Week 8: What is brain-based learning and how can it inform differentiation?


(Image from http://www.chessat3.com/ )

As an educator for more than twenty years, it is always astonishing to encounter things you never gave a second thought to, and brain-based learning is one of them.  The physical brain, and how it operates is still one of the mysteries of human kind, but there has been great research into how it learns, and the ways we can use our sometimes over-reactive brain in effective learning.  It is not surprising to find out that our instinctive brain has only six “hardwired emotions… joy, anger, surprise, disgust, sadness, and fear.” (Jensen, 2009)  I have never pondered this and it is a great piece of knowledge to utilize when we deal with students, parents, or anyone we socialize with.  If we can capitalize on some of these emotions in learning, we can be a step ahead of the game.

Edutopia has created a great pamphlet describing six tips that will help in brain-based learning.  (2011)

  1. Create a Safe Climate for Learning
  2. Encourage a Growth Mind-set
  3. Emphasize Feedback
  4. Get Bodies and Brains in Gear
  5. Start Early
  6. Embrace the Power of Novelty

Each of these tips provide teachers with the necessary ammunition, so to speak, to be more effective in the class.  It is not surprising that creating a safe climate for learning is the first tip, and it is paramount in the classroom.  It addresses our basic emotion of fear.  The amygdala is an amazing piece of “hardware” in our brain, and it drives how we react in the world, fight or flight.  We can’t learn in an environment of fear.  We need to make our class welcoming and safe.  The tip that resonated with me was embracing the power of novelty.  It is in our basic nature to be curious.  If we introduce elements in our class that spark student’s curiosity, then we have them hooked.  Not that I do this on a regular basis, but it is a powerful way to get attention in the class!  I remember watching a video of a teacher describing how you can walk backwards in front of a class to get kids wondering what you are doing, when in fact you are going to present a lesson on negative numbers.  Its the simple things that can get them curious.  I wish I could be that clever!

Jensen describes in detail seven factors in the learning process that is derived from how our brain functions more than anything else (2001).  They are

  • Engagement (goal-oriented attention and action).
  • Repetition (priming, reviewing, and revising).
  • Input quantity (capacity, flow, chunk size).
  • Coherence (models, relevance, prior knowledge).
  • Timing (time of day, interval learning).
  • Error correction (mistakes, feedback, support).
  • Emotional states (safety, state of dependency)

The last thing I wanted to share, that is related to some of the components/aspects of brain-based learning, is the idea of introducing chess to students at every grade level.  Chess, I believe, is one of the most challenging, interesting, problem-solving, strategic games of all time.  There is a reason it has been popular for over a thousand years.  Bart (2014) has compiled existing research that verifies that chess can improve scholastic achievement.  There are organizations such as First Move Chess (2017) that encourage schools and teachers to teach chess.  They have curriculum and materials available to use in the class, and teachers do not need to know how to play.  Other organizations such as Chessity encourage chess play through practice, tutorials, and competition.  They require some fee to access their entire website, but it is a great resource.  All one needs is a chess board with required pieces, but there are many free game apps that allow you to play chess on your computer/laptop/mobile device in electronic form.  In fact, one of my favorite games for GameBoy was ChessMaster.  I would spend hours playing.  It was almost as great as Tetris!

All this information can be used to inform differentiation.  Knowledge of how the brain works is a powerful skill set and we can begin to make our classes more effective to reach a wider population of students.


Bart, William M. (2014). On the effect of chess training on scholastic achievement. Frontiers in Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4126200/

First Move Chess. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.af4c.org/

Jensen, E. (2005). Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, Va: Assoc. for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Jensen, E. (2009). Teaching with Poverty in Mind : What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It. Alexandria, Va: ASCD.

Unknown Author. (2011). Six Tips for Brain-Based Learning. Edutopia [PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/brain-based-learning-strategies-resource-guide


3 thoughts on “Week 8: What is brain-based learning and how can it inform differentiation?

  1. I had also never really looked in to brain based learning. It was interesting to think about. I already practice a lot of things about brain based learning, but I am not really good at staying up to date on the newest brain research. It was interesting that you brought up chest. I just watched a documentary last night about Magnus Carlson from Norway. It was about his start in chess, how he sees things, and becoming the World Chess Champion.


  2. Gerald,
    I agree that the physical brain is a great mystery and how unique it can be from one person to the next. You can see the uniqueness in the different ways your students play chess. I love that you are using this strategic game with your students. The problem solving challenges that the classic game produces is a great brain-based learning activity for DI.



  3. I think you make a great point when you mention we should capitalize on both brain science and understanding our students’ emotions to create optimal learning environments. This is particularly true in your decision to incorporate novelty into your course. Novelty in learning can be a phenomenal tool for learning. Our brains, while capable of engaging with, processing, and retaining a substantial amount of information, grow bored with routine (Desautels, 2016). By incorporating novelty into your course, you engage in a practice that will, essentially, provide a “brain break” for your students. Although you expressed that you “wished you could be that clever,” I would say that it takes very little planning to introduce novelty into your course. Walking backwards is a small step (pun intended) towards incorporating novelty in your course. Further, you could work with other math teachers in your school to brainstorm techniques or strategies to increase novelty across the curriculum.

    Finally, I love your starting comment. It’s amazing how sometimes it takes an assignment or a conversation with a peer to consider how the pieces of knowledge we already have interrelate. Although I had taken a cognitive science before (although not with learning as the focus) and am learning more about differentiation in the course, thinking about how the two can inform each other adds a whole new dimension to that knowledge.

    Desautels, L. (2016, February 23). Energy and calm: Change it up and calm it down. Edutopia. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/energy-calm-change-it-up-lori-desautels


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