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Autumn 2006 | Volume 29, Number 4 | My Reponse

The Brain-Driven Classroom

By Karol Pulliam

As a principal, and a doctoral student in Seattle Pacific University’s School of Education, I know that when it comes to education, it’s important to play by the rules. The brain rules, that is. In July, at SPU’s 2006 Summer Institutes for educators, I spent five days in a classroom with Dr. John Medina, director of The Seattle Pacific Brain Center for Applied Learning Research. Watching him is similar to sitting on the beach waiting for a hurricane to reach the shore. As his pupil, I knew one thing was certain: I was in for an exciting ride.

Dr. Medina spoke with passion about what research tells us about the brain, and he proposed something never before attempted. What would happen, he asked us, if we actually got brain researchers and educators together to talk to each other about learning?

He presented 12 brain rules — principles about the way the brain operates that are well documented by scientific research. As we discussed these rules, he invited us to imagine how we might use this new knowledge to create better learning environments for our students. Here are a few gems — derivatives of the brain rules — that I took back with me to my school:

Realize that every brain is unique. Dr. Medina described how our brains are individually wired by our unique capabilities and experiences. As an example, he asked us to look at his nose. As we respectfully complied, he carefully explained that even though we were all looking at his nose at the same time, each of us was looking at it from a different angle and perspective. With our different backgrounds and individual experiences with noses, he could predict with certainty that we would all walk out of class with a unique understanding of his nose. If that is true about something as simple as a nose, imagine the individual memories students take with them as they leave classrooms each day. The fact that their brains are so unique makes our students surprising and unpredictable — and our job as educators delightful and overwhelming.

Pay attention to how our students are paying attention. Dr. Medina reminded us that human brains pay attention to meaning before they pay attention to detail — specifically in four areas: survival, pleasure, patterns, and stories. In human history, our interest in survival has kept us out of danger, and our interest in pleasure has assured the continuation of our species. Our brains love patterns, both creating patterns out of what they see, and recognizing patterns they have seen before. We love stories because we are interested in what other people think and feel. No wonder we remember teachers who have kept us on our toes, or made us laugh, or told us stories that helped a subject make sense to us.

Discourage multi-tasking; the brain can’t do it. There is no such thing as multi-tasking in brain terms, says Dr. Medina. Although our brains are really good at switching attention from one thing to another, we can’t think of two things at the same time. Our brains need a few seconds of transition time for every switch. Should we watch TV and do homework? Should we check instant messages while reading a book? One thing is certain, Dr. Medina has cured me of talking on my cell phone while driving my car.

Recess isn’t just for kids. Leave it to a brain researcher to take away all of my excuses for not exercising. The rule: moderate, regular exercise positively affects human learning and buffers against detrimental effects of stress on human cognition (aka learning!). The research has mostly been done on aging populations, but I’m not waiting any longer. I want to get my students outside running around, and I think I’m going with them!

Remember what we’ve known all along — learning is relational. It makes a difference that learners and teachers have positive relationships that demonstrate mutual caring and trust. The emotional climate of the classroom affects students; and the emotional environment of the home is often the leading predictor of academic success. Parents and teachers have an important partnership.

After 25 years in education, I feel like I have a new place to start. Dr. Medina cautions that brain research is not educational research. Not yet, that is. However, his “brain rules” can begin to inform our educational practice, and can help us to ask a whole new set of questions that may very soon become the research projects that will support innovative changes in the way schools and teachers do business. As a doctoral student, I think there just might be a dissertation in here somewhere.

After 19 years as a classroom teacher, Karol Pulliam is now the principal at Cottage Lake Elementary School in Woodinville, Washington, and a first-year student in Seattle Pacific’s doctoral program in education. Pulliam’s daughter, Tina, is a sophomore at SPU.


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