Brain-based Learning Theories (from The Journal of Dynamic Teaching)

By Tracy M. Kane, MCJA, Daymar College Online 


Brain-based theories were examined in the search for unique and practical teaching styles suitable for career-based, education institutions.  The scientific application of hands-on learning methods was evaluated, as well as the overall characteristics of the teacher and the learner in an active learning environment.  Pedagogical learning styles and reflective learning behaviors were addressed and added into a basic teaching element to demonstrate the practical application of brain-based instruction.  Together, specific elements of traditional, active teaching methods were blended with scientific brain-based theory, to create a unique learning environment applicable to all learning levels and styles.

Brain-based Learning Theories: Using Scientific Research to Redesign the Learning Institution

President George Bush defined the 1990s as the decade of the brain (Roberts, 2011). The field of neuroscience was a new discipline in the 1990s, and needed the support of the federal government to establish itself as a medical science (Lombardi, 2008).  The support would allow the emerging discipline to create a foothold in the medical field by aggressively researching and treating mental diseases of the brain (Lombardi, 2008).

Since the 1990s, there has been a mass production of academic prose` reflecting on the learning processes of the brain, and the need to implement brain-based methods in education’ (Roberts, 2011). John Dewey, an early education traditionalist, supported experiential learning, suggesting that the creation of the classroom goes against everything the brain was designed to do (Dewey, 2010). It was not until 1978, that theorist, Paul MacLean, who generally agreed with Dewey’s insight, coined the term Triune Brain (Roberts, 2011).  MacLean believed that the brain was developed in three layers.  He also stated that each section had a specific function in regards to learning processes (Caine, 2012).

The oldest part of the brain, called the Reptilian Complex, controls the ‘flight or fight’ response, digestion and circulation, breathing and reproduction (MacLean, 1978). The second oldest part of the brain, known as the limbic brain, is said to be the center of emotion, and converts all information into short and long-term memory (Caine, 2012).  It is also believed that this part of the brain attaches markers to specific incidents, allowing us to recall specific information (Caine, 2012). The last part of the brain to be developed is called the Neo-Cortex. It controls communication skills, and also allows us to develop strategies for future planning (Caine, 2012). Paul MacLean’s Triune brain theory constitutes that the brain is very capable of multi-tasking, organizing and, developing repetitive patterns of behavior, and can also reflect and reason (Caine, Caine, McClintic, & Klimek, 2008).  He believed that each brain operates on different chemical paths; suggesting that each individual will learn in very different ways, and at different times (Caine, et. al., 2008).  MacLean’s theory also raises the question ‘if curriculum specialists know this information, then why are we continuing to create rigid, streamlined curricula?’

The Blended, Brain-based Classroom

The Theory

The Triune brain theory suggests that we are primitively developed for survival (MacLean, 1978).  The human brain focuses great attention on flight or fight responses, and can multi-task, organize, and prepare for sudden and future changes (MacLean, 1978). The environment helps configure the chemical balance of the brain, and can change with sudden or gradual environmental disruptions (MacLean, 1978). Therefore, a brain-based learning curriculum focused on experiential learning, would suit the human learner (Bonk & Graham, 2006).

Pedagogical / Innate Learning Techniques

Pedagogical learning techniques are brain-based and can be applied to both children and adults (Bonk & Graham, 2006). Individuals will learn many of their skills through trial and error processes, and through participation (Bonk & Graham, 2006).  An example of trial and error processing is when a child learns to walk.  An infant has the innate motive to stand and walk, but this is not immediate (Abravanel, & Gingold, 1985).  A child has to first learn to stand and balance before initial steps are taken (Abravanel, & Gingold, 1985).  It is expected that the child will fall down the first few times without guidance, but will eventually master the activity of walking through experiential processing (Abravanel & Gingold, 1985). Brain-based learning encompasses such experiences, and constitutes successful ways of educating both children and adults (Bonk & Graham, 2006).  Activities that revolve around experiential learning are hands-on activities such as projects, role playing, and creativity (Morris, 2010).

Phase One: Curriculum Enhancements

Caine, (2012), suggests that curricula should be developed around brain-based principles that require learning to be psychological and social, by using interactive curricula.  The brain also searches for innate meaning in new content, but is only retained through repetition and pattern processing; the necessary elements for survival (Caine, 2012).

Caine, (2012) also suggests that the brain can only process information in segments and whole parts; but stating that new information can be learned simultaneously.  Next, curriculum content should be meaningful, organized, and categorized in small chunks using the 60/40 rule (Roberts, 2011).  The 60/40 rule suggests that 60 percent of the curriculum process needs to be repetitive skill such as taking attendance, seating arrangements, and turning in homework (Roberts, 2011). It is then suggested that the next 40 percent of the curriculum is new and challenging information (Roberts, 2011). The Triune brain seeks new information and categorizes the information into specific thought sequences based on importance; thus rejecting unimportant data during the process (Roberts, 2011).

This type of learning could be achieved by adding visual or audio media to lesson plans, or by creating interactive role playing sessions that allow the students to teach back what has been learned (Duman, 2010) The Triune brain remembers information the best, if it is delivered in short, interactive segments; thus ensuring that the thought process is ongoing throughout the entire length of the course (Bonk & Graham, 2006).  It is important for the instructor to realize that not every student will view the course or material in the same fashion (Bonk & Graham, 2006).  Some students will find the material worthy and necessary to their career, and some will find it unimportant (Bonk & Graham, 2006).  On the first day of class the instructor should create a personable learning environment that shows the students the grand overview of the course and how it fits into their academic and career goals (Jensen, 2008). This can be accomplished through reflective learning segments that use lecture, debate and demonstration as a way to disseminate information relevant to the student’s learning needs (Duman, 2010).   

Phase Two: The Teacher and the Student

Students can tell if an instructor is passionate about education, and will typically gauge the first day of class on the activity level and excitement of the teacher (Dewey, 2010). A teacher has many different roles in the classroom, and therefore should avoid assembly-line education processes where they read directly from a textbook, give homework without feedback and deliver an earned grade without explanation (Bonk & Graham, 2006).  A classroom has to have multiple learning environments in one room, and the teacher is responsible for multi-tasking though each environment and learning experience (Bonk & Graham, 2006).  An example of a successful brain-based learning environment would have the teacher start with a full explanation of the course, and an introduction of the material in relation to their careers or academic endeavors (Morris, 2010).

Jensen (2008) suggests that higher education curricula is poor and outdated, and is designed for teachers who do not stray from rigid paths of instruction. Some of the most important characteristics of a teacher in terms of the Triune brain theory are that the teacher is personable, motivating, understanding and supportive of the interactive learning environment (Nummela & Rosengren, 1986).  If the teacher creates a learning environment that is stressful or unorganized, it can have adverse consequences (Calhoun, 2012). The brain chemically reacts to stress and will either progress into flight or fight mode until the stressful or threatening environment has ceased (MacLean, 1978).

This chemical reaction in the brain may be the reason why some individuals react poorly on test days by either not showing up for the exam, or by sitting in the classroom protesting the exam; hence flight and fight mode (Jensen, 2008). An example of a productive learning environment, is one in which the teacher challenges the students through interactive assessments, lecture, debate, research, and experience.  This can be accomplished by integrating field trips, guest speakers, and volunteer services in relation to that specific topic, or hands-on, creative activities (Morris, 2010).

Phase Three: Brain-based Techniques, Technologies and Teaching Strategies

With enough threats of punishment or reminders of reward, is it possible to get any result I wish as a teacher?  Is this an effective way of teaching?  A Teacher can accomplish desired outcomes with such tactics, only because the brain records information important for survival; In this case, the learner has only retained the threat or the reward (Calhoun, 2012).  Brain-based learning also incorporates various types of technologies, visual aids and other media into the interactive classroom (Bonk & Graham, 2006).  Examples of e-learning technologies are computers, smart boards, video, and digital media such as cameras, phones, and radios to help enhance the interactive classroom (Roberts, 2011).


Education is an experiment, and will remain so for future generations (Dewey, 2010).  MacLean’s Brain-based theory is an example of education experimentation that follows the scientific field of study and education application (Roberts, 2011).  One of the benefits of being an educator is that we get to constantly research new methods, activities and strategies to create better learning environments for our students; if we stop researching and enhancing the field of education, we fail to contribute to the success and future progression of the human race.


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