Brain-Based Learning

Guest Blog: Report from the Learning and the Brain Conference

March 6, 2010

Editor's Note: Guest blogger Kevin D. Washburn, Ed.D., is the Executive Director of Clerestory Learning, and co-founder/ owner of Make Way for Books among many other things. He recently attended the Learning and the Brain conference in San Francisco where there was a fascinating confluence of thinkers, researchers, educators and learners. This is his report.

What's Always Been True

When different disciplines intersect, interact, and interchange ideas, boundaries expand, discoveries unfold, and potential applications emerge. Recently neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators crossed paths at the Learning and the Brain Conference held at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. As expected,expansive and valuable learning resulted with three key insights surfacing:

  • Intelligence is dynamic and significantly influenced by environment.
  • Mindsets are powerful influences on both teachers and students.
  • Motivation is far more complex than the intrinsic vs. extrinsic debates suggest.

"Nature via Nurture"1

Several researchers describe the general understanding of intelligence as full of "misconceptions." The most damaging error is the belief that intelligence is "heritable," that each individual is born with a set measure of intelligence determined by genetics. This myth is perpetuated by a common mistake made by researchers: attributing environmental influences to genetic factors. The mistake spawns damaging policies that undermine attempts to increase children?s intelligence.2

School-based factors, especially individual teachers, can have a powerful influence on a child?s intelligence. Other factors, such as class size, cooperative learning opportunities, and technology usage for supplemental instruction, contribute to improved intelligence, but the greatest school-based influence is the individual teacher. 3 Dr. Robert Brooks describes influential teachers as "charismatic adults"--adults from whom a child gathers strength. These teachers convey an excitement about their subject and believe their knowledge of it can play a role in student learning. They do not "write off" students but believe that given the right environment, all students want to learn and be successful. Their classroom management techniques foster the development of self-discipline, not anger and resentment. They help students recognize the role others can play in their learning and achievement, and they provide opportunities for students to help others.4

Such nourishing environments exist where teachers recognize the social and emotional aspects of cognition. In fact, emotional intelligence and intellect are so intertwined that it can rightfully be said that emotional intelligence is "the way" to be smart. Social and emotional capacities include the abilities to manage emotions, develop empathy and concern for others, establish positive relationships, make ethical decisions, and recognize one?s own strengths and limitations. A teacher who creates a classroom environment that fosters development of these capacities helps students sense an attachment to school and engage in positive behaviors--factors that contribute to academic achievement. 5

Technology-based programs that improve working memory functions can also play a role in increasing intelligence. Working memory comprises several functions, such as attention, that enable thinking and learning. Some technology-based programs have been shown to expand the capacity of these functions, and as of now, no "ceiling" for these functions has been discovered. However, all brain "exercises" are not created equal. Different activities target different aspects of working memory. (In other words, simply completing the daily crossword puzzle will not improve all cognitive functions.) However, educators should be wary of programs that claim to "benefit every student," that lack data collected over time as evidence of their effectiveness, that fail to include knowledgeable professionals, such as neuropsychologists, in the program development, or that lack an ongoing scientific advisory board. Cognitive strengthening is very specific and must be targeted for best results, much like strengthening a specific muscle requires targeted exercises. However, technology-based programs cannot replace more basic habits that support cognitive functioning, such as a healthy diet and aerobic exercise. Good health habits combined with targeted cognitive training can yield increases in intelligence. 6

But technology is not the only means to improving working memory. Nature can also be a powerful influence. Several studies suggest that exposure to nature, or what Dr. John Jonides calls "softly fascinating" environments, leads to improved working memory functions, especially attention. These effects have been shown to be long-term. Training can improve working memory capacity; exposure to nature can restore working memory abilities. 7 When students seem mentally tired, a walk outside may be the best instructional activity.

"Nature via nurture" is the phrase that currently describes neuorscience?s understanding of intelligence. 8 Intelligence is malleable, an entity that can be increased with the right environment. Mindsets are one powerful aspect of such environments.

Mindsets Matter

Mindsets are assumptions, beliefs, and expectations we possess about ourselves and others. They direct our behavior and interactions. Mindsets are powerful and difficult to disguise or hide. For example, when Dr. Robert Brooks asked a child to describe his teacher, the child replied, "She?s chronically depressed." When asked to explain, the child stated, "She never smiles. She doesn?t like kids, and she doesn?t like me." When he visited the teacher?s classroom Brooks saw immediately what the child meant. The teacher was consistently negative. Such a mindset communicates a powerful and damaging message: "If you struggle with learning in my classroom, you are probably incapable of learning." Educators need to understand the power of their mindsets and the resulting messages they send to students. 9 Why? Because the teacher?s mindset influences the student?s mindset, and the student?s mindset influences motivation and learning.

For example, what students believe about intelligence influences their goals, effort, and responses to setbacks. Students who believe intelligence is fixed--that they cannot get smarter regardless of effort--make looking smart or talented their goal. They seek to show how good they are at various tasks or disciplines, even occasionally resorting to cheating if they perceive it will help them look good. In contrast, students who believe intelligence can be increased, that they can get smarter or better at something, make learning their goal. They are more willing to try something because even failure will help them learn to do it better the next time. They are willing to expend more effort pursuing learning. They view working hard as a means to improvement. In contrast, students who believe intelligence is fixed view working hard as being equal to not being smart--if you are smart, they believe, you should not need to work hard. This translates into varied responses to setbacks. Students who believe intelligence is fixed believe they should not make mistakes and give up rather than risk revealing failure again. Students who think intelligence can be increased see setbacks as a way to confront weaknesses and gain insight into how to improve--they see effort as a means to gaining intelligence.

Teachers can influence the mindset students adopt by praising effort rather than ability. For example, a teacher can say, "I can tell you worked hard on this," rather than, "You are good at math!" This shift in emphasis from "ability-relevant feedback" to "learning relevant feedback" affects students? beliefs about intelligence, redirects students? goals toward learning, and increases both students? confidence and motivation. 10 As this research suggests, motivation is more complicated than merely being intrinsic or extrinsic.

Complexity of Motivation

With 40-60% of today?s students feeling "chronically disengaged" from school, motivation is a critical concern for educators.11 Context influences motivation. Dr. Judy Willis, a neurologist and middle school teacher, attributes dramatic and seemingly unexplainable increases in diagnoses of various brain-related issues as a frequent result of classroom contexts. Both boredom and helplessness are forms of stress that can trigger fight, flight, or freeze responses in the brain. These responses produce behaviors associated with various disorders. For example, the flight response can trigger behaviors associated with ADHD and the fight response can trigger actions connected to oppositional defiant disorder.12 Creating a context for motivation to take hold means attending to the relationship between student ability and instructional material. The brains of both unchallenged and struggling students can enter states where caring about learning is a low priority.

As mentioned previously, a student?s beliefs about intelligence influence effort, the evidence of motivation levels. It?s important for educators to note that beliefs can vary from discipline to discipline. For example, a student can perceive effort in language arts as increasing intelligence while seeing math capacity as fixed. As a result, the same student can seem motivated and industrious in one class and uninterested and uncaring in another. Helping students perceive a positive relationship between effort and intelligence in all disciplines can generate motivation or at least make it more of a possibility.13 Students need to know about the relationship of effort and attitude to learning and believe their efforts can result in successful learning.14

Stronger impulses, such as "avoidance motivation," can derail motivation for learning. Students who perceive the classroom as a theater for failure and humiliation are motivated to avoid teachers? efforts to engage them in learning. One child expressed this idea by telling Dr. Robert Brooks that school was a place where his deficits rather than his strengths were broadcasted. When faced with such situations, teachers need to ask themselves how they can lessen "avoidance motivation" for a student and explore new approaches to connecting with the student. As Brooks reminds us, strategies are worthless unless positive teacher-student relationships have been established.15


Plenty of other interesting bits of data with accompanying images from fMRI scans were presented at the conference. In fact, the nearly 500-page program attests to the wealth and depth of insight represented by the conference?s lineup of speakers. In providing this overview, I?ve attempted to synthesize different presentations and organize the ideas around recurring themes. Intelligence can be increased. Mindsets impact motivation and effort?two significant contributors to increasing intelligence. And at the heart of it all is what has always been true. Our relationships with students may be the most powerful (or most damaging) aspect of our teaching.


1. Fischer, K.W., "Opening Remarks," at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Raise IQ and Achievement (San Francisco, Feb. 17-20, 2010).

2. Nisbett, R.E., "Intelligence and How to Get It: Implications for Schools," at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Raise IQ and Achievement (San Francisco, Feb. 17-20, 2010).

3. Ibid.

4. Brooks, R.B., "Mindsets for School Success: Nurturing Effective Educators and Resilient, Motivated Learners," at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Raise IQ and Achievement (San Francisco, Feb. 17-20, 2010).

5. Lantieri, L., "Cultivating Emotional Intelligence: Implementing Social-Emotional Learning in K-12 Education," at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Raise IQ and Achievement (San Francisco, Feb. 17-20, 2010).

6. Fernandez, A., "Evidence of Emerging Technology to Assess and Train Cognitive and Emotional Functioning," at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Raise IQ and Achievement (San Francisco, Feb. 17-20, 2010).

7. Jonides, J.J., "Better Cognition Through Training and Interaction with the Environment," at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Raise IQ and Achievement (San Francisco, Feb. 17-20, 2010).

8. Fischer.

9. Brooks.

10.Master, A.L., "Mindsets: Helping Students Learn to Love Challenges," at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Raise IQ and Achievement (San Francisco, Feb. 17-20, 2010).

11. Lantieri.

12. Willis, J., "Teaching Students How They Can Change Their Intelligence by Teaching Them a Brain Owner?s Manual," at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Raise IQ and Achievement (San Francisco, Feb. 17-20, 2010).


14. Brooks.


Kevin D. Washburn, Ed.D., is the Executive Director of Clerestory Learning, co-founder/ owner of Make Way for Books, author of the Architecture of Learning instructional design model and its training program, the Writer?s Stylus instructional writing program, and co-author of an instructional reading program used by schools across the country. He?s also the author of The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain and a member of the International Mind, Brain &amp Education Society and the Learning &amp the Brain Society. Dr. Washburn specializes in instruction and curriculum. His experience as a teacher in elementary through college level classrooms combines with his penchant for reading and research in educational and scientific areas to uncover important implications for learning. Whether speaking in the classroom or convention setting, writing, or blogging, he conveys a passion for quality teaching and authentic learning.

His other interests include running, cycling, architecture, music, bookstores, and live theater. He also enjoys a good cup of chai, spending time with his lovely wife Julia, and provoking an occasional melodic outburst from their miniature dachshund Ernest. He lives and works in Pelham, AL.

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