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Why Educators Need to Learn More About the Brain

Posted by Joe Clarkin on Jun 29, 2016 4:00:00 AM
Topics: Higher Ed, professional development

The human brain is at the center of every experience we have. And yet, because of its complexity, it remains a mystery in many ways. People dedicate their whole lives to studying how and why the brain does what it does, and even they don't end up learning all there is to know. That, however, is no excuse for educators not to learn more about the brain. Here's why:


I’ve sat through my fair share of meetings on the topics of student learning and success in my professional career. The brains weren’t there.

I have two advanced degrees in education. The brains weren’t there, either.

I have been teaching success strategies to first-year students for a decade. The brains weren’t in my courses.

When I recently attended a huge national education conference, I found some of the brains. Two educators stood at a table in what is sometimes considered the second tier of conference life, the poster session, speaking about brain-based teaching and learning. I told them they should be the keynote speakers, and my hunch that they were not was later confirmed, for the brains were not to be found in the big-ticket keynote event that evening.

I will be the first to acknowledge my own brainless guilt. For years, I trumpeted the importance of learning styles in my administrative roles and in my teaching. It sounded good, this idea that all students learn differently and that I could vary my teaching style to meet their distinct learning needs. Medina, a highly trained brain scientist, wrote Brain Rules, in part, to debunk myths such as learning styles. (Note: Learning styles and multiple intelligences [MI] are distinct concepts. MI is supported by the research.) His book includes only studies that have been published in peer-reviewed journals and that have been replicated at least once.

Learning styles don’t make the cut, because they don’t exist. They’re a quaint decoration, the drawer in your kitchen that maintains aesthetic value but doesn’t actually open. We are all visual learners, Medina argues. Vision is the sense that trumps all others.

Who among us has ever filled a PowerPoint slide with so much text that we had to decrease the font size to make it fit? Who is offering, or even requiring, that students take the VARK learning-styles assessment as part of your first-year programming? Pause for a moment and ask yourself what you really know about learning styles. If you’re like me, you won’t like the answer.

In the years since first reading Brain Rules, I’ve been on a quest to not only find the brains, but to bring them to the center of our conversations on teaching, learning and student success in higher education. Whenever I attend a meeting or present to a group, I like to share recommended readings with colleagues or attendees. Brain Rules is almost always my first recommendation. I’m both saddened and hopeful at the numbers of people who scribble the title onto their notepads, or who tell me they’ve just ordered it online in the time I’ve taken to describe it. They didn’t think about the brains before, but they want to.

This essay is the first of several articles for Inside Higher Education that will explore Medina’s rules in the contexts of higher education, student success, online learning and faculty development. The articles will probably leave you with more questions than answers, for though each episode of Star Trek famously declared space as our final frontier, it’s my belief, after falling in love with brains over the past several years, that putting a human on Mars pales in comparison to ever fully grasping the miracle inside our own heads.

— Karen Costa, Inside Higher Ed
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About Joe Clarkin

Joe Clarkin is a former copywriter at MBS. When he’s not working or studying, you’re most likely to find him reading a book or watching a game.

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