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Engaging students with brain-based learning.

"LEARNING IS INNATELY LINKED TO THE BIOLOGICAL AND CHEMICAL FORCES that control the human brain" (Hileman, 2006, p. 18). Although few people would argue with this statement, the educational and science communities have sometimes overlooked the role of the brain in the learning process. The connection has received increased attention in recent years because scientists are now better equipped to study the brain. With this new knowledge, we are learning that traditional approaches to career and technical education (CTE) have been successful because they make use of the brain's natural learning tendencies. More importantly, though, research on brain-based learning is offering practical ideas for enhancing learning even more, thus ensuring future success.



The roots of brain-based learning principles are in neurological research, particularly during the 1990s. In fact, the 1990s was themed "the decade of the brain" (Bush, 1990; Roberts, 2002; Sousa, 2001). The decade included increased media attention toward brain research, including a Newsweek cover story entitled 'Your Child's Brain," and a Time magazine special report, "How a Child's Brain Develops" (Isaacson, 1997).

The publicity for brain research in the 1990s promoted increased emphasis on questions about how the brain learns. LeDoux (1994) found relationships between emotions, memory and the brain. Other researchers (Eden et at, 1996) reported that children learning to read require activation of both the auditory and visual areas of their brains to create meaning. Another study found that the brain stores real-life experiences differently than it does a fabricated story (Schacter, 1996). These findings and others have slowly prompted changes in teaching methods.

During the "decade of the brain," Caine and Caine (1997) worked with schools to apply brain-based learning principles and to "change educators' mental models of teaching and learning" (p. 240). After four years of work with two schools, they reported moderate success in helping teachers move from an information delivery approach to a more learner-centered approach. Based on efforts to progress the two schools toward higher-level learning, Caine and Caine surmised that "results can be influenced but not guaranteed" (p. 244).

As 21st century brain research further develops, additional findings with relevance for teaching and learning continue to amass. Meanwhile, experts on brain-based learning are promoting the use of research by teachers in the field (Sousa, 2001). Many outstanding teachers frequently conduct research on aspects of brain-based learning. They may not recognize it as "research," but the desire to find better techniques for reaching learners causes them to "test" new approaches. Their findings need to be shared.

Brain-based learning does have strong connections and roots in CTE. Some of the early research focused on accelerated learning. Birkholz (2004) defined accelerated learning as "an educational delivery method and philosophy utilizing brain research to design optimal learning opportunities" (p. 1). In 1977, Walters compared the effects of accelerated learning among ninth-grade agriculture students. The instructor taught a control group using traditional methods of lecture and class time. Meanwhile, an experimental group met less than half of the traditional time, but was actively engaged in class participation. Post-tests in agribusiness achievement supported the efficiency of the experimental methods, finding no significant difference between scores of the two groups.

The field of brain-based learning encourages educators to capitalize on the associations the brain must make to create synaptic connections and anchor learning through contextual experience. Chipongian (2008) distinguished brain-based learning from conventional learning by making the argument that "there is a difference between 'brain-compatible' education, and 'brain-antagonistic' teaching practices and methods which can actually prevent learning" (p. 1). As a result, educators should focus on devising "practical teaching methods that will complement the brain's natural development" (Gura, 2005, p. 1156).


Meaningful learning occurs when faculty transition from a teacher-centered environment to one that is learner-centered (Thompson, Jungst, Colletti, Licklider, and Benna, 2003). To become learner-centered, educators must develop students' understanding of course content by enriching the classroom environment to include physical, emotional and social aspects, while adjusting the focal point of the classroom from teaching to learning.

Brain-based learning is concerned with creating powerful learning environments based upon emotional connections (Bryan Haines, personal communication, May 21, 2008). In CTE, opportunities often present themselves for students to "experience" their education. This is accomplished not only through class activities but also through participation in related youth organizations and experiential educational projects associated with being a member of a CTE program. These opportunities allow students to find relevance and meaning in what they are learning.

Students experience both positive and negative emotions when discovering new knowledge for the first time. Teachers need to promote positive experiences and emotions for their students because negative emotions lead to a sense of student downshifting (Hart, 1983). Downshifting results in the "flight or fight" syndrome and reduces students' abilities to learn at optimal levels (Haines, 2007). Such downshifting can occur in response to the instructor, academic content being taught, various coping strategies of students (i.e., social networks, stereotypes of classmates), and physical and emotional environments created within the confinements of the classroom (Haines, 2007).

For example, downshifting can arise, at varying degrees, if students are made to respond to or participate in ways in which they do not feel comfortable, or are required to work with individuals with whom they do not relate. Therefore, it becomes imperative for the teacher to work hard at creating positive learning environments conducive to student achievement and to build relationships with students before pushing them outside their comfort zones. By creating lasting emotional connections for students, teachers can also assist in implementing brain-based learning strategies by attending to the following:

* Creating certain patterns, contexts and relevance for the content being taught (Kitchel and Torres, 2006);

* Chunking information into sizeable and understandable units (Roberts, 2007);

* Allowing students to be active participants in the learning experiences through service and other experiential learning activities;

* Recognizing and accounting for all students' preferred learning styles in and outside the classroom;

* Implementing variability in one's teaching style (Rosenshine and Furst, 1971); and

* Moving from teacher-centered instruction to student-centered instruction (Thompson, Jungst, Colletti, Licklider, and Benna, 2003).

Another approach to facilitate brain-based learning and a learner-centered environment is to engage in techniques for accelerated learning. The International Alliance for Learning (2004) identified 10 elements of accelerated learning; 1) knowledge about the human brain, 2) emotional state, 3) the learning environment, 4) the role of music and the arts, 5) personal motivation, 6) multiple intelligences and learning styles, 7) imagination/metaphors, 8) suggestion, 9) team learning and cooperation, and 10) improvement and results. Many of these strategies are reflected in the B.R.A.I.N. B.A.S.E.D. teaching tips offered by Hileman (2006) (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Hileman's (2006) B.R.A.I.N. B.A.S.E.D. leaching strategies

Brain's Time Clock--Keep rhythm by alternating spatial and verbal tasks.

Repetition--Use previewing and reviewing strategies.

Active Learning--Increase blood flow with physical movement.

Images--Enrich the visual learning environment.

Novelty--Stimulate the brain with new approaches.

Be Colorful--Facilitate retention and motivation by color-coding.

Automatic Learning--Recognize the influence of nonverbal communication.

Social Brain--Exploit opportunities for cooperative learning.

Elicit Emotions--Create opportunities for emotional engagement.

Developing Thinking Skills--Engage learners in problem-solving.

Caine and Caine (1991) have pointed out that "brain research establishes and confirms that multiple complex and concrete experiences are essential for meaningful learning and teaching" (p. 5). Based on their research and experience, Caine and others (2005) argued that great teaching involves three fundamental elements:

Relaxed alertness: Creating the optimal emotional climate for learning;

Orchestrated immersion in complex experience: Creating optimal opportunities for learning; and

Active processing of experience: Creating optimal ways to consolidate learning (p. 4-6).

In 1991, Caine and Caine summarized the theoretical foundations of brain-based learning into a set of 12 Brain/Mind Learning Principles. These principles are highlighted in Figure 2 and further operationalized in Figure 3.



In an effort to promote the brain-based learning element of relaxed alertness, teachers must consider the emotional climate of the learning situation. Circumstances outside of the classroom can have significant influences on the emotional climate. For example, problems with a student's home life can create an added emotional burden for the student and become a barrier to relaxed alertness. However, successful teachers are often able to create a positive emotional climate, in spite of negative influences outside their control. For an example, watch the movie Freedom Writers (Swank et at, 2007). The movie is about Erin Gruwell's first teaching assignment--a group of students dubbed by the administration as "unteachable, at-risk" teenagers. She was able to accomplish success in the classroom because she made emotional connections with the students, created a safe learning environment, and engaged their innate search for meaning.


Brain-based instruction is characterized by immersion in complex experience, Much of the traditional curricula for CTE is founded in this element of brain-based learning. The hands-on learning of laboratory experience is an effort to engage the physiology in the learning process. When students perform a task, their brains retain information about the task in much more detail and for a longer period than if they just answer questions about the subject. This is the principle behind the saying, "you never forget how to ride a bike." When a laboratory is not available or is not sufficient for the subject matter, teachers are able to immerse their students in complex experience through the use of fieldtrips and internship-type experiences.

Immersion in complex experience naturally leads to some processing, but the processing is improved through appropriate facilitation. Giving learners the opportunity to work in a laboratory setting or attend a fieldtrip is not enough; they must actively process that experience and connect it to the larger learning objectives. The teacher's role as facilitator of learning is to engage the students in conscious and unconscious processing. Students should be given the opportunity to reflect on their experience, draw connections to key concepts, and share their conclusions with others.

The teacher should prompt discussion through pointed questions, encouraging consolidation of the learning. The discussion among the learners will allow them to learn from one another and better recognize the uniqueness of their experiences. This in turn will encourage the brain to place a higher priority on the experience, offering better recognition and recall of the learning.


Most would argue that the multifaceted experiences of CTE stimulate a student's brain. Indeed, we have seen our best teachers model the fundamental elements of the brain/mind learning principles: 1) relaxed alertness, 2) orchestrated immersion in complex experience, and 3) active processing of experience. The challenge is to develop these skills further through practice, to promote continued use of brain-based learning principles within the profession, and to report on any research that expands our understanding of the brain's natural learning tendencies.


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Caine, R. N., &. Caine, G. (1997). Education on me Edge of Possibility. Alexandria, Virginia. ASCD.

Caine, R. N., Caine, G., McClintic, C., & Klimek, K. (2005). 12 Brain/Mind learning Principles in Action: The Fieldbook for Mating Connections, Tearing, and the Human Brain. Thousand Oaks, California. Corwin Press.

Chipongian, L (2008). "What is Brain-based Learning?" Retrieved 5/21/08 from

Eden, G., van Meter, J., Rumsey, J., Maisog. J., Woods, R., Ziffird, T (1996). "Abnormal Processing of Visual Motion Insyslexia Revealed by Functional Brain Imaging." Nature, 382. 66-69.

Gura, T. (2005). "Educational Research: Big Plans for Little Brains." Nature, 435, 1156-1158.

Haines, B. J. (2007). "The Dilemma of Student Downshifting: Agricultural Science Programs." Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Purdue University, West Lafoyette, Indiana.

Hart, L. A. (1983). Human Brain and Human Learning. Village of Oak Creek, Arizon, Books for Educators.

Hileman, S. (2006). "Motivating Students Using Brain-based Teaching Strategies." The Agricultural Education magazine, 78(4), 18-20.

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Isaacson, W., (Ed.). (1997, February 3). "How a Child's Brain Develops: And What it Means for Child Care and Welfare Reform." Time magazine. 149

Kitchel, T. & Torres, R M. (2006). "Meaning as a Factor of Increasing Retention." Proceedings of. 2005 American Association far Agricultural Education National Research Coherence, San Antonio, Texas.

LeDoux, J. E. (1994). "Emotion, Memory and the Brain." Science American, 270(6), 50.

Roberts, J. W. (2007). A Handbook: Teaching of the University of Manitoba, University of Teaching Services.

Roberts, I. W. (2002). "Beyond Learning by Doing: The Brain Compatible Approach." Journal of Experiential Education, 25(2), 281-285.

Rosenshine, B., & Furs N. (1971). Research on Teacher Performance Criteria. In B. O. Smith (ed.). Research in Teaching Education. Englewood Ciiffs, New Jersey. Prentice Hall

Schocler, D. L. (1996). Searching For Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Post. New York, New York. BasicBooks.

Sousa, D.A. (2001). How the Brain Learns: A Classroom teacher's Guide (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks. California. Corwin Press.

Swank, H., Durning, T, Morales, N., & Levine, D. (Producers), & LaGravenese, R. (Director). (2007). freedom Writers [Motion picture]. United States. Paramount Pictures.

Thompson, J., Jungst, S., Colletti, J., Licklider, B, & Benna, J. (2003). "Experiences in Developing o Learning-centered Natural Resources Curriculum." Journal of Natural Resource and Life Science Education, 32, 23-31.

Walters, R. G. (1977). "An Experimental Evoluation of Suggestive. Vocational Agriculture." The Journal of the Society for Accelerative Learning and Teaching, 2(1 & 2), 36-62.

Eric K. Kaufman is an assistant professor at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg. He can be contacted at Ekaufman@VT.Edu.

J. Share Robinson is an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater. He can be contacted at Shane.Robinson@OKState.Edu.

Kimberly A. Bellah is on assistant professor at Taleton State University, Stephenville, Texas. She can be contacted at Bellah@Tarleton.Edu.

Cindy Akers is an associate professor at Texas Tech, Lubbock. She can be contacted at Cindy.Akers@TTU.Edu.

Penny Haase-Wittler is an assistant professor at Southern Arkansas State University, Magnolia. She can be contacted at PSHaaseWit@SAUmag.Edu.

Lynn Martindale is a lecturer at University of California, Davis. She can be contacted at LMartindale@UCDavis.Edu.
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Title Annotation:Research report
Author:Kaufman, Eric K.; Robinson, J. Shane; Bellah, Kimberly A.; Akers, Cindy; Haase-Wittler, Penny; Marti
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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