Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Brain Rules by Dr. John Medina

I was recently invited to attend the annual luncheon of the Public Education and Business Coalition (PE+BC). The keynote speaker was John Medina, who wrote the fascinating book “Brain Rules”. Dr. Medina is a developmental molecular biologist and the director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University. He is also a Professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine. After listening to him speak at the conference I was inspired to read his book and I do not regret it. I was worried I would have to slog through a difficult, esoteric book, but the truth is I couldn't’t put it down.

Brain Rules presents 12 facts:

1. Exercise: Exercise boosts brain power
2. Survival: The human brain evolved too
3. Wiring: Every brain is wired differently
4. Attention: we don’t pay attention to boring things
5. Short-term memory: Repeat to remember
6. Long-term memory: Remember to repeat
7. Sleep: Sleep well, think well
8. Stress: Stressed brains don’t learn the same way
9. Sensory Integration: Stimulate more of the senses
10. Vision: Vision trumps all other senses
11. Gender: Male and female brains are different
12. Exploration: We are powerful and natural explorers

The book devotes a chapter to each brain rule, explaining how the brain works with regard to each fact, how it evolved, case studies and stories to illustrate the rule, and how these rules impact education and the workplace. I will highlight each of the brain rules chapters, especially how it is relevant to classrooms across the nation.

It turns out that our brains are designed to walk up to 12 miles a day. Exercise increases the blood vessels created throughout the body and brain. The more blood vessels you have, the more oxygen your brain gets, making it stronger. Not only does exercise significantly cut our risk for dementia, Alzheimer’s, stroke and heart attack, it also “improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work.” In one study children jogged for 30 minutes two or three times a week. After 12 weeks, their cognitive performance had improved significantly compared with pre-jogging levels. When the jogging program stopped, the cognitive performance gains were lost. Dr. Medina says that the way our classrooms are set up, with kids sitting still for many hours a day and the erosion of recess and physical education is to completely ignore this unavoidable fact. He says that cutting off exercise to do better on a test score is like trying to gain weight by starving yourself, and he advocates even more recess (not less) and movement in the classroom – anything to get our brains enough exercise to be at its best.

Our brains are a constant interaction between two features: the database to store knowledge and the ability to improvise off of that. We are designed to use both of these, yet we are often expected to turn off one and prize the other. If we ignore the improvisatory instincts, creativity suffers. To just focus on improvisation, gives no depth of knowledge or mastery. Also, because we have evolved to cooperate, relationships and the emotional environment greatly affect the learning that is possible. If the relationship is not close enough (say, in a classroom of 30 kids where it would be difficult to get to know each student well) or there is a negative relationship, learning will suffer. The success of a student in a classroom is dependent on feelings, so we must attend to them.

Dr. Medina compares a picture of a class in Junior High with brain development. Just as the students in Junior High show incredibly varied physical development (some get to puberty much faster than others, some are growing taller faster than others), so too is their intellectual development incredibly uneven. To expect certain learning goals to be achieved at certain ages is to ignore this rule. He says that 10% of students are not ready to read when we expect them to do so and that these lock-step models based on age are guaranteed to create a counterproductive mismatch to brain biology. A classroom that obeys that brain rule to optimize success for all students would have fewer students so that teachers could understand what is understood by each and every student and enable them to provide individualized instruction. In fact, he advocates for dismantling grade structures based on age.

Back to emotions: they get our attention and impact retention and understanding. Also, we process meaning before detail, so it is important to go from the core concept to the specifics, with plenty of emotion-eliciting examples that support that. Doing so improves learning by 40%. To optimize this rule, he suggests breaking up instruction into 10 minute cycles, with a relevant emotional hook at the beginning or the end of each cycle. Any longer, or with no hooks loses the audience.

Short-Term (Working Memory) and Long-Term Memory
Dr. Medina states that we forget 90% of what we learn within 30 days, the majority of which is forgotten in the first few hours. Repetition in timed intervals is the best way to boost retention. Cramming in one session is significantly less effective than spreading the studying over time. Also, concepts that are richly detailed, meaningful and contextual are also powerful ways to aid retention, so an interesting, relevant story will help to fasten a core concept into memory. This is because our brains have a natural predilection for pattern matching and we immediately associate with information that has already been assimilated. He suggests that instead of our typical 50-minute classes, we should perhaps devote 25 minutes to a subject, then after 90 minutes return to that same subject, then do return to it one more time. He finds that learning that is segmented and interleaved is more effective than the way we do it now. He looks at this on a micro and macro level, giving importance to this repetition in intervals daily, weekly (he thinks every third or fourth day should be review days) and even reviews of key concepts reviewed throughout the years. Oh, and he also suggests that we do away with summer vacation in schools if we want to optimize the memory.

Getting enough sleep and taking naps is important to aid learning. By accident scientist discovered that when we sleep, our brains do not rest, but instead seem to constantly rehearse and repeat what is learned while we are awake. This mental rehearsal is critical to learning and retention. A lack of sleep “hurts attention, executive function, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning, and even motor dexterity.” Dr. Medina says that the “biological drive for an afternoon nap is universal” and says that naps should be part of the work and school day for everyone (not just Kindergartners, who don’t get naps any more now anyway). Just 26 minutes of napping results in a 34% improvement in performance. What other strategy would improve test scores by that much?

Stressed brains don’t learn as well. Researchers noticed that a stressful home life greatly impacts learning capacity, so they tried a marital intervention program with impressive results. Not only did that extra help cause family harmony, but that harmony led to significantly higher achievement in the students whose families received the marital intervention. Dr. Medina feels that this kind of program could be more effective and economically feasible than any academic intervention.

Sensory Integration
A multi-sensory learning environment produces better recall that is longer lasting and more accurate. Learners integrate new information better when more senses are employed in the learning process. In one experiment, the students who were given multi-sensory presentations generated 50%-75% more creative solutions on a problem-solving test than those who saw uni-sensory presentations.

The apparatus in our brain that gives us vision takes up half of the brain’s resources and, not coincidentally, is the strongest sense we have. Simply put, pictures are powerful – more powerful than words alone. A study that was done showed that subjects who received text only presentations remembered only 10% of it 72 hours later, while those who had pictures and text retained 65% of the presentation.

Like it or not, male and female brains work differently and social differences affect language, retention, perception, learning, and more. For example, the language girls use emphasizes their focus on relationships, while boys’ use of language is more indicative of their tendency to negotiate status in groups. Dr. Medina states that the difference between the genders could be described as the addition of a single powerful word. Boys might say, “Do this.” Girls would say “Let’s do this.” Boys who give orders are perceived as leaders and girls who do so are perceived as bossy. Study after study has shown this gender bias solidifies into adulthood.

It seems that the divide in Language Arts that girls excel in and the math and science that boys excel in can be largely attributed to inherent social styles of both genders. A third grade teacher noticed the growing performance gap with consternation and chose to separately teach each gender. After only two weeks of single gender instruction the performance gap was closed!

Babies model how we learn. They do not learn passively, but instead they are active little scientists who test their environment through observation, hypothesis, experiment, and conclusion. We must take advantage of our innate curiosity and learning style and construct active learning environments that take full advantage of this rule, rather than to fight it.
I appreciated Dr. Medina’s efforts not only to explain each brain rule so thoroughly and entertainingly, but that he also gave concrete suggestions for how we could make specific, reasonable changes that will capitalize on these brain rules. Wouldn’t it be great if schools acknowledged these inexorable facts and did everything possible to create environments that obey them?


  1. Thanks for this - the books sounds fascinating and will get a copy. On the topic of memory, recently saw a remarkable documentary film on how the creative arts open doors of communications and memory for individuals with Alzheimer's. Truly incredible results and worth seeing -- had read about it in a piece on HuffPost awhile back - here's the link to the article in case of interest:

  2. Interesting, Suzanne. This is a hard-to-get movie. I just made a request through an inter-library loan. Looking forward to seeing that. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. Much of what Dr. Medina so clearly documents lines up with our experience working with the creative arts (and as you know Tracy, with the paradigm shift Bill advocates in his book Venturing Together), and upon reading your last sentence my initial optimistic response of 'yes, wouldn't that be wonderful' was quickly followed by 'but not in the prevailing system - no way, no how.' I'm just glad to see that some of the small independent schools that can bypass the NCLB madness and prevailing thinking ARE working to create such environments ... perhaps that's really the most we can hope for, in the short run anyway.