Brain, heart and mind; three words with a tremendous significance in education. Three words intimately related to the integral formation of our students, and that summarize the importance of thoughts and feelings, as they are balanced in the classroom. Words that invite us to investigate beyond how and why students can get access to knowledge, understand it and apply it in other contexts of their lives.
How do we define the brain? The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives (www.dana.org)1 describes it as the most complex and vital organ of human beings, weighting only three pounds, and small enough to fit in one hand. It represents between 1.5 and 2% of body weight. Its nervous connections exceed 100 trillions, and it orchestrates every aspect of our thoughts, perceptions and behaviors. The brain processes sensory information, controls and coordinates movement and behavior, and is responsible for cognition, emotions, memory and learning. In short, our brains define who we are.
And, how do we define the heart? There are several definitions that may vary according to the standpoint we take. A strictly biological perspective describes it as a powerful muscular organ, the pump of the circulatory system. It is located behind the sternum. Its function is to beat during our whole lives to provide a constant supply of oxygen to all body tissues, through circulating blood.2
Nevertheless, the term “heart” acquires a different connotation when we talk about love, emotions and feelings. Expressions such as “One sees clearly only with the heart”,3 indicate that humans perceive the heart as much more than a blood pump. It’s not a coincidence that the Tin Man asked the Wizard of Oz for a heart, so that he could fall in love and feel like humans do.4
What is the difference between brain and mind? Mind is the name given to intellect and conscience, and it combines abilities such as reasoning, perception, emotion, memory, imagination and willingness; lab studies performed with highly specialized equipment to detect brain activity (MRI, fMRI, NMR, EEG and PET) suggest that the mind is the result of the brain’s activity in its different areas. If we compare this relationship with computer science, software is to !hardware what the mind is to the body.5
Having defined some terms, lets now talk about a movement that, since the 1980s, has become increasingly important in the United States. In regards the brain, and its purpose is to provide teachers with information and strategies that are based on research and that help improve students’ learning results, taking into account teachers’ roles as mediators to help students grow intellectually, socially and emotionally. Leslie Hart,6 Susan Kovalik7, Caine and Caine8, and Eric Jensen9. were among the first to propose that teachers need to understand the nature, rules principles and conditions necessary to optimize the way we influence students, so that their brains perform outstandingly in the short, medium and long term.
This movement is what we today call Brain Based Learning, Brain Compatible Learning or Brain Based Teaching. This trend is based on more than 37.000 studies conducted by neuroscientists from 100 countries, and grouped by topics such as stress, memory or emotions. This new perspective has generated principles and strategies for teachers to use in the classroom: it is committed to the objective of teaching how to use effective strategies based on neuroscience. Eric Jensen suggests the twelve principles that us teachers can use in the classroom to invigorate the learning and teaching process, helping students improve their abilities to encode, maintain and remember what they learn.
These principles are:10
- Each brain is unique. Students share 99.5% of their DNA, but each one of them has a unique and different brain, due to their own particular experiences and to the anatomy of the genders. Each brain learns in different ways and at different rates, and that is why it is necessary to offer several teaching tools and strategies in the classroom. This way, teachers honor difference and value individuality.
- Reward dependency. The brain is designed to be highly receptive to experiences that generate gratification or pleasure; each learning experience or event in the classroom must meet this principle in order to always generate optimal results.
- Susceptibility and opportunity. In terms of learning, the brain has different development stages and periods of high vulnerability and susceptibility. Thus, there are “opportunity windows” according to age: in general terms, from ages 0 to 2, vision, language and emotions are developed; from age 2 to 5 movement and social skills unfold; from ages 5 to 12 a genuine love for learning, in any discipline, is developed, and cognitive, social and motor preferences emerge; from ages 12 to 18 the ability to predict, measure risks, analyze data, asses and evaluate every aspect of daily life develops
- Attentional and input limitations. The key brain structures for learning are the hippocampus and the amygdala, located in both temporal lobes; their information storage capacity is unlimited. How ever, too much information, in a short period of time, overloads the brain, and prevents learning. Similarly, it is crucial to keep in mind that attention spans vary according to age, and this means that variety and regular energizing activities, which include movement and music, are necessary in all learning sessions, also, since synaptic adhesion can take up to 60 minutes to occur and, without this adhesion, learning is not possible, it is imperative to deliver information slowly, dividing it in small content brain doesn’t retain everything; the first time it is exposed to new information it creates many preliminary sketches until it assesses the importance of storing, remembering or eliminating what was received. This is why Jensen suggests, based on neuroscientific research, that class activities should consist of trial and error and purposeful feedback, and should allow students to control their own constructions.or conclusion is usually associated with a previous experience. The brain seeks to create meaning by relating new information with a previous story, emotion, personal experience, value or incident; but mostly, the brain finds
- Adaptability and change. The brain adapts and changes constantly due to a several factors, such as variations in mood, stress, learning, physical exercise, physical o psychological traumas, nutrition, drugs, playing an instrument, social status, boredom, sleep, reading and, in general, every meaningful experience, positive or negative, of daily life. The term PLASTICITY is defined as the brain’s ability to physically change during its lifetime; this is one of neuroscience’s biggest hopes and, thus, it is constantly being studied.11
- Rough drafts. The brain creates preliminary drafts of what it understands before deciding how and where to store the new information. The brain also can decide to discard the information if it considers it irrelevant. This means that the brain doesn’t retain everything; the first time it is exposed to new information it creates many preliminary sketches until it assesses the importance of storing, remembering or eliminating what was received. This is why Jensen suggests, based on neuroscientific research, that class activities should consist of trial and error and purposeful feedback, and should allow students to control their own constructions.
- Meaning – maker. Every perception, sensation or conclusion is usually associated with a previous experience. The brain seeks to create meaning by relating new information with a previous story, emotion, personal experience, value or incident; but mostly, the brain finds meaning in context.
- Environments matter. A great amount of scientific evidence suggests that learning should take place in favorable environments, since it habeen proven that this directly influences the brain and can modify the genetic expression. Some of the characteristics we need to take into account in schools, universities and study spaces at home are: maintaining the appropriate humidity levels, having water available for consumption, having colors in the walls and temperatures that oscillate between 18 and 23 degrees Celsius. Likewise, visual aesthetics, flexible arrangement of seats and furniture, non-toxic materials, natural lighting whenever possible and permanent ventilation to maintain a stable oxygenation level in the brain are all very important characteristics as well.12
- Prediction is key. Being able to predict what’s going to happen is one of the traits that have allowed human survival, in addition, it constitutes a stress management strategy, and it is a way of gaining a sense of trust and of being in control of the resources. The brain also looks for novelty in learning (field trips, contests, excursions, vacations and, in general, experiences that are out of the ordinary), this is why it is important that classrooms always have a predictable side and another side that provides novelty.
- Memories are malleable. Our memory is comprised by processes, not by static elements, this means that it never remains intact, it changes with experiences. Memories are not saved like photographs, this is why we make preliminary sketches of things, either visually or aurally (principle 6), and then proceed to store them. Frequently, students forget what we teach them just minutes afterwards, and this is due to several reasons: misinterpretation of information, lack of attention, not understanding the words used to explain the content, too much information received in a short time, lack of time to process information, erosion or disuse of memory for long periods, prejudices based on misconceptions about the topic, and stress. All this leads to conclude that memory is malleable and changes frequently. Many of the findings about memory are attributed to the research carried out by Lynch, Weinberger, McGaugh and Cahill in the University of California, Irvine.
- Perception, not reality. Our brain only recognizes and codifies what it perceives from the environment, even though reality might be different. What matters is what we think is happening, not necessarily what is actually happening. Previous knowledge and experiences have a great influence on what we see, hear, feel, taste and touch. If you were in a country you didn’t know, would you eat a hot dog if they told you it was made from some unknown animal? Probably not. Even though it might look like a normal hotdog, after hearing where it comes from our perception inevitably changes. Most human behavior is based on the perceptions each of us has regarding environment, people and facts.
- Emotional states rule. Neuroscientists commonly describe the brain as a “bag of hormones”, referring to the fact that we usually act accordingly to the way we feel, although logic (complex mind processes) might tell us otherwise. Emotions unleash a cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters (adrenaline, cortisol, dopamine, etc.) that influence our decision-making and our character. It is critical that teachers learn to recognize the emotional changes of their students, because the success of the teaching-learning process, and the satisfaction both parties receive, depend on this recognition.13
These twelve principles are the intellectual property of Eric Jensen, and are based on scientific research that suggests that educators should understand more deeply the nature and workings of the brain, so that our teaching processes can be truly compatible with the way the brain learns. Each of the concepts presented here has a great power, trough them we can transform classrooms into meaningful, enriching, predictable and novel experiences every day. Many education professionals, including me, are learning about these approaches, in hopes of helping hundreds of teachers that need new tools and strategies.
I suggest the following literature to educators and educational administrators who wish to explore this field in order to improve the quality of education in their institutions:
• “Fierce Teaching”, Eric Jensen, Corwin Press, 2009.
• “How the Brain Learns” , David A. Sousa, Corwin Press, 2002.
• “Secrets of the Teenage Brain”, Sheryl Feinstein, Corwin Press, 2004.
• “Brain Based Learning” , Eric Jensen, Corwin Press, 2000.
• “Learning with the Body in Mind” , Eric Jensen, The Brain Store, 2000.
• “Tools for Engagement” , Eric Jensen, The Brain Store, 2003.
• “How the Brain Influences Behavior” , David A. Sousa, Corwin Press, 2009.
• “Teaching with the Brain in Mind” Second Edition. Eric Jensen, ASCD, 2005.
This is how Brain, Heart and Mind perfectly collate to remind us that humans are complex beings that need to integrate these three elements in order to function at their best. The three interact constantly before our eyes, in each of our students, and that is why our goal should always be to maintain an excellent relationship with them, based on mutual respect, trust and hope, thus fostering healthy, contrasting, positive, stress-free environments, that encourage good moods. This is how miracles occur in the classroom.
Article published in “Magisterio” Educational Magazine in 2009.
1 The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives is a nonprofit organization dedicated to generating awareness about the progress and benefits of brain related research, spreading clear and accessible information.
2 See: Villee, Claude A. “Biología”, 1978, Nueva Editorial Interamericana S.A. Seventh Edition.
3 “The Little Prince”, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
4 “The Wizard of Oz”, movie (1939), Metro Golden Meyer, Time Warner Company.
5 “Brain Facts”, Eric Jensen.
6 “Human Brain, Human Learning”, 1983.
7 ITI Model, 1989.
8 “Making Connections”, 1991.
9 “Teaching with the Brain in Mind”, 1998; “Brain Based Learning”, 2000.
10 Taken from Jensen’s six-day workshop, called Brain Based Learning Workshop, in which a folder is provided as bibliographical reference to the author. I attended the workshop in Tampa, Florida in 2007.
11 Norman Doige’s book, “The Brain that Changes Itself”, Peguin Books N.Y., (2007) recreates the plasticity and the ability to change that characterize the brain, based on people who suffered major accidents and had no hope of recovery. The book explains, through every case it cites, how the brain adapts to change and finds new ways of making connections in order to guarantee the person’s survival.
12 The San Diego Chapter of the AIA recently announced the formation of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, aimed at exploring what happens in people’s brains when they are in their workplaces.
13 Eric Jensen is also the author of “Tools for Engagement – Managing Emotional States for Learner Success”, 2003. Based on more than 150 activities, the book explains how emotional sates and behavior affect students’ learning ability.