Brain Compatible Learning: How Does the Process Work?

Brain Compatible Learning: How Does the Process Work?
Given the right amount and type of input and experience, the human brain makes sense of the world by extracting meaning from the surrounding chaos, as Leslie Hart explained. We may need to rethink what confusion is. Does complexity have merit? According to Hart, we need lots of raw material or input for the brain to extract patterns. All of us experienced confusion in a progress with a new learning tasks when suddenly bits of understanding appear. With this emergence, meaning materializes, often leading to a thrill of accomplishment. The secret lies in the following combination:

1. An abundance of input (information) to the brain along with opportunities to test skills through trial and error. Personal “theories” result from the input, and we then observe the correctness of the idea.

2. Life experiences develop “programs” in the brain for further use, such as developing relationships or using critical thinking in addition to more physical ones like using a spoon. The more we see, hear, touch, smell, and manipulate, the more patterns (understandings) and programs (skills) we create. The experiences need to be novel, stimulating, puzzling, and engaging—not necessarily all, but at least some of these.

3. Supportive environments and the absence of fear foster brain growth. Harmful conditions that many students experience in school and elsewhere create anxiety.

“Any form of grading that shames the less able or less mature child is unfair and discouraging and takes away a sense of security.” (Carleton Washburne)


Feedback sharpens understanding and skills. All need feedback to know how we are doing. Even elite athletes have coaches. Feedback is the “breakfast of champions. Helpful suggestions given as friendly remarks result in improvement, a condition compatible with the brain.

A dramatic event illustrating these factors occurred when Ghana, West Africa, was in the direct path of a total solar eclipse while Jennings Community School students were on a field trip there. The teacher explained what an eclipse was. The students weren’t impressed until they were given dark glasses and watched as the sun disappear, and it became dark. They were astonished and wanted to know why it happened and when it would happen again so that they could be ready and inform their parents and others to watch. The actual solar eclipse with its explanation will be remembered for a lifetime. Learning is a result of experience. The wider and more complex the experience, the deeper and more intense the learning. The thrill of experience widens in direct relationship to the frequency of contact, its complexity, and the increase in variety.

To learn, the brain requires a profusion of opportunities to “play” with materials and encounter events. The saying “Play is a child’s work” rings true. Play is a critical component of learning at any age. Play can consist of role-playing, simulation, conversation, the arts, stories, and just mulling ideas. Ideally, kindergarten features free play, a valuable approach to learning. Movements to reduce play in kindergarten for more academic instruction, while seemingly necessary, damage the growing brain and impede desired learning.

Teaching basic material in school—reading, writing, arithmetic—is simple if we give up the idea that we teach subjects at a certain grade level at a certain time. Students want to learn to read, write, compute, and learn about science and history as a way of understanding and coping with the world. Coping efficiently is one of the brain’s major motivations. Most of the academic material can be taught easily if we are wise about the implications of brain-based learning. When we aren’t, we force the brain before it is ready or experiences a clear need.
An array of stimulating experiences by schools can stretch thinking, skills, and mental excitement. Teachers want to give their students stimulating experiences but are hampered by large classes, test-score emphasis, standardized curriculum, weak training programs, lack of support from the district, weak school leadership for innovation, and most of all, organizing students in age-based groups that ignore personal interests and questions.

Schools disregard different types of intelligence (mathematical, linguistic, artistic, intrapersonal, etc.) and different learning styles. Rita and Kenneth Dunn describe some twenty-plus personal preferences for maximum learning. They include environmental factors such as light, temperature, and sound, and continue with emotional, sociological, physical, and psychological preferences.
For example, some people prefer music in the background while studying; others prefer silence. Some prefer working with another person, while others prefer working alone. Some like sitting in a firm chair; others sit on a soft sofa, others sprawl on the floor. Such factors limit learning in one-size-fits-all programs. Conventional schools as presently constituted are ill-suited to manage such variations. Few schools recognize these differences, and fewer apply them.

As if different intelligences and learning styles were not enough of a challenge for schools, a student’s perception of being disliked can completely derail learning. The book I Won’t Learn from You by Herb Kohl describes students who simply turn off because they sense, rightly or wrongly, that their teachers or the school in its entirety dislike them. The reason for the perception might be racism or sexism, as well as such factors as disabilities, clothing, poverty, slow-learning patterns, and disregard for their interests. People, especially children, must perceive emotional acceptance (even love) from others for maximum learning, as in the saying, “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Every student must be treated with positive, unconditional regard to avoid activating the brain’s fight-or-flight mechanism. Each student must be prized and honored. While this may be common sense, research has verified that when teachers know their students and find ways to engage them behaviorally, emotionally, and cognitively, achievement increases. A positive school climate, where students feel safe, experience constructive relationships, are engaged, and find adequate resources, validate positive youth development.

Excerpted from School Transformation by Wayne Jennings