so I will not interfere with the group. Once I do that, the lesson takes care of itself and feels natural. Why is it "complex"? Complex means that they go through all kinds of levels. In terms of the brain principles, students' emotions are involved as they remember something; they are patterning in their own way; they are making multiple connections. So "complex experiences" means that they are interacting, the learning is activity-oriented; they are globally searching for meaning and using the library for resources. This is a different way of teaching.

The other thing that is needed in order to make maximum use of the brain is what we call relaxed alertness. There is low threat involved in the activity. You don't announce that a test will follow. You don't have to make a list which will be right or wrong. The results of the activity are open-ended, whatever you come up with is valuable. But just removing the threat is not good enough; you must also provide a challenge.

Active processing is metacognition -- sitting back and saying, "What did I learn and how did I learn that? What other connections are there? How else can I do this?" This is very important to consolidating learning, expanding on it and making additional connections. This is what the critical thinking advocates are developing. We go beyond that to include reflection and analyzing interpersonal issues as well.

There is no one way to do Brain-Based Instruction. There are rules, however. The very nature of teaching for the expansion of natural knowledge means that the learner is at the center of any teaching that makes genuine connections.

In the years to come, all of us -- teachers, researchers, administrators, parents, and communities -- will have to alter our view of learning. This means going beyond our own experiences as learners in school and literally "inventing" or orchestrating learning environments that finally capitalize on our brains' immense capacity to learn.

Return to Top

Return to Research Page

Home | Our Goal | Our Board | Research Info | Other Sites | Contact Us | Site Map
All contents Copyright © 2024 The Talking Page Literacy Organization. All rights reserved.