Natural Learning: The Brain Based Principles

natural learning

Education and educators are in the spotlight as never before.  Parents, politicians, business, and the media are calling for better “results.”  And yet almost no attention is being publicly paid to how people learn naturally, and what sort of teaching best addresses natural learning.

We first visited this issue in 1990 with an article in Educational Leadership, and in 1991 with out book Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain, both of which introduced the notion of brain based learning and 12 our Brain / Mind Learning Principles.

Since then we have followed science with great attention.  Although the Principles have been modified a little, they have stood the test of time very well.  More than ever they provide an understanding of what actually happens as people learn, and a foundation for what great teaching looks like.  We are also delighted to see so many parallels between our approach and what others have been saying and doing.  These parallels range from service learning to the best uses of technology in teaching and learning, to project based teaching.

Foundations: Learning as an Integrated Process

Research is calling into question a fundamental belief that has endured for four hundred years.  Ever since the writings of Descartes in the 17th century, it has been largely assumed that body and mind are separate.

That approach is now being challenged.  Neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio, linguists such as George Lakoff, and cognitive scientists such as Mark Johnson, are showing that body, brain and mind are deeply interconnected.  Even though a specific function (such as hearing sounds or seeing faces) may be separate in some respects, the bottom line is that each person is an “undissociated whole that interacts with the world as a complete system” (Damasio, 1994).

Brain/Mind Learning Principles – Systems Principles of Natural Learning

When body, brain and mind are conceived of as a dynamic unity, then it becomes possible to identify core general aspects of how this system learns.

Because we were intent on integrating research for the purposes of improving education, we had four criteria in mind that a principle had to meet:

  1. The phenomena described by a principle should be universal, and apply to all human beings;
  2. A principle should emerge out of research from several different disciplines;
  3. A principle should anticipate future research; and
  4. A principle should have implications for educational practice

They need to be read as gateways to a vast body of research, and as working at several different levels simultaneously.  In essence, they show how the many aspects of a human being are engaged in the overall learning process in any field or subject or domain. The Principles are as follows:

1.   Learning is physiological

2.   The brain/mind is social.

3.  The search for meaning is innate.

4.   The search for meaning occurs through patterning

5.  Patterning involves the emotions

6.  The brain/mind works with parts and wholes simultaneously

7.  Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral perception

8.  Learning is both conscious and unconscious.

9.  There are at least two approaches to memory: archiving isolated facts and skills, and making sense of experience.

10.  Learning is developmental.

11.  Learning is inhibited by threat associated with helplessness and/or fatigue.

12.  Each brain is uniquely organized.

There is no necessary sequence of principles.  Rather each supports and connects with all the others.  Accordingly we often show them in a circle.

More information, together with supporting research, can be found in many places.  An overview and free downloads are available here on our website. For those who want to find out more, the website also introduces our 9 books, has a full list of our publications, and features a free, downloadable, e-book that uses the Principles to describe the essential foundations of good learning communities.

From understanding natural learning to understanding great teaching

It is all well and good to have a solid theoretical foundation for how people learn.  The question is how to make this practical?

An introductory answer is that each principle has some practical implications.  For instance, if learning is physiological, then learning is enhanced when the students use their senses and take action.  That is just one reason why project based teaching is so powerful.