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
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
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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