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Music in the Classroom

Brian Based Music

Let’s explore the role of music in your work. Whether you’re a teacher, staff developer or administrator, today’s audience often expects music. Why? A presenter who has orchestrated positive music into a thoughtful tapestry may have spoiled the audience. But is that a good idea?

First, is there any research behind using it? Second, how do you choose the right music?

Music is the perfect stimulus for triggering either raw or complex emotions. First, as you might expect, while novel music can be fun, you’ll get the highest emotional response from playing music which is familiar to your students (Pereira et al., 2011). Typically, the familiar songs evoke strong positive memories. This suggests if you want to play novel music to kids, you might need to a bit of repetition (playing it over and over and associate it with new positives) to turn it into a consistent positive trigger for students.

Another study investigated whether and how individuals employ music to induce specific emotional states. The music was used in everyday situations solely to manage personal emotions. This study shows how emotion-congruent music selections are extra powerful in activating emotional states in everyday situations (Thoma et al., 2011). It validates something very important to me: sometimes the best reason to use music in your own work is that it puts you in a positive emotional state for doing your best work.

The third study was designed to investigate whether listening to music in a social group influenced the emotion felt by the listeners. Surprisingly, the study found that the participants (all were musicians) did not experience greater “group emotionality” or collective emotional response when listening to music in a group than when listening alone (Sutherland et al., 2009). With non-musicians, the effect was the opposite. We all felt the “collective kum-bah-yah!”

Another study goes at this social question from a different angle.


One of the Brain’s “oops” Centers Identified

Brain center


Most people probably never wonder what occurs in their brain when they make a mistake; scientists, however, have diligently pursued the question. “Solving difficult, novel, or complex tasks, overcoming habitual responses, and correcting errors all require a high degree of cognitive control,” the study reports. Acting as the brain’s “mistake filters,” the frontal eye field and anterior cingulate cortex, it appears, critically impact our thoughts, actions, and errors.

The critical point here is that when we can actually see the errors we make, we learn to correct them more quickly.

Action Steps:

Rather than simply pointing out learners’ mistakes, help them identify where and how their logic became faulty. Remember, when we can see our mistakes, the frontal eye field-which houses our error correction and overriding faculties-is activated. Next guide learners through the correct steps, thus, reinforcing accurate methods.

Create a learning environment in which students feel comfortable and safe and smart despite the making of mistakes. Reassure students that mistakes are how we learn.

Allow sufficient “down time” for reflection and consolidation of facts, concepts, and skills.
Do you like travel? How about attending the HONG KONG BRAIN EXPO? Interested in going to China, starting with Hong Kong? There’s an amazing brain-based conference there in early February with Art Costa, Eric Jensen (me!) and the famous Dr. Daniel Amen. Check it out at

Yes,I’ve taken the plunge and have joined Twitter! Click here to check it out. It lets me get a feel for the issues educators are dealing with, as well as keeping up with the technology that impacts the classroom.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Mikey G Ottawa

Adding Elaboration to Lessons


In-depth discussions and summaries.

There is no replacement for this strategy. Students somehow need to talk about, argue, think through, summarize, question, rewrite and recall the learning to develop some depth of elaboration.

An older study (Eysenck and Eysenck1979) showed that processing capacity was greater when information was retrieved from secondary (the resource) memory than from primary memory (“I recall”). It’s better when processing was of a deep, semantic nature than when it was shallow. Students have to do the digging, not you. Let them create quizzes, summaries or dialogs with the material.

More recently, teachers found that if you pause and give students time to answer questions on index cards, then discuss in groups learning goes up. These short, in-class writing exercises increase focus, thinking and depth of knowledge (Butler 2001). Reciprocal teaching is well supported by research. Developed by Annemarie Palincsar and Ann Brown in 1984, reciprocal teaching switches the roles of the student and teacher.

It has been well generalized (Coleman 1997) to many subjects areas as well by using three basic steps:

* Group discussions. These smaller groups allow less competent students to perform at higher levels with greater safety than in the large group. These may include small groups.

* Independent Group Discussions. The group collaborates to revise, understand and construct the meaning of the material their way. Students become motivated by autonomy and curiosity.

* Scaffolding: Students can learn from peers just as well as they can from adults. But the process must be guided and managed to avoid any downsides. Here the teacher encourages and provokes students for deeper understanding. The teacher provides support for those less able students and then backs off.

The commonly used process includes these steps:


Steve Jobs Resigns – His Last Commencement Address At Stanford

Steve Jobs resigned today from Apple because of ailing health.

Here is a piece of the last commencement address he gave, at Stanford…

“Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.

And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960’s, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.

Stewart and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous.

Beneath it were the words: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

Thank you.”

Steve Jobs Stanford Commencement Speech 2005:

Life-Saving News on Alzheimer’s Disease

My father turned 92 this year, so I thought I’d turn to a different topic.

If there’s anything that puts fear into those over 40, it’s cancer. For those over 60, it’s the mental breakdowns, symbolized most by dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. While many find treatments for cancer, few have been successful with Alzheimer’s disease.

The reason that cancer has been so slippery to treat is that there are so many potential causes (inherited susceptibility, environmental toxins, immuno-suppresion deficiencies, etc.) and so many expressions (malignant, nonmalignant), with so many types (liver, brain, and skin) of the disease. It’s very, very complex.

But Alzheimer’s is a different illness altogether. Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most serious form of dementia occurring in the elderly. And it’s the one illness I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But, under the radar, there are some promising treatments that keep making it into the peer-reviewed journals that are worth considering for both prevention and interventions. What I have learned is below. For the surprising news, keep reading… (more…)

Music Tickles the Reward Centers in the Brain

Now That the Holidays Are Gone

Your Music List Upgraded

Music is a big part of our lives. But if you teach, there’s a chance, it’s an even bigger part of your student’s life. In this post, we’ll see if we can sharpen up your use of music.

You’re likely to have a bit of time this summer to work on your music, since the school year gets pretty hectic. Next month, we’ll show you the newest Alzheimer’s disease interventions.

Recent Discovery

We know that music tickles the reward centers in the brain just like other pleasurable, but evolutionarily significant, experiences. It also appears that music rewards the listener to the degree that the music is found to be pleasant.

There are many studies which suggest that the right music can influence the brain’s reward neurotransmitter, dopamine. The beauty of this is that classroom learning can get associated with positive feelings.

Why is this important? Two reasons come to mind: 1) emotional learning supports long-term memory, and 2) when positive emotions are associated with school, kids attend classes more and are more likely to develop a love of learning.

Unlike a concrete reward, music can arouse feelings of euphoria and pleasure. Scientists used PET scans and found endogenous dopamine release at peak emotional arousal during music listening (Salimpoor, et al. 2011). The time course of dopamine release was also curious; dopamine was more involved during anticipation of the music, and then again at the experience of peak emotional responses.

Put in teacher terms, even the anticipation of an abstract reward (listening to the music for pleasure) can result in dopamine release, distinct from that associated with the peak pleasure itself. By the way, dopamine release is highly beneficial for several things. One, it fosters a love of learning; second, it supports working memory. Both of those are very good in a classroom!

On the other hand, unpleasant music seems to involve a different region of the brain. In another study, scientists played music that contained dissonant chords varying in their degree of unpleasantness. They used brain imaging technology to observe and measure changes in brain activity as participants listened to the music. They found that the more dissonant the music, the less pleasant the participants reported the experience. Additionally, patterns of brain activity emerged that were consistent across subjects. Most active during the more dissonant sections of the music was a site in the brain that is physically situated between the cortex and the limbic system. Known as the paralimbic cortical area, this region mediates between cognition and emotion.

The choice of music you use DOES matter; not all music is good!