As a teacher for five years, but one new to a teacher prep program, I’ve been learning a lot… quickly! It’s been great to explore a lot of different topics. One that really spoke to me was “brain based learning.” This came from watching a lot of videos on education, and one in particular on Neuroplasticity. I wish I could reference it now, but I can’t seem to remember it!
That’s neither here nor there. The whole idea of using the way our brain works in order to really get information is plain cool. Exactly what does that mean? How do we do it?
Brain Based Learning – What does it mean?
Brain based education/learning/teaching all have to do with how our brains work. It refers:
“to teaching methods, lesson designs, and school programs that are based on the latest scientific research about how the brain learns, including such factors as cognitive development—how students learn differently as they age, grow, and mature socially, emotionally, and cognitively.”(1)
This doesn’t mean focusing on the left side of the brain when you’re teaching math because it is better with logic and analysis, and it doesn’t mean, “Well, it’s time for art so everyone take out your right side of the brain, please.” It means that we acknowledge that the whole (yes, the WHOLE) brain is involved in the decision making and the learning experience,(2) and we need to figure out ways to make activities more palatable for the whole class in different ways.
Question: How do the brain processes affect learning?
Let’s look at this through an example with a few widely held beliefs in mind. First, students are most often learning visually. Second, all students learn at different paces. Third, students learn when they feel good about themselves in a safe environment.
So, let’s say a new student comes into your classroom and after a few days, they become a bit “troublesome.” They’re whining and acting out. Maybe they’re disrupting the whole class and so you assume, “That kid is a troublemaker.” Can another teacher blame you? Or better yet, does another teacher want to? Probably not. But what Dr. Glynda Lee Hoffman posed in her TEDx talk was that we’re not really addressing the whole story.(4)
She looked at those troublemakers and saw that they seemed to have adequate intelligence outside of the classroom.(4) They engaged with friends, they talked about their lives, they walked around like all of the other students and seemed fine, so there must be a different problem. What was it about those students in the classroom that seemed to make things so difficult inside the classroom?
Hoffman felt that the difficulty was the gap between the student’s ability to process concrete information and their ability to process abstract information.(4) If you’re talking about a high school student, you could be using anything from, “I hate getting out of bed,” to, “I LOVE my phone,” as concrete information, but let’s make Hoffman’s example clearer.
In her case, Hoffman used the picture of a cat to represent concrete information. If the student could see the picture of the cat, well, they knew it was a cat. But what if she put the word “c-a-t” on the screen? For some learners, those letters could just turn into squigglys, or a number of un-concrete looking structures.(4) So, she figured out a way to fix that gap.
Hoffman developed a three part test that wasn’t content based, or similar to standardized testing, to give to students that were having difficulty in class. She instead gave students “The Bender Test.”(5) The Bender Test is:
The Bender Gestalt Test, or the Bender Visual Motor Gestalt Test, is a psychological assessment instrument used to evaluate visual-motor functioning and visual perception skills in both children and adults.
The results of this test showed her that a lot of these difficult students had difficulty taking visually taking in information and then processing that information in their brain, and being able to replicate it again.(4)
This shows that the students weren’t having difficulty taking in new information necessarily, but they were possibly just having a hard time processing it and understanding exactly what it meant.
What did she do next?
Hoffman then developed a test to help these students. These tests were based on strengthening visual, auditory, and motor pathways in the brain. For example, she would give the students a picture and have them replicate the picture, giving them as much time as they needed. Once they were able to complete this task, she would give them a more complex picture to copy, and so forth.(4)
For an auditory test, she might have the students listen to a sentence and then repeat that sentence. She would then make the test more complex by adding in distractions such as walking around or other noise elements while having the student listen then repeating what she had said or a part of sentence she had said, etc.(4)
All of these tests were to help the students strengthen or build new neuro pathways that would help them make new ways to process information as it was coming in.
For example, as the auditory test gets more complex, it is better simulating the classroom environment. We all know that a little chattering happens in the classroom, whether it is scaffolding, group work, or whatever, and this test is helping the student prepare to deal with these distractions.
Hoffman completed these tests on multiple grade levels and found astounding results. She found those students’ reading scores and test scores AND behavior all began improving significantly.
Over time, she got calls from parents saying their child was doing homework without them having to stand over their shoulder and that they were reading books for fun.
Granted, these specific results are based on one person’s findings, they are pretty astounding. Please check out (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Xgzhlm4i3g) to learn more.
So now: How do we use this knowledge in the classroom?
Sounds pretty easy, right? Well, in one way it is. If you already fancy yourself as an innovative teacher, then I would guess that you’re already hitting the nail on the head in a lot of ways and yet you’re not sure how. The goal is to create a dynamic classroom that links different subjects with one another and to use pre-existing knowledge to keep building on a foundation that is already there.(3)
This doesn’t mean we have to change our strategies radically. I think this means we just have to look at what we’re doing in a new way, and introduce some new techniques or new activities into the classroom that can make learning more fun. We could even start introducing some of these tests as activities to help strengthen all of our students’ neurons. It certainly can’t hurt!
We all learn at different paces and we all learn in different ways, so as educators, we’re looking for ways we can reach all of those learners by lessons with a lot of different elements going at one time, to connect to each of our students through the best means possible.
We don’t have to throw away the textbook, but we can use it in more fun ways. For example, photocopying a page of the textbook for small groups, cutting it up, and having the students piece it together then read it together then try to understand what they’ve read together, on their own. Then make the class a discussion point about the reading. That way, each group is getting the time they need to process something and they’re getting the help of peers around them.
This also means that we have to make sure that we’re creating a fun and relaxed environment in the classroom because feeling comfortable to fail and try again is a big part of the learning process. A student needs to experiment and imagine ideas and form bridges for understanding on their own… and of course, with a little guidance.
Now I know that I am not giving examples that hit all of these points, BUT I think this a great opportunity to go out and explore on your own.
How is brain based learning being addressed around the world?
Two words: PROFESSIONAL. DEVELOPMENT. The biggest way that brain based learning strategies are entering the classroom is through conferences and additional courses for teachers to discuss ways of getting it there.
I would also say that the whole “innovative teacher” wave is linked to the brain based idea. Involving all of these different methods (i.e. singing in math class, dancing your way through English, or getting outside to learn science in a real world environment) is a part of this brain based strategy. It’s linking learning to our sensory neurons in all new ways.
What does this mean to me?
Besides thinking that the idea of Brain Based Learning is really cool, watching these studies made me think of some of my own students. Obviously, every student is different in their own way. Some are really talkative in class and love to get involved in class discussion, but they may struggle with classwork. Some really love doing a worksheet on their own but would be mortified to get called on in class! (I know that I was that kid once myself!)
I think these Brain Based strategies are a really great strategy to build different skills in all students. Building neuropathways to help with understanding of new material but also to build confidence in completing activities that at one time seemed difficult and then finally seems EASY!!
I know that I have one student that really loves to chat away. He just can’t seem to stop when someone else has something to say. Before reading into these Brian Based strategies (and of course other information), I hate to say it, but I got angry. After reading more and especially watching Hoffman’s video, I started thinking.. wait, maybe this is a different type of learner. Maybe there are activities I can do with him when there is extra time in class to help him sit through writing activities just that much longer.
I will report back with the results!
Want more info?
For more information and practical examples of how to bring brain based learning into the classroom check out Brain-Based Learning: Resource Roundup on Edutopia.org: http://www.edutopia.org/article/brain-based-learning-resources
It was a great resource for me!
(1)Hidden curriculum (2014, August 26). In S. Abbott (Ed.), The glossary of education reform. Retrieved from
(2)Amy Erin Borovoy (January 22, 2014). 7 “Facts” About the Brain That Are Not True. Retrieved from
(3)Caine, Renate Nummela et. Caine, Geoffrey (1995). Reinventing Schools Through Brain-Based Learning. Educational Leadership. April 1995 (52). Retrieved from
(4)Hoffman, G. (2012, November 17). Brain Based Learning: Glynda Lee Hoffman at TEDxChico. Retrieved November 25, 2015, Retrieved from
(5)Bender Gestalt Test. (n.d.). Retrieved November 26, 2015, from
(6)Brain-Based Learning: Resource Roundup. (2011, October 25).
Retrieved November 23, 2015, from
Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) – Brain and Learning– OECD. (n.d.). Retrieved November 24, 2015, from
Service Training. (n.d.). Retrieved November 27, 2015, from
Understanding the Brain: the Birth of a Learning Science. (2008)
(1st ed.). Retrieved from:
William, Daniel T. (2006). “Brain-Based” Learning: More Fiction Than Fact. American Educator, Fall 2006. Retrieved from