19th Jan 2014

The Rules we Learn by




A summary of relevant points from Eric Jensen’s book ‘ Teaching with the brain in Mind”.


The process of learning is governed by a complex set of variables. Teachers have the opportunity to influence the ‘nurture’ side of the equation while the ‘nature’ aspect of the brain is the genetic component.


Teachers and schools can have a huge influence in how children learn. When children have learnt something we tend to think that they have an association of concepts, skills or knowledge that they store, retrieve and apply to other contexts. The biological process of learning happens at the synapse between neurons where chemicals are exchanged and neural networks are formed.


There are 7 critical brain factors that influence the learning process.


  1. Engagement. Every teacher struggles from time to time to get students’ attention. Why? Biologically important facts for kids’ brains are the weather, hunger, friends, embarrassment, failure, and harm. Schools are highly social places so getting attention is challenging. Attention requires engaging neural networks and suppressing internal and external distractions. It requires discipline and a chemical balance in the thalamus, prefrontal cortex, posterior parietal lobes and the anterior cingulate.

Engaged kids are usually happier than disengaged kids. Students usually engage when;

·      Learning is relevant and meaningful.

·      Auditory conditions are good and the teacher can be heard.

·      Students have enough sleep and avoid drugs and alcohol.

·      Students don’t have attention deficit or central auditory processing problems.

Glucose levels, fear and processing skills are three other brain related factors that can impede attention. Attention, learning and memory drain the brain of glucose. Students with low blood-sugar levels can seem tired and inattentive. An increasing number of students have diabetes, which can impair speed of cognition and motor performance.

Fear of being teased or bullied can shut down the ability to process any new information. Processing skills of making meaning need to be explicitly taught to students. The skills of calm, thoughtful reflection of material from lessons is vital. The skills of self-monitoring, self-managing and self-evaluating need to be taught.


  1. Repetition. Repetition strengthens connections in the brain but it must be interesting. Several approaches are suggested.

·      Pre-exposure. Giving covert prompts about expected learning well in advance of the learning taking place. Can be days, weeks, and months in advance.

·      Previewing. Overt, explicit exposure to the content minutes or hours before the lesson. It can be a general overview of the lesson structure before the actual lesson involving a brainstorm activity.

·      Priming. Giving some direct exposure to the content. This could be in the form of words or concepts in the learning.

·      Reviewing. Simply going over the material presented. The purpose is to continually engage neural connections to strengthen them.

·      Revising. Reconstructing what was learnt hours, days, weeks is important. It is critical to check that the recalled information is not corrupted. If a skill is recalled it can easily be refreshed or refined not simply repeated.

  1. Input Quality. There is increased pressure on teachers to teach more. “You can teach more and faster but students will forget more and faster”. Deep knowledge requires time. The brain needs rest time for processing. Cognition is a drain on the brain systems. Brain parts actually limit the amount of processing that can take place. The frontal lobes and our short-term memory can only handle 3-5 chunks of information at once. The synapse takes up to 6 hours to process new connections and if disturbed the memory is lost. Neurons require protein for long-term memory. The brain needs settling time after learning to restore ad organize. Sleep is a vital factor in the recycling of learning. The hippocampus organizes and distributes learning to various brain parts while sleeping. The process of turning electrical into chemical and back to electrical is known as consolidation and it takes time. Cramming content or moving too quickly almost guarantees little will be learnt or retained. Less is more. Too much, too fast, it won’t last. Neuroscientist, Terry Sejnowski suggests “Learn. Discuss, then take a walk.”


  1. Coherence. Research tells us that content is more likely to get our attention if it is:

·      Emotional

·      Specific

·      Novel

Content will be more meaningful if it is:

·      Related to prior knowledge.

·      Active and reflective.

·      Learnt in context.

Prior Knowledge is based in the clusters of neural networks that are very personal and highly resistant to change. The best way to teach is to understand what a student’s prior knowledge is and build on it. Mind maps are a great tool for students to give a visual representation of prior knowledge. Mental models are an individuals understanding of concepts that have been worked and reworked based on experiences, values and beliefs. Schema helps us interpret new concepts. Students need to know how to purposely and consciously create their own models. It is easy to learn something that matches our mental model but difficult to learn is it does not match.


  1. Timing. The brain and body have rhythm and patterns on a daily, monthly and seasonal. We have periods of highs and lows every day and they affect our attention, interest and learning. These fluctuations are know as ultradian rhythms, which last about 90 – 110 mins, approx. 12-16 / day. Exercise, novelty, caffeine, emergencies can alter the rhythms but in general the patterns are stable in the brain. They influence our cognition, memory, visual perception, arousal, performance, moods and behaviour. There is a change in blood flow and breathing. Hormones play a part in these rhythms and they alter how we learn. Research suggests that hormones (such as insulin, estrogen and testosterone) and peptides (such as oxytocin and vasopressin) may have a greater influence on learning than once thought.


  1. Mistakes. Trial and error learning is good for the brain. Why? 1. The brain rarely gets it right the first time and 2. Making mistakes is key to developing intelligence. Everyone needs practice at honing their skill at identifying errors because we get so much sensory data that we don’t pay attention to new material. This new content exceeds our short-term memory so we forget plus the hippocampus gets overloaded. Right-answer learning doesn’t make us smarter. Making mistakes, getting feedback and refining is what makes us smarter. Our neural networks are made more efficient by feedback-driven learning. More efficient and stronger connections make smarter learners. Why don’t some people learn from their mistakes?

·      Neural structures have been misguided, impaired, or damaged from fetal alcohol exposure, brain injury and autism.

·      Prior learning and mental models are surprisingly resistant to change.

·      There has been no processing of learning through reflection, debriefing to clarify understandings or concepts.

Too many students are conditioned to be passive learners. Active learning has feedback built in through discussion, debate or short sharing sessions. Active learning stimulates neural resources and increases attention, focus and thinking skills. Our recall is better when we are active. Prediction and the subsequent feeling from the feedback is what drives the learning process. It is not just what we think; it’s where, when, with whom and how we feel about it that matters.


7.    Emotional states. Emotions are the most important regulators of learning and memory. Intense emotion = stronger memory.

·      Negative emotions. Stress leads to secretion of glucocorticoids hormones including cortisol, which influences cognition. Cortisol (moderate levels) helps with learning but not retrieving it. Cortisol can enhance memory with emotional data. Negative emotional events affect more brain circuits. The brain deals with fear through flight/fright/freeze. The amygdalas send messages to the thalamus to release chemicals (glucocorticoids – cortisol). Neuromodulators activate at the synapse with hormones, peptides and neurotransmitters.

·      Positive Emotions. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. It plays a part in the brain reward system. Dopamine improves attention, focus and semantic memory. Females emotionally influenced memories are more detailed than males.

Can teachers influence the chemicals that strengthen students’ memory capabilities? Yes. Chemicals such as cortisol, norepinephrine and dopamine are released into the brain through risk, excitement, urgency and pleasure. Skilled teachers know how to plan and craft learning strategies that have the right balance of risk, excitement, urgency and pleasure.