Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

What Does Brain Research Have to Say About Our Teaching?

My head of school started the beginning of the year by talking about brain based research.  He was told in a session he participated in during the summer that the use of sarcasm in a classroom can hamper learning. The reason for this issue with sarcasm is that, according to the presenter, negative emotional responses shut down the higher level functions of the brain and force the brain into "fight or flight" mode, during which very little learning can take place.

According to Diane Connell, there are 11 principles of brain-based learning:

1. The brain is a parallel processor.

2. Learning engages the entire physiology.

3. The search for meaning is innate.

4. The search for meaning occurs through patterning.

5. Emotions are critical to patterning.

6. The brain processes parts and wholes simultaneously.

7. Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral perception.

8. Learning always involves conscious and unconscious processes.

9. We have at least two different types of memory: spatial(autobiographical) and rote learning (taxon memory).

10. Learning is developmental.

11. Learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat.

The consequences of this theory of learning for educators are multiple. First, we need to engage student’s positive emotions in order to enhance their learning. Shout at a kid, or make them feel dumb, and you are certain to be inhibiting their learning by inducing negative emotions in the sense that negative emotions make us feel threatened.

According to this theory, learning is enhanced by the challenge of the task. Certainly we recognize this as true in our students, when we talk about pushing our students to their limits. This theory also inherently recognizes that poorly written standardized tests are never going to challenge our students’ abilities and are therefore not enhancing their learning.

There are other consequences too; the need for exercise in order to promote learning in other areas, the need to explore the whole picture as well as the details, recognizing the developmental nature of learning, and others. The point here is that the emotional connection to learning is important and if we really want to help our students learn, we need to pay attention to their emotional responses to what we do.

Sarcasm, taunting, derision, and other negative emotions have no place in our classrooms.


Connell, J.D. (2009). The Global Aspects of Brain-Based Learning. Educational Horizons, Retrieved from on September 5th, 2010

Jensen, E. (2008). A Fresh Look at Brain Based Education, Phi Delta Kappan International, Retrieved from on September 3rd, 2010