Brain Rules Schools: what school would look like if we listened to research

John Medina

Jose and DeShawn are building a robot in STEM lab.  Their Problem Solving Block includes a customized playlist of 10 minute puzzles, challenges, and ST Math—a visual and game-based approach to math.  Every third day their playlist recycles through concepts they’ve already mastered to keep the skills fresh.
In Humanities Block, they watched a StudySync video about they book they are reading and writing about, Catcher in the Rye. Tomorrow they will be exploring post World War II architecture and culture by touring Main Street with the help of GPS and a little augmented reality on their smart phone.
Their 9am to 6pm hour school day includes two activity breaks, one is an individual activity, the other one is team based.  The school day is partially gender segregated—Jose and DeShawn admit that it helps them focus.  The boys meet with an advisor three times a week to make sure they making progress in all subjects ar connected to youth and families services when needed.
That’s a quick glimpse of my sense of a brain-based middle school day based on Brain Rules, the best selling book by molecular biologist John Medina.   In a spirited romp through neuroscience, evolutionary genetics, and psychology, Medina lays out “12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School.”
Following is a quick summary of the rules and key principles for educators.
1.Exercise boosts brain power.  “To improve your thinking skills, move.”  John recommends a recess twice a day.
2. The human brain has evolved too.  The human brain has developed extraordinary ability to think symbolically, but “Our ability to learn has deep roots in relationships.” Feeling safe and understood is key to learning.
3. Every brain is wired differently.  “No two people’s brains store the same information in the same way in the same place.”  John thinks we a lot more ‘Theory of Mind’ research to improve predictions of human behavior. 
4. We don’t pay attention to boring things.  “Audiences check out after 10 minutes, but you can keep grabbing them back by telling narratives or creating events rich in emotion.”  And “emotional arousal helps the brain learn.”
Here’s some bad news, “There is no such thing as multitasking.” John suggests dedicated unplugged period of concentrated effort. 
5. Repeat to remember.  The folks at KIPP figured this one out, “The more elaborately we encode a memory during its initial moments, the stronger it will be.”
John adds, “The more the learner focuses on the meaning of the presented information, the more elaborately the encoding is processed.”  It’s interesting that he recommends both deep understanding and repetition to build working memory.
6. Remember to repeat.  “The way to make long-term memory more reliable is to incorporate new information gradually and repeat it in timed intervals.”  Here is John’s ideal high school schedule:
Lessons are divided into 25-minute modules, cyclically repeated throughout the day. Subject A is taught for 25 minutes, constituting first exposure.  Ninety minutes later the 25-minute content of Subject A is repeated, and then a third time. All classes are segmented and interleaved in such a fashion.  Because these repetition schedules slow down the amount of information capable of being addressed per unit of time, the school year is extended into the summer.
If that’s to complicated (or politically charged), John suggests review periods every three or four days. 
7. Sleep well, think well.  John suggests matching chronotypes to schedules—some teachers and students could do the early shift, some the late shift.  He also thinks the “Biological drive for an afternoon nap is universal.”
8. Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.  “Individually, the worst kind of stress is the feeling that you have no control over the problem—you are helpless.”  And, “Emotional stress has huge impacts across society, on children’s ability to learn in school.”
John, he’s been a big advocate of early learning and believes that education is a family affair and starts at birth.
9. Simulate more of the senses.  “Our senses evolved to work together…which means that we learn best if we stimulate several sense at once.”  In addition to multisensory lessons, John suggests repetitions using other senses.  Smell has a particular short cut to memory. 
10. Vision trumps all other senses.  “We learn and remember best through pictures, not through written or spoken words.”  John suggests more pictures and animations and fewer words.
11. Male and female brains are different.  John suggests that these is some rationale for gender specific classrooms and that at a minimum we don’t feed stereotypes.
12. We are powerful and natural explorers. “Babies are the model of how we learn—not by passive reaction to the environment by active testing through observation, hypothesis, experiment, and conclusion.
Brain Rules would make a school leadership team discussion book.   For more, check out the resources and blogs on Watch a video–John gets really excited about brain research!

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Matthew Patulski

This all sounds very familiar. Have you all looked at Montessori adolescent education? It's underlying principals are very similar to your 12 point list.


Tom Vander Ark

Matthew, John relies on peer reviewed research for his 12 points, so it's fair to say that most of this stuff has been around for a while. Montessori certainly had great intuition in this area!

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