George Lucas Educational Foundation
Brain-Based Learning

An Unprecedented Opportunity for Educational Equity

March 11, 2013
Photo credit: bionicteaching via flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Access to successful learning for all students is a powerful equalizer that drives superior educational outcomes. The importance of equal access is credited with much of the academic progress in Finland, a country without private schools or standardized tests. "Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality."1

The technological advances of online game-based instruction and the breakthroughs in neuroscience learning research bring us an unprecedented opportunity for achieving this equity and quality education nationally and internationally.

More Joyful and Successful Learners

Boredom, negativity, apathy and self-doubt have been amplified by the past decade of over-packed curriculum with emphasis on rote memorization and prep for high-stakes testing. The availability of well-researched information to guide educators and parents in their use of game-structured learning tools could support all children's acquisition of requisite foundational rote facts and procedures. This, in turn, could help all children to participate successfully in classroom learning (assuming computers and Internet access are available).

The best online learning games and programs promote intrinsic satisfaction from working through achievable challenges. Driven by the brain's own dopamine-reward system, perseverance is sustained and accurate memory networks constructed through the frequent corrective feedback that increases data acquisition and memory construction by the neuroplasticity process.

Students in the game-learning, neuro-chemical state of achievement-driven pleasure work at their own individualized levels and paces to learn the critical foundational factual and procedural information. As this most engaged and motivated state persists, the awareness that their effort can bring goal access promotes the reversal from fixed to growth mindsets. (This has been described in my blog How to Plan Instruction Using the Video Game Model, as well as in my other Edutopia blogs and videos regarding the attributes of gaming that engage players at their individualized achievable challenge levels, provide ongoing feedback, and recognize incremental goal progress).

When students are able to learn the critical foundational knowledge through the best online learning games and programs, progressing at their individualized achievement levels, they will be more joyful and successful learners. They will experience the fixed-mindset-changing power of becoming frequently aware of their incremental progress, with the result of an understanding that effort leads to achievement.

Learning frustration and boredom are stressors, and as children’s brains are relieved of these stressors, they will be in the emotional state where learning can be most successful. Teachers will not have to dedicate so much time to "behavior management" because whole-class instruction will not focus on directed instruction and drills.

Achievement Gap Impact

Online learning can narrow the achievement gap for children who did not have the same opportunities to gain the same foundational knowledge of their classmates who had English as a first language, the benefits of quality preschool, and the freedom from hunger, poor health and other social-emotional inequities.

The failure of students to achieve topic mastery is often not recognized until they take summative assessments tests, which frequently test rote memorization, at the end of units. At this point, staffing constraints and the pressure to move on with the whole class deprive teachers of adequate opportunities to close the gaps in these students' foundational knowledge. Despite the unreadiness of these students, the class moves forward driven by test-based interpretations of "mastery levels," leaving more and more children behind.

Online learning, in the best products, provides ongoing assessment and placement of the learner at the appropriate level of achievable challenge, with frequent corrective feedback, opportunities for self-corrections, extension of skills to problem solving, and goal-progress monitoring for the student and teacher. These best programs can achieve what is not feasible in whole-class directed instruction of data, when students' levels of mastery vary greatly. It is humanly impossible to give each student individualized, ongoing formative and corrective assessment, level of mastery adjustment, and goal-progress feedback for multiplication tables, spelling, science terms or historical facts mandated for memorization.

There is no doubt that the Internet and computer technology can change the delivery of required facts and specific procedures in ways individualized to each child's needs, mastery and progress. This delivery can sustain their progress at the achievable challenge level with the motivating intrinsic reinforcement of frequent feedback. What has been lacking is a system to match each student with the online tools best suited to his or her cognitive and academic needs, learning strengths and interests. In addition, many systems do not provide teacher feedback of each student's response to these interventions with the information needed to alter the choice of tools appropriately.

With the more precise information about the availability of specific online learning tools best suited for individual students and topics, we can close another gap needed for the achievement of the educational success equity that is critical for realizing the economic, social and political reverberations we seek.

An Equalizing System in Action

At Carpe Diem Collegiate High School and Middle School in Yuma, Arizona, a system called "blended learning" provides students about half of their instruction online. These learning programs include core content in math, language arts, science and social studies. Four times a day, small groups of students participate in subject-specific teacher-guided workshops that build on their core content with opportunities to think critically about what they're learning and apply it to class projects. Teachers also monitor their progress and provide remediation where needed.2

There are challenges, such as the students who need more guidance to be independent learners and finding programs best suited to their strengths and interests. These challenges can be mitigated with "consumer reports" to guide schools and teachers in the awareness of the best individualized learning tools for each student.

Impact on Teachers

Teachers, relieved of the burden of trying to individually differentiate the required rote memorization of facts and procedures, will be able to do what they hoped to do as educators -- provide enrichment, remediation, and most of all use their creativity, passion and compassion to connect all learners to knowledge through their interests and strengths.

Teachers will design and share engaging performance tasks, project-based learning, and inquiries that enrich student understanding of their online learning. With increasing opportunities for transfer of their knowledge to new applications, they'll continue to improve these blended learning systems. Time in school will be a more valued experience as students apply learning to solving problems and transferring knowledge to areas that are authentic and personally relevant.

Educational Equity

The technology of online learning games has been available for several decades. But without accurate guidance about quality and applicability of these learning tools, their influence on education is limited. The next step needs to be a clearinghouse created and sustained by nonprofit educational foundations, with no related vested commercial interests, and the nonpartisan divisions of the Department of Education. This clearinghouse would evaluate, update and disseminate the information about available free online learning games that are found to be the best fit for each student and subject.

A Consumer Reports for Online Tools can be one of the most powerful steps toward educational equity seen in this country since the availability of free public school education for all children. The impact of access to prescreened, well-categorized online learning -- learning that capitalizes on the intrinsic motivation of the video game model for all students (assuming computer and Internet access are also available) -- is a powerful equalizer that can align the equity emphasis of the Finnish educational system with the ingenuity and collaboration that has yielded the greatest social, economic, scientific and democratic accomplishments of public education.

This type of consumer report is developing online and has been for several years. Part II of this article will describe what is available now and suggest ways to improve current resources.


1"What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success" by Anu Partanen in The Atlantic, Dec 29 2011, 3:00 PM ET:

2"In Arizona desert, a charter school competes" posted by Nick Pandolfo in Education Nation, K-12, News, Sep 24, 2012, 9:53 AM:

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  • Brain-Based Learning
  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Education Equity
  • Game-Based Learning
  • Online Learning

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