Brain-based learning is also known as brain-compatible learning. It is the explicit acknowledgement that learning is fundamentally linked to the biological and chemical functioning of the brain. This may seem like a redundant concept but historically the role of the brain in the learning process has been overlooked. The revolution of education through brain-based learning is due to developments in neurological research (particularly in the 1990s), when new insights into the workings of the brain were discovered in light of innovative technologies and developments such as electrophysiological studies, neuropsychological tests and imaging techniques.
These brain studies have led to a shift in education and learning models. They lend greater significance to learner differences and sociocultural contexts, emphasizing how the brain learns. Brain-based learning offers a holistic look at the learning process and takes in the relationship between the emotions and memory as well as individual variables which affect learning. Brain-based learning relates the functions of different areas of the brain. For example the thalamus, which is located in the center of the brain, is associated with attention. Research has found that our bodies have cycles of approximately 90 to 110 minutes during which energy levels peak; at the bottom of the cycle, energy and attention decrease. Proponents of brain-based learning believe that these cycles should be exploited to optimize learning.
Brain activity such as stress can act as a barrier to complex thinking and creativity. Our natural responses to stress are counter-productive to the learning process. In highly stressful situations we may experience a psychophysiological response, which can lead to feelings of helplessness or fatigue. In these situations we know that information travels through the thalamus and amygdala and then moves into the cerebellum. In a school environment this reduces the capacity for learning to the memorization of isolated facts. Even something seemingly innocuous such as teasing by the student's peer group may be as threatening to the learner as a saber-toothed tiger in terms of eliciting a primal response from the brain. Using brain-based learning we can work this knowledge to our advantage by eliminating stress in the educational environment.
Low stress levels are conducive to reflection and analytical thinking. In the traditional school environment, teachers may have thrived on high-stress tactics, perhaps focusing on the unprepared student in an attempt to motivate him or her. Brain-based learning calls into question this style of teaching, favoring a learning environment that is relaxed and safe for the student. An important aspect of brain-based learning is the learning environment itself. Students who join school from kindergarten and attend through to the end of high school will spend 13,000 hours of their time there; so for a significant portion of time their developing brains are exposed to the learning environment. Brain-based learning takes this into account and looks for ways to optimize the capacity for learning of the developing brain. External factors that can impact the brain's capacity to learn and retain information include room temperature, the time of the day, input quantity (capacity) and engagement (such as goal-orientated attention).
Maintaining a student's attention is a process of engaging the relevant neural networks in the brain. In a highly social environment this can be a challenge; such things as gossip, thirst or hunger or even a change in the weather outside can cause the typical student's attention to wander. To counter this, both external and internal distractions should be minimized. Ensuring a student's engagement in the classroom or learning environment also stimulates structures in the brain associated with pleasure. We learn better when we focus our sight, listen, and physically attend to information rather than simply memorizing it. When struggling to pay attention, brain activity is heightened in the prefrontal and posterior parietal lobes and the thalamus and anterior cingulate; in other words, our neurons are firing extra hard in an attempt to keep us attuned to what we are learning.
The brain's processing mechanisms play a large role in brain-based learning. Central to this is the brain's predilection for pattern-making. Learning should incorporate context to stimulate neural activity. The brain will use information in the context of knowledge that is already attained and stored, putting related events together in hierarchies and categories. Learning depends on the healthy functioning of the brain; if we stimulate it in the right way we are more likely to achieve educational goals. In short, the more we learn about the brain, the better we learn.