Mind/Brain Learning Principles
Renate Nummela Caine and
Principle One: The brain is a complex adaptive system.
Perhaps the most potent feature of the brain is its
capacity to function on many levels and in many ways simultaneously. That is
one reason why we have here subsumed two former principles ("The brain
is a parallel processor" and "Learning engages the entire
physiology"). Thoughts, emotions, imagination, predispositions and
physiology operate concurrently and interactively as the entire system interacts with and exchanges information with its
environment. Moreover, there are emergent properties of the brain as a whole
system that can not be recognized nor understood when the parts alone are
explored. Education MUST come to terms with the complex, multifaceted nature
of the human learner.
Principle Two: The brain is a social brain.
"For the first year
or two of life outside the womb, our brains are in the most pliable,
impressionable, and receptive state they will ever be in" (Zen Physics,
P.18). We begin to be shaped as our immensely receptive brain/minds interact
with our early environment and interpersonal relationships. Vygotsky was partially responsible for bringing the
social construction of knowledge to our awareness. It is through this
dynamical interaction with others that therapy works, for instance. It is now
clear that throughout our lives, our brain/minds change in response to their
engagement with others - so much so that individuals must always be seen to
be integral parts of larger social systems. Indeed, part of our identity
depends on establishing community and finding ways to belong. Learning,
therefore, is profoundly influenced by the nature of the social relationships
within which people find themselves.
Principle Three: The search for meaning is innate.
In general terms the
search for meaning refers to making sense of our experiences. This is
survival-oriented and basic to the human brain/mind. While the ways in which
we make sense of our experience change over time, the central drive to do so
is life long. At its core the search for meaning is purpose and value driven.
Something of the extent of human purposes was expressed by Maslow. Included are such basic questions as "who am
I?" and "why am I here?" Thus, the
search for meaning ranges from the need to eat and find safety, through the
development of relationships and a sense of identity, to an exploration of
our potential and the quest for transcendence.
Principle Four: The search for meaning occurs through" patterning".
In patterning we include
schematic maps and categories, both acquired and innate. The brain/mind needs
and automatically registers the familiar while simultaneously searching for
and responding to novel stimuli. In a way, therefore, the brain/mind is both
scientist and artist, attempting to discern and understand patterns as they
occur and giving expression to unique and creative patterns of its own. It
resists having meaninglessness imposed on it. By meaninglessness we mean
isolated pieces of information unrelated to what makes sense to a particular
learner. Really effective education must give learners an opportunity to
formulate their own patterns of understanding.
Principle Five: Emotions are critical to patterning.
What we learn is influenced
and organized by emotions and mind-sets involving expectancy, personal biases
and prejudices, self-esteem and the need for social interaction. Emotions and
thoughts literally shape each other and cannot be separated. Emotions color
meaning. Metaphors are an example as Lakov so aptly
describes. Moreover, the emotional impact of any lesson or life experience
may continue to reverberate long after the specific event that triggers it.
Hence an appropriate emotional climate is indispensable to sound education.
Principle Six: Every brain simultaneously perceives and creates parts and wholes.
Although there is some
truth to the "left-brain right-brain" distinction, that is not the
whole story. In a healthy person, both hemispheres interact in every activity,
from art and computing to sales and accounting. The "two brain"
doctrine is most useful for reminding us that the brain reduces information
into parts and perceives holistically at the same time. Good training and
education recognize this, for instance, by introducing natural
"global" projects and ideas from the very beginning
Principle Seven: Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral perception.
The brain absorbs
information of which it is directly aware, but it also directly absorbs information
that lies beyond the immediate focus of attention. In fact it responds to the
larger sensory context in which teaching and communication occur.
"Peripheral signals" are extremely potent. Even the unconscious
signals that reveal our own inner attitudes and beliefs have a powerful
impact on students. Educators, therefore, can and should pay extensive
attention to all facets of the educational environment.
Principle Eight: Learning always involves conscious and unconscious processes.
One aspect of consciousness
is awareness. Much of our learning is unconscious in that experience and
sensory input is processed below the level of awareness. That means that much
understanding may NOT occur during a class, but may occur hours, weeks or
months later. It also means that educators must organize what they do so as
to facilitate that subsequent unconscious processing of experience by
students. In practice this includes proper design of the context, the
incorporation of reflection and metacognitive
activities and ways to help learners creatively elaborate on the ideas,
skills and experiences. Teaching largely becomes a matter of helping learners
make visible what is invisible.
Principle Nine: We have at least two ways of organizing
Although there are many models
of memory, one that provides an excellent platform for educators is the
distinction made by O'Keefe and Nadel between taxon and locale memories. They suggest that we have a
set of systems for recalling relatively unrelated information (taxon systems, from "taxonomies"). These
systems are motivated by reward and punishment. O'Keefe and Nadel also suggest that we have a spatial/
autobiographical memory which does not need rehearsal and allows for
"instant" recall of experiences. This is the system that registers
the details of your meal last night. It is always engaged, is inexhaustible
and is motivated by novelty. Thus we are biologically supplied with the
capacity to register complete experiences. It is through a combination of
both approaches to memory that meaningful learning occurs. Thus meaningful
and meaningless information are organized and stored differently.
Principle Ten: Learning is developmental.
Development occurs in
several ways. In part, the brain is "plastic". That means that much
of its hard wiring is shaped by the experiences that people have. In part,
there are predetermined sequences of development in childhood, including
windows of opportunity for laying down the basic hardware necessary for later
learning. That is why new languages as well as the arts ought to be
introduced to children very early in life. And finally, in many respects
there is no limit to growth and to the capacities of humans to learn more.
Neurons continue to be capable of making new connections throughout life.
Principle Eleven: Complex learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat.
The brain/mind learns
optimally - it makes maximum connections – when appropriately challenged in
an environment which encourages taking risks. However, the brain/mind
"downshifts" under perceived threat. It then becomes less flexible,
and reverts to primitive attitudes and procedures. That is why we must create
and maintain an atmosphere of relaxed alertness, involving low threat and
high challenge. However, low threat is NOT synonymous with simply
"feeling good". The essential element of perceived threat is a
feeling of helplessness or fatigue. Occasional stress and anxiety are
inevitable and are to be expected in genuine learning. The reason is that
genuine learning involves changes that lead to a reorganization of the self.
Such learning can be intrinsically stressful, irrespective of the skill of,
and support offered by, a teacher.
Principle Twelve: Every brain is uniquely organized.
We all have the same set
of systems, and yet are all different. Some of this difference is a
consequence of our genetic endowment. Some of it is a consequence of
differing experiences and differing environments. The differences express
themselves in terms of learning styles, differing talents and intelligences
and so on. An important corollary is both to appreciate that learners are
different and need choice, while ensuring that they are exposed to a
multiplicity of inputs. Multiple intelligences and vast ranges in diversity
are, therefore, characteristic of what it means to be human.
(See R. Caine
and Caine, G. (1994) Making Connections: Teaching
and the Human