Wednesday, April 03, 2013

What are you reading, Jacki Hike?

I recently chose to reread a book that I had read sometime ago. A New York Times Bestseller, this book is packed with pearls of scientific evidence about the brain and learning, making it highly informative and applicable, yet it is at the same time fun and often humorous. In his book, Brain Rules, Dr. John Medina, a very funny developmental molecular biologist, presents twelve principles to help us understand and make the best use of our brains, enabling us to become better teachers, students, parents and professionals.

As an experimental educator, and active educational researcher, I appreciate that the principles shared in Dr. Medina’s book are based on real science, backed by peer-reviewed studies, and often replicated many times. There is a lot of hype about brain-based learning in educational circles today, and not all of it is rooted in science. It is difficult for teachers to learn to separate the wheat from the chaff. Furthermore, for educators who are interested in action research (of which I am a huge proponent), Dr. Medina’s book is a particularly valuable resource. In every chapter, he provides examples of brain-research based practices which should, he argues, improve learning. But he also encourages readers to not take his word for it – try it and assess the results. Refreshing! (And I espouse that we should then publish them on our teacher blogs).

A significant argument of the book is that most of what we experience in life is contrary to these “brain rules.” As Dr. Medina points out, “if you wanted to create an educational environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you would probably design something like a classroom.” And the examples extend office cubicles.

One important point about the book to be understood is that Dr. Medina is an evolutionist and one must read this book with a critical understanding of his worldview. Although I do not agree with mentions of our primitive brains and history, there is still much to gain from reading his work. In the end, you’ll understand how your brain really works—and how to get the most out of it.

What follows is a brief summary of the rules and key principles for educators.

1. Exercise boosts brain power.  “To improve your thinking skills, move.”  Dr. Medina recommends a recess at least twice a day and encourages school districts to consider aerobic exercise in the morning and strengthening exercises in the afternoon at least two to three days a week. Unfortunately, many schools actually cut P.E. time due to increasing demands for higher test scores.

2. Positive relationships are important to learning.  Feeling safe and understood is essential to learning.

3. Every brain is wired differently.  “Human intellect is multifaceted." No two people’s brains store the same information in the same way in the same place.”  For this reason, John Medina argues that “people with advanced Theory of Mind skills possess the single most important ingredient for becoming effective communicators of information” and this may explain why smaller class sizes are better learning environments.

4. We don’t pay attention to boring things.  “Emotional arousal helps the brain learn.” “Audiences check out after 10 minutes…but we can hook them again with messages connected to memory, interest, and awareness.” Dr. Medina developed a model for giving lectures in ten-minute segments for which he was named Hoechst Marion Rousell Teacher of the Year.

5. Repeat to remember.  The more elaborately we encode a memory during its initial moments, the stronger it will be.  “Retrieval may best be improved by replicating the conditions surrounding the initial encoding.”

6. Remember to repeat.  “The way to make long-term memory more reliable is to incorporate new information gradually and repeat it in timed intervals.”  We need to avoid the firehose method of lecturing. Dr. Medina’s ideal high school schedule: Lessons are divided into 25-minute modules, cyclically repeated throughout the day. Subject A is taught for 25 minutes, constituting first exposure.  Ninety minutes later the 25-minute content of Subject A is repeated, and then a third time. All classes are segmented and interweaved in such a fashion.  Another alternative easier to implement suggested by Dr. Medina is to include planned “review holidays” every three or four days “reviewing previous information in a compressed fashion.”

7. Sleep well, think well.  Dr. Medina presents a case for matching chronotypes to schedules—some teachers and students sign up for the early shift, some the late shift.  He also argues that the “Biological drive for an afternoon nap is universal” and promotes 20-minute naps and “sleeping on it” to increase problem solving rates.

8. Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.  “Individually, the worst kind of stress is the feeling that you have no control over the problem—you are helpless.”  And, “Emotional stress has huge impacts across society, on children’s ability to learn in school and employees’ productivity at work.”

9. Simulate more of the senses.  “The more elaborately we encode a memory during its initial moments, the stronger it will be.” Students need to be engaged. “The more the learner focuses on the meaning of the presented information, the more elaborately the encoding is processed.”  Dr. Medina argues that  “we should introduce information as a multisensory experience and then repeat, not only the information but one of the modes of presentation in order to increase retention.”

10. Vision trumps all other senses.  “We learn and remember best through pictures, not through written or spoken words.”  Dr. Medina suggests more pictures and computer animations and fewer words. He even goes so far as to argue that teachers should “toss their Powerpoints.”

11. Male and female brains are different.  Dr. Medina suggests that there is some rationale for gender specific classrooms and that at a minimum we don’t feed stereotypes.

12. We are powerful and natural explorers. In this chapter, Dr. Medina makes that case that educators need to understand brain development. “Babies are the model of how we learn—not by passive reaction to the environment by active testing through observation, hypothesis, experiment, and conclusion.” As educators, we need to design instructional experiences that take advantage of our students design to be innately curious.

As for what I will read next? More about the brain and learning. Doctoral students rarely have time to read for fun. I am glad I enjoy my content area.  I also enjoy my podcasts on my daily commute. They add some occasional variety to my overflowing brain and contribute to my infobesity.

Jackie Hike has been a Professor in the College of Education since 2008. You can see her full bio at

Brain Rules by Dr. John Medina, Pear Press, 2009.

This book can be purchased from AmazonBarnes & Noble, and Better World Books.

You may also find this book at your local library by searching

We'd love to know what you are reading. To join the fun, fill out the "What are you reading?" questionnaire and submit it by following the instructions included.

No comments: