George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Understanding even the basics of how the brain learns -- how people perceive, process and remember information -- can help teachers and students successfully meet the requirements of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). This initiative aims to establish a relatively standardized knowledge base among all students, alleviating the background knowledge gap. It's designed to promote critical, divergent thinking, equipping students with information relevant to the real world and the ability to use it.

Sounds great. But what does that really mean, in practice, for teachers? How do you teach someone to think critically?

Dr. Mariale Hardiman, co-founder and director of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education's Neuro-Education Initiative, recommends starting at the top: with the brain. "It seems rather obvious -- after all, learning does occur in the brain, but all teaching does not result in learning, so while all learning is brain-based, all teaching is not," clarifies Hardiman. The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model, developed by Hardiman, organizes key educational theories into a single framework, combining neuroscience research with teachers' and students' feedback.

Six Targets in the Brain-Targeted Teaching Model: 1) Emotional Climate, 2) Physical Environment, 3) Designing the Learning Experience, 4) Teaching for Mastery of Content, Skills and Concepts, 5) Teaching for the Extension, 6) Evaluating Learning

Credit: Dr. Mariale M. Hardiman

While the model pre-dates CCSS, teachers practicing Brain-Targeted Teaching report having an easier time meeting CCSS objectives. Jeremy Mettler, a high school social studies teacher explains:

Teachers get caught up in having to cover a lot of information, especially because we're measured against our students' results. Brain-Targeted Teaching offers a framework that helps to both guide in-depth yet expansive study, and direct real-world applications of the knowledge. It's practical, easy, intuitive and doesn't require any special technology. . . Yes, it can take longer, and it's also much more effective and engaging for my students. Whey they get it, they really get it.

So what does it look like in practice, and how can you employ Brain-Targeted Teaching methods in your classroom right now?

Set the Stage

Brain Target 1: Emotional Climate

Once the brain -- in particular, the amygdala -- has established a safe environment, the brain slips into its secondary mode, which is learning. "That emotional connection really sets the stage for everything, " notes Hardiman. Vicky Krug, a professor at Westmoreland County Community College, routinely invests 3-5 minutes checking in with her students at the beginning of each class.

Brain Target 2: Physical Environment

Aesthetics matter. How a space makes us feel matters. Classrooms are no different. Teamwork and collaboration benefit from table and chairs grouped together. Regularly changing visual displays taps into the brain's need for novelty. Scent impacts emotion and memory. Elementary teacher Kelly Murillo purchased a humidifier and aromatherapy oils for her classroom after learning that scents such as orange and lavender reduce anxiety.

Context and Relevancy

Brain Target 3: Designing the Learning Experience

The brain is designed to look for patterns, associations and connections. Giving the big picture (i.e. showing how concepts connect, building on previous knowledge, the overall purpose in the real world) leads to a deeper understanding and retention. One such example might be using Google Earth and Google Maps to navigate the city of Madrid in Spanish class. This would add a sense of practical experience to learning prepositions of place, vocabulary, and the imperative mood.

Brain Target 4: Teaching for Mastery of Content, Skills and Concepts

Repeating information is key to committing it to memory. But instead of rote memorization, give students different ways play with and manipulate the information in order to move it into long-term memory. One high school physics teacher included pre-recorded clips of dancers and figure skaters spinning in circles to explain angular momentum. It's a simple equation: different plus fun equals memorable.

Go Beyond the Information Packet

Brain Target 5: Teaching for the Extension

Placing classroom activities and information in the context of the real world moves instruction along a more divergent path, away from the typical solitary correct answer. It allows educators to direct discussions along the path of "Yes, and . . ." While the element of uncertainty can be disconcerting for teachers and students alike, rarely is there a single solution to real-world problems.

Brain Target 6: Evaluating Learning

Change the typical "teach, test and move on" approach to "teach, revisit and test." Building frequent intervals of revision into the teaching process, prior to testing, increases retention of material. Give students specific feedback -- why a response is wrong, how their work can be improved. Ensure that your feedback is timely, "It's like scolding a toddler for a transgression that happened two days ago. The incident is long forgotten and the feedback is irrelevant, " says Murillo.

Hardiman reminds teachers that brain science research indicates how the essence of learning is about biological changes; therefore, focusing on the science of learning must be central to education discussions. It's not just about accountability.

How you perceive your students matters. How do you recognize your students as learners? How do you communicate high expectations and confidence in their abilities?

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Bob Lessick's picture
Bob Lessick
Higher Ed Science Instructor

Great examples of books so far. I also recommend Mariale Hardiman's book, "The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model for 21st-Century Schools." (ISBN-10: 1412991986)

In addition to the brain science mentioned in this article, her book also provides an educational framework that can be used in the classroom. I've found that elements of that framework even work in higher ed settings!

Virginia Largent's picture
Virginia Largent
Director of the Virginia Beach School of the Arts

The BEST way to teach all of the common core standards is to do so in a manner in which the brain learns the BEST! That's singing & moving. I LOVE which has over 2000 educational songs, lyrics and creative movements for grades pre k - 12 and event he college level sciences. I use it daily. Here's link: Let me know what you think! is a teacher;s BEST FRIEND!

MissRachelGoss's picture
Senior Early Childhood and Special Education Major

This is a great post! I completely agree that we need to be checking the emotional climate of our students first. I have tried doing a quick check in with my students at the beginning of the day by asking students to describe how they are feeling in as many words as their age (8 years old= 8 words). My students really enjoyed sharing in that way. Does anyone have other ways to do a quick emotional check with students?

Tim K's picture

I like the emphasis upon the learning environment, the learner and learning capabilities. Most of all I like the personal touch from the teacher to the student as the foundation for connection. With all the technology and insights into how learning takes place, we must not neglect the power of personal care.

Joseph R's picture

Tim, from your experience, do you think that many teachers focus on the "personal touch" to create a connection between themselves and the learners? The majority of teachers I've had seem to be more focused on accomplishing the tasks required by their lesson plan that they overlook the importance of personal connection with students. Has that been your experience as well?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Joseph, I've found that the teachers I work with really get how important it is to build relationships before and while they dig into content. Responsive Classroom's emphasis on the First Six Weeks, the Critical Skills Program's focus on building a collaborative learning community, the Coalition of Essential Schools 7th principal that students should be known well- they all make it clear that learning happens more effectively and more powerfully when kids feel that they are known, respected, and valued. Moving into "tasks' without building a community first is like chopping wood without sharpening your axe. You spend a lot more time, work a lot harder, get poorer results, and ultimately end up hurting yourself.

Debra Letsinger's picture

I appreciate reading an article about how a teacher can incorporate brain-based teaching within the framework of Common Core. Science has taught us so much about how the brain learns, it only make sense that we would incorporate what we know into our teaching. Even though there is so much pressure to teach to the standards and the test, it can be done if a much more effective way as you outlined using the Brain-Targeted Teaching Model. Students learn and retain so much more whent the learning is made relevant and is bridged to life.

Ira Bickoff's picture

Thanks for the article. I am a high school science teacher and adapt nonfiction, primary source books for Google Earth touring. Students read and virtually travel to points of interest in the text. Once at the point, activities include science, math, art and geography. I have tried to make the reading experience multidisciplinary with a spatial component. I did not start the project with common core in mind. However, students seem to retain the information and enjoy great books that have been overlooked in public education. Feel free to share/use the material at:

Ghibli Kang's picture
Ghibli Kang
im interested in Education setion.Because the education is the future

I agree all the way to teaching skills. From long time, maybe we know the method. But Most of problems are that we are hard to applicate the way into students. So we have to practice to appliate the method into students. These things are enough. Now, we time to applicate the way into own student.

CiaraAnn22's picture

This post is fantastic for teachers of all levels! It is so important to target specific ways too help students gain full understanding of the information provided. As stated, it is difficult to fit all the content necessary in the amount of time we are given to teach the curriculum. We must make what time we do have count and prepare our students the best we can for the end of the year exams. This article incorporates only six steps to enhanced learning. All of which are areas that I believe to be necessary for understanding content, retaining the information, and being able to revisit this knowledge source and utilize it in different situations. After reading through this article and the steps taken to better target the brain, I noticed just how similar the steps were to my own personal learning strategies and study sessions in the past once I figured out what worked best for me. All areas that I had congregated before being "test-ready." I always made sure the space I was in for my study time was a relaxed and safe environment. This gave me the stress-free space to then open my mind and commit to the work in front of me. I then created pathways and connections within the information to better understand and remember it. All of which prepared me for success.

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