Editorial: Brain-based education

Is there any other kind?

I know I should not be surprised, but I am…surprised, amazed, astonished…by how many references to “brain-based” education (teaching, learning, etc.) that I see on the Internet. I remember commenting on this topic in ~2005 on TeachEffectively, so, it’s nothing new. What in the world, though, sustains (reinforces, encourages) people’s references to this idea? 

First, of course, I should define my terms, right? So to what does this brain-based education talk refer? Here’s a quick, non-exhaustive catalog (with links in the references), though I’m reluctant to generate traffic for the sites):

  • According to Wilson (2021), “Brain-based learning has hatched a new discipline now entitled by some as educational neuroscience, or by others mind, brain, and education science (Sousa, 2011). Whatever we call this “not really new” discipline, it is a comprehensive approach to instruction using current research from neuroscience. Brain-based education emphasizes how the brain learns naturally and is based on what we currently know about the actual structure and function of the human brain at varying developmental stages. Using the latest neural research, educational techniques that are brain friendly provide a biologically driven framework for creating effective instruction.”

  • Waterford.org (2019) answers the “what is” question in this way: “Rather than a concrete theory, brain-based learning is more of an educational mindset. In a nutshell, brain-based learning can be defined as all learning theories in education that use research from… fields [such as]…Psychology, Neuroscience, Technology…In other words, strategies that fall under the brain-based learning umbrella include anything developed to align with the way our brains naturally learn. There’s no one set theory that encompasses brain-based learning, so the breadth of it all can feel daunting. However, it also means that anything you do to stay on top of educational science and bring it to the classroom contributes to the use of brain-based learning with your students.”

  • McCandliss (2021) reported that “The overall goal of brain-based education is to attempt to bring insights from brain research into the arena of education to enhance teaching and learning. The area of science often referred to as  brain research  typically includes neuroscience studies that probe the patterns of cellular development in various brain areas; and brain imaging techniques, with the latter including functional MRI (fMRI) scans and positron-emission tomography (PET) scans that allow scientists to examine patterns of activity in the awake, thinking, human brain. These brain imaging techniques allow scientists to examine activity within various areas of the brain as a person engages in mental actions such as attending, learning, and remembering. Proponents of brain-based education espouse a diverse group of educational practices and approaches, and they generally attempt to ground claims about effective practice in recently discovered facts about the human brain. They argue that there has been an unprecedented explosion of new findings related to the development and organization of the human brain and that the current state of this work can inform educational practice in meaningful ways.

  • EdGlossary (2013) also provided a description: “Brain-based learning refers to teaching methods, lesson designs, and school programs that are based on the latest scientific research about how the brain learns, including such factors as cognitive development—how students learn differently as they age, grow, and mature socially, emotionally, and cognitively. Brain-based learning is motivated by the general belief that learning can be accelerated and improved if educators base how and what they teach on the science of learning, rather than on past educational practices, established conventions, or assumptions about the learning process. For example, it was commonly believed that intelligence is a fixed characteristic that remains largely unchanged throughout a person’s life. However, recent discoveries in cognitive science have revealed that the human brain physically changes when it learns, and that after practicing certain skills it becomes increasingly easier to continue learning and improving those skills. This finding—that learning effectively improves brain functioning, resiliency, and working intelligence—has potentially far-reaching implications for how schools can design their academic programs and how teachers could structure educational experiences in the classroom.

These quotes come from the first four sources I located when I searched the Internet in early June or 2021 using the very simple search query, “brain-based education.” There are many others; explore! I was impressed by how these and other sites played what I consider “fast and loose” with reason and scientific evidence.  Although some of them cited sources and one (McCandliss, 2021) was more cautious than the others, few of those cited sources were actual research reports. Mostly, they referred to books and Web posts that argued a point of view. That is, the basis for advocacy for most of the special practices under the rubric of “brain-based” education was—wait for it…—other authorities’ personal opinion. 

I do not claim substantial status as a neuroscientist. I have read a lot of neuroscience (start with Gazzaniga, 2009!). Anyone who’s read more than, say, 6-10 chapters in the Gazzaniga book will have an idea about what brain science is and should be able to make more informed analyses of the claims of the advocates cited here. And, you know, I even co-authored a paper about brain research and education with one of the deserved darlings of discussions of the brain and education, my colleague and pal, Dan Willingham (Willingham & Lloyd, 2007). One could use that paper for a little introduction to the problems with translating brain science into education practice. 

Before I leave this analysis, I’d like to take a look at what the advocates of brain-based education recommend for teaching practices. Here’s a quick catalog of recommendations; I grabbed them directly from the sources I cited previously, so they are syntactially jumbly.

But, why show them here? Because considering the practices, procedures, methods, and techniques recommended by the advocates of brain-based education reveals how bogus many of those arguments are. They are based on theory and argument, not evidence of effectiveness. 

  • a child’s learning environment can enhance or impair their academic achievement;

  • avoid creating lessons or situations that make students feel overly anxious, threatened, or helpless;

  • brain-based learning is not only theoretical but practical, too. Model your assignments in ways that mirror challenges students may face in real life;

  • cooperative learning;

  • emotions are critical to patterning;

  • experiential learning;

  • experiential learning;

  • keep in mind that brain-based learning also encompasses social-emotional development. Plan lessons that teach students social and team-building skills;

  • learning always involves conscious and unconscious processes;

  • learning involves both focused attention and peripheral perception;

  • learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat;

  • learning styles;

  • lessons shouldn’t just involve memorizing words or facts. Use activities and lessons to help students learn how to problem solve and develop critical thinking skills that will benefit them for their entire academic career;

  • mastery learning;

  • movement education, also known as embodied learning;

  • multiple intelligences;

  • not every brain-based learning strategy will be a good fit for your students. Try out a variety of different strategies to find the best ones for your class;

  • practical simulations;

  • problem-based learning;

  • the brain is a complex adaptive system;

  • the brain is a social brain;

  • the brain processes parts and wholes simultaneously;

  • the search for meaning is innate;

  • the search for meaning occurs through patterning;

  • we have at least two different types of memory: a spatial memory system and a set of systems for rote learning;

  • we understand and remember best when facts and skills are embedded in natural, spatial memory;

How many of these practices do you consider to be founded in research on the effectiveness of teaching? Are there experiments that compared, for example, outcomes for teaching methods in which “the brain is a complex adaptive system” to other methods in which that is not the perspective of instructional designer? Do experiments show that methods in which “emotions are critical to patterning” produce better outcomes than methods where emotions are not considered critical to patterning? And…and…how do we know that some teaching methods are exemplars of the view that “the brain is a complex adaptive system” and others are not? What are the hallmarks of methods in which “emotions are critical to patterning” versus those where emotions are not critical? 

Let me go back to the beginning, please. There are educational resources that tout the importance of the brain in learning and education. Carefully reviewing those sources shows that few of them draw from strong research evidence. What is more, they recommend a lot of poppycock methods, practices, techniques, and such. There can be little doubt that individual’s brains are involved in learning; the very concept of plasticity is a description of learning! But making the leap to popular practices—particularly practices for which there is little or no evidence that employing those practices improves learners’ outcomes—is a leap too far. 

Is “brain-based learning” bunkum? No. Of course, not. Everyone uses her brain in learning!

Is what lots of people contend is the evidence for brain-based education and recommended practices bogus? Yes. 

Let’s please use sensible standards of evidence and logic before adopting teaching practices that may well waste the precious time of kids with disabilities. Learners with disabilities need the very best, the most efficient and effective instruction that we can provide. Few, if any, will benefit when we adopt popular theories that are not founded on solid evidence. 


EdGlossary. (2013). Brain-based learning. https://www.edglossary.org/brain-based-learning/

Gazzaniga, M. S. (2009). The cognitive neurosciences. MIT press.

McCandliss, B. (2021). Brain-Based Education: Summary Principles of Brain-Based Research, Critiques of Brain-Based Education. https://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/1799/Brain-Based-Education.html

Waterford.org. (2019). How to use brain-based learning in the classroom. https://www.waterford.org/education/brain-based-learning/

Willingham, D. T., & Lloyd, J. W. (2007). How educational theories can use neuroscientific data. Mind, Brain, and Education, 1(3), 140-149.

Wilson, L. O. (2021). Brain-based education–An overview. https://thesecondprinciple.com/optimal-learning/brain-based-education-an-overview/