10 Dangerous Myths Every Educator Should Know About The Brain

brain based learning myths


If you think kids can’t get better in school, then you think brains have minimal capacity for change. But they are actually changing ALL the time.

If a child spends the summer relaxing, watching television or wandering in a mall, your child is likely to experience some brain atrophy. Remember, the brain responds to environmental input. If the child’s brain hears fewer words, less complex ones, and does little challenging learning, some of the brain’s dendrites may weaker and become thinner. One way to measure if summer causes big lags in the brain is examine how the brain is working in key areas related to school, then do this over time periods that should reflect the influence of classroom teaching.

In this study, the 4 domains of Language, Spatial Operations, Concepts, and Associative Memory were measured. Four groups of children drawn from the same population were tested in October of kindergarten, April of kindergarten, October of first grade, and April of first grade. These time points are 6 months apart, but they span periods that differ in amount of school input children receive. Much greater growth was found over time periods with greater amounts of school input (October to April) than over time periods with less school input (April to October) for Language, Spatial Operations, and Concepts, but not for Associative Memory (Huttenlocher, et al. 1998).

What the research tells us is that generally, yes, summer does slow the kid’s cognitive processes that relate to language acquisition. But remember the brain’s quite complex and it may be that other processes that deal with spatial, perceptual-motor and gross motor are being enhanced. It all comes back to what type of summer the parents organize for their kids.

Huttenlocher J, Levine S, Vevea J. (1998) Environmental input and cognitive growth: a study using time- period comparisons. Child Dev. 1998 Aug;69(4):1012-29.

The alternatives to the summer brain drain area: 1) year round school so that children rarely have more then three weeks off at a time. 2) educate parents about the summer loss so they’ll be able to plan ahead for summer better 3) offer quality summer programs at your school 4) role model to kids the passion of lifelong learning and about the joys of learning new things even during the summer!


The brain is designed to learn and most students love to learn; it’s just school they don’t like. But how can you get them excited and motivated?

Motivation is about learning to engage one or more of the three motivating “engines” in our brain. The first is goals or what the student really wants that represents his or her values. This is known as the “value vector.” If I care about skateboarding, I might be very motivated to read skateboard magazines.

The second is the engagement of emotions. Two of the Jensen Learning workshops (both the 6 and 5-day) show you exactly how to engage emotions successfully every time. An example is the emotion of hope; more of it can be very motivating. We often need to “feel like” doing things. The third strategy is asset building. It’s tough to be motivated when you don’t think you can do it or don’t have the skills. Teachers who are autonomy supportive (in contrast to being highly controlling) mobilize in their student’s greater intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and desire for challenge (Amabile, 1996). Students taught with a more controlling approach not only lose initiative but also learn less effectively, especially when learning requires conceptual, creative. Similarly, studies showed that autonomy- supportive parents, relative to controlling parents, have children who are more intrinsically motivated (Grolnick, Deci, & Ryan, 1997).

In the short run, simple incentives can work for most students. But over time, their effects diminish. Never reward for a behavior that would have been occurred anyway. Use random, unpredictable rewards. Use rewards of privilege, status, position such as optimal classroom jobs, more points or more access to fun opportunities. Any rewarded behaviors should be very carefully planned, done for short periods, varied often and kept light. Nothing wrong with an occasional M&M, but that’s about it.

Amabile, T. (1996). Creativity in context. New York: Westview Press
Grolnick, W., Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (1997). Internalization within the family. In J.E.  Grusec & L. Kuczynski (Eds.), Parenting and children’s internalization of values: A handbook of contemporary theory. New York: Wiley.
Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 25, 627–668.


Starve the brain of oxygen and we pass out, then die. Starve the brain of glucose and we go… well, we get dull. The Cognitive Research Unit in England found that the act of chewing gum (with real sugar in it) actually improves short- and long-term memory by up to 35 percent. The study (Scholey 2000) tested a group of seventy- five individuals split into three groups—actual chewers, pretend chewers, and non-chewers (the control). Subjects were tested for short-term memory after the two chewing groups spent three minutes chewing their real or imaginary gum. The heart rate of the actual chewers was measured to be three beats faster per minute than the non-chewers, and 1.5 beats per minute faster than the pretend chewers.

I think that this increase in heart rate may improve both the delivery of oxygen and glucose to the brain enough to improve cognitive function. The gum’s got to be NOT a sugar free type to be most effective. But there’s more; Japanese scientists found that chewing stimulated signals in the learning center of the brain (Onozuka 1999). They found that the jaw movements increased signals in the hippocampus the area of the brain—an area that stores information before moving on to long-term memory or purging. Even better than only a glass of water, add chewing on a jawbreaker, hard candy or gummy bears give the glucose boost for the brain.

Many schools are trying to ban all sweets, thinking they are doing kids a favor. It’s another case of the misguided policy police mucking up our school kids. The brain runs on glucose! Do what you can to inform parents and try to get glucose available for your kids. By the way, excess sugar IS BAD for learning and memory and moderate glucose is good for it (Krebs and apparent 2005).

Krebs DL, Parent MB. (2005) The enhancing effects of hippocampal infusions of glucose are not restricted to spatial working memory.
Neurobiol Learn Mem. Mar;83(2):168-72.
Scholey AB, Harper S and Kennedy DO. (2001) Cognitive demand and blood glucose. Physiol Behav. Jul;73(4):585-92.
Onozuka, Minoru; N. Karasawa; Y. Yamawaki, et al. 1999. Age-associated changes in the dopamine synthesis as determined by GTP cyclohydrolase I inhibitor in the brain of senescence-accelerated  mouse- prone inbred strains (SAMP8). Neuroscience Research. 35 (1): 31-6.


A mother sees her son under the back wheel of a car and her adrenaline kicks in. She lifts up the back part of the car with superhuman strength and saves her son. The “why” was strong enough to get the brain mobilized to act. Emotions drive our attention, our attention drives our participation, and our participation drives our goal reaching and personal meaning. Our emotional brain will process and integrate more deeply that which keeps our attention on. The “why” is the emotional connection necessary to reach the “what” of our goals. Next time you do a goal-setting activity, remember what supports the reaching of the goals, too. It’s the reasons behind the goal, the emotional hook that will actually drive the goal-getting behaviors (Burke et al., 2008).

Research suggests that when we are planning a course of action or setting goals, our brain responds more positively when we commit our objectives to paper. Research by Susan Miller (1997) indicates that the principle behind writing down our goals is the same as the one behind taking notes rather than relying on our memory. Not only does it make the goal concrete, it also tends to make us more personally committed to our objectives, and adds memory muscle to those items, she reports. When kids write down their goals, that’s good. When they write down “why” they want to reach those goals, it’s even better!

Miller further suggests that writing down goals, drawing them, and keeping them constantly in front of us forms a strong bond in the brain between the occipital lobe (which controls sight), the hippocampus (memory), and the frontal lobe (planning and decision-making), helping the subconscious mind begin working toward their attainment. We all know from our personal lives that something written down is much easier to visualize and review, and written goals can help us better to set priorities and get organized.

Burke KA, Franz TM, Miller DN, Schoenbaum G. (2008) The role of the orbitofrontal cortex in the pursuit of happiness and more specific rewards. Nature. Jul 17;454(7202):340-4.
Miller, Susan. 1997. Implementing strategic decisions: Four key success factors. Organization Studies; 18(4): 577-602.


Actually some feedback is good for the brain and other types are NOT GOOD. There are countless ways to organize and label the types of feedback. One of the more common ones is whether the feedback you give is local (specific to a small restricted focus) or global (generalized to the whole). In addition, we could give feedback specific to the person: “Here’s what you did wrong (or right).” Or, you could give feedback oriented to the task: “The AB function has to end up on the right side of the equation.”

Local vs. global
Person vs. task
Positive vs. negative
Immediate vs. delayed

As you might be able to guess from this model, local negative “task” feedback was most effective (“Be sure to capitalize all the country names.”) and global, negative, personal feedback (“You’ll never succeed!”) was least effective. Positive feedback fell in the middle. Feedback is much less effective when it draws attention to general performance, or a global orientation. However, it is most effective when it draws attention to the task itself, not the person doing it (Kluger & DeNisi, 1998). Why might negative feedback be better than positive in most cases? With positive feedback, the student only gets a “stroke” when the success or learning has already occurred. No correction is necessary so it does not improve future learning.

With negative feedback, you get it before the moment of success, so the “experience” of failure is locked in for future reference. As you might guess, the ones with the most immediate feedback did better (Peeck et al.1985). In short, you are getting smarter, not memorizing a fact for a test. Be sure all those around you know that all positive feedback is not good for the learner’s brain. A mixture is best. Put up a post-it or a flip chart in your teaching or training area to remind you. Or, teach this: the best way to learn something well is to… that’s right, teach it to another.

Kluger, A., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: a historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119(2), 254-284.
Peeck, J., van den Bosch, A. B., & Kreupeling, W. J. (1985, Oct.) Effects of informative feedback in relation to retention of initial responses. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 10(4):303-13.


According to research, chocolate candy bars, when consumed in moderate amounts, can enhance our mood and receptiveness to learning, (White, 1998 and Steelman, 1996). Chocolate may also act as a mood elevator (Wurtman, 1986). The sugar and fat in chocolate (the average candy bar is almost 10 percent protein and more than 30 percent fat) may trigger endorphins, or “feel good” brain chemicals,

“Chocolate contains many substances that act as stimulants, such as theobromine, phenethylamine, and caffeine,” Dr. Bryan Raudenbush from Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia.

To study the effects of various chocolate types on brainpower, Raudenbush and colleagues had a group of volunteers consume, on four separate occasions, 85 grams of milk chocolate; 85 grams of dark chocolate; 85 grams of carob; and nothing (the control condition).

After a 15-minute digestive period, participants completed a variety of computer-based neuropsychological tests designed to assess cognitive performance including memory, attention span, reaction time, and problem solving. The overall composite scores for verbal and visual memory were significantly higher for milk chocolate than the other experimental subject conditions, Raudenbush told Reuters. And consumption of milk and dark chocolate was associated with improved impulse control and reaction time.

These compounds increase alertness and attention and consuming chocolate gives students the stimulating effects, which then lead to increased mental performance. Previous research (Steelman, 1996) has shown that some nutrients in food aid in glucose release and increased blood flow, which may augment cognitive performance. The current findings, said Raudenbush, “provide support for nutrient release via chocolate consumption to enhance cognitive performance.” The sugar in candy bars may actually promote learning, not hurt it.

Barker S, Grayhem P, Koon J, Perkins J, Whalen A, Raudenbush B. (2003) Improved performance on clerical tasks associated with administration of peppermint odor. Percept. Motor Skills. Dec;97(3 Pt 1):1007-10
Steelman, G. M. 1996. Can you change your mood with food? One Source,  Winter 16(2).
White, Norman M. 1998. Cognitive enhancement: An everyday event? Journal of Psychology; April, 33(2): 95-105.
Wurtman, Judith J. 1986. Managing Your Mind and Mood Through Food. New York: Harper & Row Publishers.


How well you think, your optimism about taking on tasks, the quality of your work on a task and the persistence of staying with the task, are all open to influences. One type of thinking skills is more creative and another type is more procedural. Both types are glucose-dependent. But the first type needs more. If you don’t know how to solve a problem, you may need more creativity, also known as cognitive flexibility. Either the neurotransmitter serotonin and dopamine are neurotransmitters that appear to facilitate this process. But your brain won’t let you have accelerated levels of both at the same time. Yet, amazingly, you can influence these levels in a classroom with specific activities or through diet.

Serotonin is supported by peer-bonding activities and elevations in social status. Teachers can have kids share about themselves and build connectivity in their classrooms. Amazingly, even changes in social contact can alter genetic expression suggesting that the choice of our friends, workplace and our children’s classroom conditions are changing the brain. Dopamine is our brain’s pleasure and reward neurotransmitter produced when there’s either produced when either get and emotional reward or anticipate getting one. It supports better learning and acquisition in all kinds of problem- solving (Knecht, et al. 2004). Use activities like successful problem-solving, winning or celebrations. It’s also produced when we know something good is about to happen. A positive affect supports better cognitive performance (Ashby, et al. 1999).

Snacks like licorice, fruit, gummies or nuts can supply that energy needed. But remember, the body’s liver also produces glycogen when we are active. Classroom activities can help activate this glucose-raising mechanism. Keep students active, provide snacks, or both to maximize learning. Have students celebrate a success or do 2 minutes of marching to bump up dopamine. By the way, dopamine supports working memory levels, too.

Ashby, F.G., Isen, A.M., Turken, A.U. (1999). A neuropsychological  theory of positive affect and its influence on cognition. Psychol Rev., 106(3), 529-50.
Champagne FA, Curley JP. (2005) How social experiences influence the brain. Curr Opin Neurobiol. Dec;15(6):704-9.


A critical concept about the brain is its “plasticity” or ability to change. This means that regardless of the tested levels of students, chances are those are temporary. How should teachers approach kids struggling with low math and reading scores? The answer is with great optimism! Many new reading and math programs (some are computer-based, others are not) show remarkable promise. These programs help students build a new “operating system” by working on the big 5: attention, sequencing, processing, short-term memory and hope. Without those sub-skills, kids have little chance to succeed. The problem is twofold: 1) many that need help are not identified, 2) of those identified, most don’t receive the actual services or skills that they need.

A meta study was done with single-subject-design intervention studies that include students with learning disabilities. Effect sizes of 85 studies were analyzed across instructional domains (e.g., reading, mathematics); sample characteristics (e.g., age, intelligence); intervention parameters (e.g., number of instructional sessions, instructional components); and methodological procedures (e.g., internal validity, treatment integrity, sample representation). What they found was that when the interventions were done according to standard protocols, the students showed significant gains (Swanson HL, Sachse-Lee C., 2000).

Typically children with special needs are less likely to get recess, PE or any type of daily exercise. That’s a mistake. In one study, 35 children with disabilities were divided randomly into two groups matched for age and test scores. One quarter of the participants had an existing diagnosis of dyslexia, dyspraxia or ADHD. Both groups received the same treatment at school but the intervention group used an exercise program daily at home.  Amazingly, reading fluency showed a highly significant improvement for the intervention group, and nonsense passage reading was also improved significantly. Significantly greater improvements for the intervention group than the control group occurred for dexterity, reading, verbal fluency and semantic fluency. Substantial and significant improvements (compared with those in the previous year) also occurred for the exercise group on national standardized tests of reading, writing and comprehension.

For boys with problems in learning, reading, inattention, and vestibular function, a vestibular exercise program complementing a traditional or special educational program may enhance the spatial perceptual skills needed for reading (Byl NN, Byl FM, Rosenthal JH. 1989). There are many other studies that show this correlation, too. But you probably remember from other articles that exercise has multiple benefits that can help students of all academic levels. Naturally, you’ll want to also encourage parents to provide the best nutrition they can, too. It’s the whole package that creates the miracles. Better to strive for five miracles a day and get only two of them, than to expect little and get it.

Swanson HL, Sachse-Lee C. (2000) A meta-analysis of single-subject-design  intervention research for students with LD. J Learn Disabil. Mar-Apr;33(2):114-36.
Byl N, Byl F, Rosenthal J. (1989) Interaction of spatial perception, vestibular function, and exercise in young school age boys with learning disabilities. Percept Mot Skills 1989 Jun;68(3 Pt 1):727-38
Giancola, Peter; and A. Zeichner. 1994. Neuropsychological  performance on tests of frontal-lobe functioning Journal of Abnormal Psychology; Nov 103(4): 832-835.
Harmon-Jones, Eddie; E. Barratt; and C. Wigg. 1997. Impulsiveness, aggression, reading, and the P300 of the event-related potential. Personality & Individual Differences; Apr 22(4): 439-445.

MYTH #9 –Memory Is Hurt By Emotions

Under mild emotional stress, like at school, does our memory go up or down? At Southern Illinois University, Dr. Jensen (no relation) and his colleagues (Nielson, et al. 1996) did some unusual experiments. It has been previously demonstrated in human subjects that muscle-tension-induced arousal (like squeezing a mechanical handshake device called a dynamometer) for 30 seconds prior to learning will enhance later retention performance. In other words, before or after we learn something, do a strong, long handshake and presto, a better memory. How does this work? It’s from the UC Irvine studies by James McGaugh’s team that showed the effect is attenuated by beta-adrenergic receptor antagonists (Roozendaal, et al., 1994). This means that classroom activities that enhance emotions also support better memory including debates, celebrations, relays, competition, team-building, arts, dance, charades, music and storytelling.

In Jensen’s experiment, emotions were elicited in an unusual way. Remember, as long as emotions are elicited, you get the enhanced memory effect. Jensen had all the subjects read paragraphs of written material, much like a kid at school. Some of the paragraphs contained highlighted words (working memory task) and some didn’t. Before the reading, one half of the subjects were then given the 30 second hand squeeze procedure on a dynamometer and the other half did only the one second procedure. Did the “silly” extended handshake do any good? Yes, only those subjects in the 30- second group showed significant arousal-induced enhancement of delayed recognition of the highlighted words. There was absolutely no significant effect on retention performance from the group that squeezed the hand dynamometer for only 1 second during the priming period.

These findings suggest that memory modulation by arousal may be primed, or enhanced, by a relevant preliminary arousal event. How about this for a classroom or training idea? As an “ice-breaker” have everyone do an extended handshake for about 10 seconds with 3-5 different students, consecutively. You ring the bell each time it’s time to move to the next person. Then, introduce content and I’ll bet you’ll get the enhanced memory effect that Jensen’s colleagues got in their experiment. Try it and let me know what happened!

Nielson KA, Jensen RA. (1994) Beta-adrenergic receptor antagonist antihypertensive medications impair arousal-induced modulation of working memory in elderly humans. Behav Neural Biol. 1994 Nov;62(3):190-200
Roozendaal B, Hahn EL, Nathan SV, de Quervain DJ, McGaugh JL. (2004) Glucocorticoid effects on memory retrieval require concurrent noradrenergic activity in the hippocampus and basolateral amygdala. J Neurosci. 2004 Sep 15;24(37):8161-9.


Is it genes or environment? How much can you make a difference at school?

IQ heritability, the portion of a population’s IQ variability attributable to the effects of genes, has been investigated for nearly a century, yet it remains controversial.

Using data from seven French public adoption agencies, researchers identified 65 children who had been adopted between ages 4 and 6 and had received institutional or foster care because they had been abused or neglected as infants. Before adoption, the youngsters had an average IQ of 77, with no scores above 86. The IQ range classified as normal runs from 90 to 110. When tested in early adolescence-mostly ages 13 and 14-the average IQ score of all the adoptees was 91. That’s a 14-point increase in IQ! Average IQ reached 86 for those in low-income homes, 94 for those in mid-income homes, and 98 for those in high-income homes. The greatest increase of adoptees was nearly 20 IQ points! (Duyme, et al. 1999)

So if it’s not IQ, what does matter the most at school? Three factors are at the heart of the success ladder. UCLA researcher found that physical factors (attractiveness) and emotional intelligence both are highly correlated with life success. Mehrabian A. (2000). The third factor is effort. Self-discipline accounted for more than twice as much variance as IQ in final grades, high school selection, school attendance, hours spent doing homework, hours spent watching television (inversely), and the time of day students began their homework. The effect of self-discipline on final grades held even when controlling for first-marking-period grades, achievement-test scores, and measured IQ. These findings suggest a major reason for students falling short of their intellectual potential: their failure to exercise self-discipline. (Duckworth, et al. 2005). Now you understand the success of many Asians.

They simply put in more effort. Show the students that you value effort by sharing stories about things that you worked on for a long time and finally got it.

Devlin B, Daniels M, Roeder K. (1997) The heritability of IQ. Nature.. Jul 31;388(6641):468-71.
Duyme, M., Dumaret, A.C., & Tomkiewicz, S. (1999). How can we boost IQs of “dull children”?: A late adoption study. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 96(15), 8790–4.
Duckworth, A and Seligman, M. (2005) “Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents” Psychological Science, December, 16(12), 939–944.
Mehrabian A. (2000) Beyond IQ: broad-based measurement of individual success potential or “emotional intelligence”. Genet Soc Gen Psychol Monogr.  May;126(2):133-239.

To find out how you can get up to date and ready to meet today’s challenges, go to our website for the latest teacher workshop offerings. You can expect to discover proven, classroom-tested strategies you use immediately that boost motivation, learning and achievement.

Eric Jensen is a former teacher with a real love of learning. He grew up in San Diego and attended public schools. While his academic background is in English and human development, he has a real love of educational neuroscience. For over 20 years, he has been connecting the research with practical classroom applications.

1 Comment

  1. This is very interesting. I am curious about MYTH #3 SUGAR IS BAD FOR LEARNING. Since an increase in heart rate may improve both the delivery of oxygen and glucose to the brain, could it possibly be more beneficial to provide physical activity as opposed to more sugar? After all, I think it’s safe to say most students probably get more than enough sugar, and not enough exercise.

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