First Presenter's Institution


Second Presenter's Institution



Ballroom D

Strand #1

Academic Achievement & School Leadership

Strand #2

Social & Emotional Skills


  1. 1. RELEVANCE:

The purpose of this presentation is threefold: to advocate for brain-based teaching and learning, to offer cautions to consider before implementing this approach, and to describe brain-based strategies used successfully in the classroom. In order to improve instruction (Strand I), and in order to foster social and emotional skills and enrich the social climate for all children and youth, especially those from high-poverty populations (Strand II), it is imperative that teachers understand the structure and functions of the brain. Further, there are cautions to consider before implementing this approach.

Brief Program Description

Recent discoveries in cognitive neuroscience are presented. Cautions to consider before applying these discoveries in the classroom are also described. Strategies which reflect these ideas are offered. Target audiences for this presentation include teachers (i.e., Title 1 teachers), teacher educators, and instructional designers. Hand-outs will be given, and participants are encouraged to ask questions and dialogue with the presenter.


Recent discoveries in cognitive neuroscience cause us to question seriously the long-held tenets of the dominance of objective thinking. Scientists now know that emotion and cognition are intricately interconnected (Caine & Caine, 1997; Debiec and Altemus, 2007; Gardner, 2007; Jensen, 2005; LeDoux, 1996, 2002; McEwen, 2011; Ochsner & Phelps, 2007; Shonkoff, 2011; Sylwester, 2003, 2010; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2010). Before applying these mind/brain-based ideas to the classroom, however, educators must consider several cautions. First, not much is known regarding the workings of the brain (Grainger, 2011; Jensen, 2000; Phillips, 2005; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). Second, reports regarding neuroscientific findings are often sensational or distorted (Attwell, 2011; Goldacre, 2008; Hyatt, 2007; Watt, 2011; Willis, 2007; Wolfe, 2003). Third, “neuromyths” abound (Atherton, 2011; Bruer, 1999; Crawford, 2007; Park, 2007; Zimmerman, Christakis, & Meltzoff, 2007). Lastly, educators need to become more knowledgeable regarding the physiology of the brain, and there needs to be a merger between education research efforts and those in the field of neuroscience (Brandt, 1999; Dubin, 2002; Wolfe, 2001). In so doing, impulsive decisions are avoided and teachers are better able to determine the validity and applicability of each research effort examined (Gardner, 2007; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2010).

Further, with these ideas in mind, the purpose here is to improve academic instruction by offering developmentally appropriate, mind/brain-based practice defined by its theoretical grounding(s) and cognitive appropriateness. Consider the following strategies used successfully in the classroom:

  • whole language approach to teaching literacy
  • thematic learning---and themes must be chosen by the students
  • thematic bubbles
  • Open Mind Portraits
  • Literature Circles
  • interrelated literacy activities (e.g., metacognitive strategies)
  • portfolios, journals, analogies, metaphors, similes
  • Book Share on the Authors’ Stool or television
  • projects designed and constructed by children, usually from scraps


Brain-based learning is an exciting idea that offers hope to those of us who search to find meaning and excellence in all spheres of education—for all learners. It is an idea that honors long-established cognitive and psychological research findings, and also the recent discoveries in neuroscience (i. e., the study of the brain and nervous system) that prove the interconnectivity of the body, mind, and brain (Caine & Caine, 1997; Gardner, 2007; Jensen, 2005; LeDoux, 1996, 2002; Ochsner & Phelps, 2007; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2010). For example, neuroscientists Debiec and Altemus (2007), McEwen (2011), and Shonkoff (2011) found that environmental stressors (e.g., poverty, trauma) increase anxiety and decrease the ability to learn. In order to lower stress and improve cognition, Sylwester (2003, 2010) recommends a nurturing democratic classroom and integrated curricula which reflect the connectivity between the brain and the environment. Jensen (2008, 2010) suggests exercise, drama, and celebrations to decrease stress and increase learning. Additional ideas (which I have also used in my classroom) are learning through the arts (Goldberg, 2006), construction activities, metaphorical learning (Sylwester, 2003), memory enhancers such as graphic organizers (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010), and contextual learning experiences such as field trips that are presented as “connections” to the community.

Further, the brain-related ideas regarding communion, or dialogue and collaboration (Greene, 1988), and patterning, or the perception and creation of parts and wholes simultaneously in the brain (Caine & Caine, 1997; Dehaene, 2002), support some older and well-respected views. For example, according to John Dewey (1916), experience implies a connection between active and passive “doing,” and the curriculum is a vehicle for this experience. Dewey (1916) believed that integrative, experiential learning is more compatible with the natural inclination of the learner. This means, for example, teaching via student selected themes (Sylwester, 2003), paired and group learning (Jensen, 2005), and an integrated approach to literacy learning (Tompkins, 2010; Wolf, 2007) wherein ideas from the social sciences and neuroscience are used to focus instruction (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2010).

But Be Careful!

Brain-based learning remains clouded by many unanswered questions and widespread misinterpretation. So, before constructing a brain-based classroom, educators should consider several cautions. First, much remains to be discovered regarding the science of the brain (Granger, 2011; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). According to Jensen (2000) and Phillips (2005), much of the information offered today regarding brain-based learning has been around many years and reflects cognitive and psychological research rather than neuroscience. Further, few neuroscientific studies of children have been conducted. Much of what we know about brain development is derived from experimental studies of animals (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000, Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2010). For example, the recent discovery of mirror neurons, or those neurons throughout the brain that “mirror” the behavior of another and are responsible for feelings of empathy, resulted from experiments with monkeys (Ramachandran, 2000; Rizzolatti, Fogassi, and Gallese, 2006).

Second, educators should be careful about the claims supposedly based on brain research. Many of these may be false or misleading (Willis, 2007). For example, consider the classroom exercise program Brain Gym (Dennison & Dennison, 1994, 2010). According to neuroscientists Attwell (2011), Goldacre (2008), Hyatt (2007), and Watt (2011), children should certainly exercise often, but Brain Gym exercises are being presented with pseudoscientific assertions that contradict scientific concepts and may mislead children regarding the workings of their bodies. Also, naïve acceptance of media reports regarding possible correlation between neuroscientific findings and the classroom by the public—and more specifically by educators—can be problematic. These reports are often sensational and distorted. For example, Wolfe (2003) described a news article about a researcher at the University of Virginia who found that glucose improves cognition and recall. The participants in the study were elderly people, and those who drank glucose-sweetened lemonade understood and recalled twice as much information from a written passage as their counterparts who drank artificially-sweetened lemonade. What the article failed to mention was that no research had been conducted with children. Yet based on the report, teachers began offering candy to their students because “‘research proves that candy improves memory.’ Is it any wonder that some neuroscientists are beginning to accuse educators of engaging in pseudoscience or worse, becoming ‘snake-oil salesmen’ for products and programs that have no real scientific foundation” (p. 3)?

Third, educators need to avoid making simplistic applications of neuroscience findings (Atherton, 2011; Crawford, 2007). In doing so, the original meaning and intent are distorted. Unfortunately, “neuromyths” (Bruer, 1999) abound. Consider brain laterality, or the idea that the two hemispheres of the brain are discrete, or work differently. According to Bruer (1999) and Jensen (2000), this is a “gross oversimplification.” Each side of the brain does indeed process information differently, but concept formation involves whole brain interaction (Caine & Caine, 2006; Dehaene, 2002). Next, there is a notion of a critical period. According to this myth, there is a critical or “sensitive” period typically from birth to age 3. It is popularly believed that during this time intellectual stimulation causes increased synaptogenesis (i.e., an increase in the number of synapses that connect neurons in the brain) and thus increases learning capacity. Witness the commercial boom in so-called enriching products and environments for infants (e. g, listening to Mozart, yoga classes, infant learning centers). Neuroscientists have not found any evidence to support these claims (Jensen, 2000; Willis, 2007). In fact, according to Park (2007) and Wolfe (2006), the widely popular “Baby Einstein” and “Brainy Baby” video series, and the use of workbooks and “educational” computer games are inappropriate. These materials may actually delay language growth and deprive children of the natural interaction with their world which is so important to development. This finding is controversial given the popularity of these materials, yet should be heeded by parents and educators alike, especially since the American Academy of Pediatrics has advised against screen time for children under age 2 (Zimmerman, Christakis, & Meltzoff, 2007). Further, according to Baars & Gage (2010), neurobiologist Goldman-Rakic (1997), and the Society for Neuroscience (2011), lifelong learning does occur. During adolescence, for example, the prefrontal cortex (the center of reasoning and impulse) is still “a work in progress” (PBS, 2007, para.1), and synaptogenesis occurs throughout life. Another “neuromyth” involves the mistaken belief that stimulating environments for babies will preserve synapses and reduce the natural pruning that occurs in the brain. There is no neuroscientific evidence to support this claim (Bruer, 1999). Lastly, according to the Society for Neuroscience (2009), the following “myths” regarding the brain persist: (1) Myth: We use no more than ten percent of our brains. Fact: We use all of our brains. (2) Myth: Vaccines cause autism. Fact: Vaccines do not cause autism, and to date, scientists have not identified causes for this disorder. (3) Myth: Brain damage is permanent. Fact: In many cases, neural plasticity allows the brain to create neural connections.

Fourth, educators are often guilty of what I like to call “bandwagonitis,” in this case, climbing impulsively in lemming-like fashion on to the brain-based “wagon.” Lack of a thorough knowledge of the brain-based approach (or any approach for that matter) before implementation leads to gross misapplication and hence developmentally inappropriate classroom practices. Before implementing brain-based learning in their classrooms, educators need to understand brain physiology (Brandt, 1999; Dubin, 2002; Wolfe, 2001). They need to peruse the literature in order to determine the validity of each research effort examined. Lastly, they need to merge then synthesize education and neuroscience research efforts in order to judge their applicability to their classrooms (Gardner, 2007; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2010 ).


Individual Presentation

Biographical Sketch

Linda Ann McCall received her Ed.D in Curriculum Studies with an emphasis in Instructional Improvement from Georgia Southern University. She has taught for over thirty-five years, fifteen in private education, and eighteen in public education. She now serves as Associate Professor in the College of Education at Armstrong State University. Her publications include “Cooperative Learning: Are Teachers Practicing What We Preach?” GATEways to Teacher Education, Vol 15, No. 1; “Realizing a Vision: Implementing an Effective Teacher Preparation Assessment System,” GATEways to Teacher Education, Vol. 5, No.2; and “Brain-based Teaching and Learning in Today’s Diverse Classrooms: A Perfect Fit----But Be Careful!, DKG Bulletin, Vol. 78, No. 3. She has received numerous awards for her thematic integrated approaches to teaching and learning (e.g., USA Today National Team-teaching Award, 2000; Teacher of the Year, 1995). Her primary interests are critical thinking/praxis and pedagogical reform, especially in the areas of curriculum, technology, and the structure of schooling itself.

Keyword Descriptors

brain-based pedagogy, cautions, strategies

Presentation Year


Start Date

3-9-2016 9:45 AM

End Date

3-9-2016 11:00 AM


Mar 9th, 9:45 AM Mar 9th, 11:00 AM

Brain-based Teaching and Learning in Today's Diverse Classrooms: A Perfect Fit...But Be Careful!

Ballroom D

Recent discoveries in cognitive neuroscience are presented. Cautions to consider before applying these discoveries in the classroom are also described. Strategies which reflect these ideas are offered. Target audiences for this presentation include teachers (i.e., Title 1 teachers), teacher educators, and instructional designers. Hand-outs will be given, and participants are encouraged to ask questions and dialogue with the presenter.