What if educators based their educational techniques on theories of the brain developed by psychological, cognitive science, and technological research? Beginning in the late 1980s, interest in theories from these fields rose significantly in American educational communities. By the 1990s, this interest had grown into a whole new educational mindset, earning the ’90s the title of “the Decade of the Brain.”
Wanting new ways to reach students, teachers across the country started adopting the brain-based learning mindset. Borrowing from fields that study how the brain works, educators applied theories of multiple intelligences, emotional-mental connections, and attention spans to inform their teaching theories and strategies.
The goal of brain-based learning is to create a classroom environment in which every student can thrive. Brain-based learning techniques have been shown to increase students’ knowledge retention, academic performance, transference, motivation, and attitude. While brain-based learning theory is constantly shifting with new findings, some popular learning theories and strategies currently shape that landscape.
Multiple Intelligence and Learning Styles
One of the most well-known brain-based learning theories comes from Howard Gardner’s 1983 theory of “multiple intelligences.” Gardner suggested that humans have different intellectual abilities, challenging commonly held beliefs that we all think the same way and intelligence is measurable according to a single standard. Gardner coupled this theory with the idea of learning styles, or the ways individuals approach a range of tasks. Multiple Intelligence Theory encourages teachers to think about their students’ individual intellectual strengths and adapt accordingly.
Understanding that everybody approaches learning a little differently also empowers educators to provide multiple ways to access content to improve students’ understanding and retention. Teachers might offer lessons that incorporate multiple learning styles, such as having students learn about fractions through musical notes or poetic meter.
A learning theory derived from neuroscience, multisensory learning suggests that students can better understand and retain information when multiple senses are engaged. Multisensory learning techniques attempt to use multiple senses to allow students to engage with course materials in more than one way. Students might be given a chance to visually examine, touch, smell, and/or taste an object of study. For example, a lesson on trees might include taking students outside to hear the leaves rustle, asking them to touch the leaves as you discuss photosynthesis.
Multisensory learning is instrumental in helping students with learning disabilities, particularly dyslexia, as these students can engage with materials in ways that feel comfortable and natural.
Experiential Learning Theory situates the classroom as an environment that needs to be highly engaging, collaborative, and reflective. Experiential learning techniques focus on the principle of learning by doing. Students are encouraged to memorize information and put it to use before reflecting on the experience. The goal is for students to engage intellectually, socially, emotionally, and physically when necessary.
For example, students can draw cartoons illustrating debates or host service-learning opportunities where they apply the principles of a class to volunteer work. There are several benefits to experiential learning. Students develop an emotional connection to the subject matter, feel like they are a part of something bigger, engage with materials on their own terms, and take part in reflective practices crucial to helping them remember what they’ve learned.
Brain-based learning techniques are about meeting students where they are and helping them find ways to connect with class material. By staying up-to-date on how the brain best engages with, retains, and transfers information, teachers who ascribe to the brain-based learning mindset can help their students reach their fullest potential.