What is brain-based learning and how can it inform differentiation?

“Brain-based learning refers to teaching methods, lesson designs, and school programs that are based on the latest scientific research about how the brain learns, including such factors as cognitive development—how students learn differently as they age, grow, and mature socially, emotionally, and cognitively” (Great Schools Partnership, 2013). As a teacher, I try to create lessons that engage my students on both and emotional and cognitive level. I have to admit that it not a quick or easy endeavor and sometimes I fail miserably. I think that all teachers struggle to make their lessons engaging and I am definitely struggling with keeping my fourth-grade students engaged. As Jensen (2005) writes, “To the student’s brain, biologically relevant school stimuli include opportunities to make friends (or find mates), quench thirst or hunger, notice a change in the weather, or interact with classroom visitors. All the while, the student’s brain is concerned with avoiding the dangers of embarrassment, failure, or harm.” Added to these distractions, is the fact that many of my students come from low-income families. They have added worries like having enough food to eat and a stable home life. I agree with Jensen when he writes, “we do know for certain that the following extremes will not work:

  • Focusing only on the basics (drill and kill).
  • Maintaining order through a show of force.
  • Eliminating or reducing time for arts, sports, and physical education.
  • Increasing and intensifying classroom discipline.
  • Decreasing interaction among students.
  • Installing metal detectors.
  • Delivering more heavy-handed top-down lectures.

Nor does it work to pity kids raised in poverty and assume that their background dooms them to failure” (Jensen, 2009). I have heard other teacher’s say at my school that because the students are low income, they can’t learn. It frustrates me when I hear that because I feel the opposite and I’m happy to say that my principal feels the same way. At my school, we do not give homework or have our students complete worksheets. Instead, we develop hands-on group and individual activities. I try to give my students choice in activities to allow for differentiation. I just started literature circles where table groups have each picked a book to read and discuss their book with each other both on their own and with me. As Dunn (2010) wrote, “All students come from different backgrounds, and will be able to share different ideas with the group.  This gives students a chance to make many different connections at one time, and makes the information very meaningful.  Socratic seminars are a different way to teach, leaving the discussion up to the students, instead of having the teacher ask questions in front of the room and students raise their hand if they’re daring enough to share an answer.” When they are finished with the book, they will come up with a project (either as a group, with a partner, or individually) about the book. I will give them ideas if they need assistance, but for the most part, I want them to design and create the project themselves. This is my first time having students complete a book reading in this way and I’m excited to see how my students do with it.


Dunn, B. (2010, May 27). 3 Techniques for Brain Based Differentiation. Retrieved March 9, 2017, from We Teach We Learn: http://www.weteachwelearn.org/2010/05/3-techniques-for-brain-based-differentiation/

Great Schools Partnership. (2013, August 29). Brain-Based Learning. Retrieved March 9, 2017, from The Glossary of Education Reform: http://edglossary.org/brain-based-learning/

Jensen, E. (2009). Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It. Alexandria, Va: ASCD.

Jensen, E. (2005). Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, Va: Assoc. for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


3 thoughts on “What is brain-based learning and how can it inform differentiation?

  1. I think homework or not giving homework is a great way to differentiate for students who do not have a stable place to do this homework. This year I have made a point more often to have time during the school day to give students the opportunity to do their practice at school versus doing at home. I know at the elementary level this might be more of a norm but at high school especially in my math class, this was a big idea for me to accept and apply to my classroom. Thank you for sharing your literacy group activity that you do in your classes and the fact that each student, no matter what their background is, has ideas to share with the class.


  2. I am incredibly frustrated by the perception that poverty equals an inability to learn and not sure how people can still believe that in this day and age! Although our low socioeconomic students “are faced daily with overwhelming challenges that affluent children never have to confront and their brains have adapted to suboptimal conditions in ways that undermine good school performance,” they deserve to experience equality in learning and are capable of the greatest of accomplishments (Jensen, 2009).

    Your description of the differentiation strategies you practice is great. By asking students to complete their work at school using hands-on group and individual activities, they are able to complete their learning activities in the best possible environment you can provide and you ensure that they have access to free choice in learning. As noted by Jensen (2005), the one of the best ways to “create long-term internal motivation” is education that “offers choice in curriculum.”

    As a side note, are you familiar with the work of Ruby Payne and, if so, where do you think it fits into the discussion?


    1. I am not familiar with Ruby Payne. I will have to look into it and see.


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