Trust the Science: Using brain-based learning to upgrade our educational OS

Spoiler alert: When we adjust learning conditions to be more in sync with the known laws of brain-based learning, learning improves. Momentum builds.

Trust the science

For 15 years I’ve been helping Vermont educators and school systems apply what we know about the brain to inform what we do in our schools. And for 15 years, I’ve watched a variation of the same story unfold.

Initially, there’s excitement. Everyone loves learning about the brain, especially educators. Most teaching teams never get the chance to sustain a multi-year conversation about what contemporary science has to say about why and how people learn.

The findings inspire educators to try out strategies more compatible with the way learning works. Early results are positive.

But then, the inevitable rub. As educators take an increasingly science-based approach to learning design, they run afoul of our industrial-aged operating system: great for running factories constructing Model-Ts, but not-so-great for running programs cultivating young minds.

It’s a matrix moment. Educators grasp how incompatible our operating system is with the known laws of learning. The journey continues — once you grasp the science of how people learn, it’s hard to let it go — but with a checked enthusiasm and diminished expectations.

And so it goes. No exceptions.

But educators aren’t the only ones checking their enthusiasm. When asked to review the Schlechty Center on Engagement’s description of the “five different types of involvement” students bring to their school work, the Vermont educators I’ve surveyed for more than a decade report that the majority of their students display a mix of compliance, avoidance, or rebellion.

  • How did we get here?
  • Why do we keep working so hard for such meager results?
  • And what would working smarter look like?
A Ridiculously Brief Yet Highly Instructive History

For millions of years our earliest ancestors learned by acting in the world and working with the world’s feedback. Our brains changed as our understanding grew. Around 200,000 years ago the modern human emerged. The universe’s most advanced known learner. Our secret sauce? Socializing to solve pressing problems so we might lead more satisfying lives.

We learned so much, we needed to categorize our understanding into disciplines that specialized in making sense of different dimensions of our experience. And then, just within the last couple thousand years, we created schools. Why put up with the mess of constructing your own learning, when experts can explain the way the world works?

By the late 19th century, the Committee of Ten committed to our traditional model of school, the operating system that bedevils us today.

That operating system — of and for its time — efficiently sorts students according to a narrow view of intelligence to determine who continues with schooling and who heads to work. It also takes a narrow view of teaching and learning, reducing learning to a transaction: teachers give expertise to those students capable of receiving it.

In that time period, Edward Thorndike and John Dewey embodied two vying visions of education.

Thorndike called for a mechanistic, teacher-centered, data-driven system, rejecting Dewey’s case for a more organic, student-centered, community-based system. “To understand the problems in education today,” writes Ellen Condliffe Lagemann in The Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Education Research, “one must understand that Thorndike won and Dewey lost.”

Since then, our faith and belief in measurement has grown.

Never in the history of education has any country required students to take as many standardized tests as has the United States. The results? Abysmal.

But let’s give credit to Vermont, home to the vanquished but still influential John Dewey.

For decades Vermont has led national efforts to make schools more compatible with our contemporary understanding of how people learn, and the purpose of school. Vermont’s Act 77 and Education Quality Standards testify to our efforts.

Yet, these ongoing initiatives are like so many pieces of sophisticated software. The old hard drive just can’t run them; the new fix bogs down an already overwhelmed system.

And educators — accustomed to coverage-based professional development that moves onto the next initiative before getting the current one right — bring a mix compliance, retreatism, and rebellion to the work. A mix that’s strikingly similar to that brought by their students.

And then, to bring this speedy history up to date, COVID arrived.

Interestingly, the initial shock of it all caused many schools to drop the pretense of business as usual. Slow down; simplify; relationships first.

  • In less than a year, we’ve learned creative ways to connect across distances and differences.
  • In less than a year, we’ve developed a profound appreciation for the vitality of in-person connections.
  • And in less than a year, we’ve become more aware of and empathic about the pre-existing conditions that have been inflamed by the pandemic.

Many more of us, for example, are now aware of the mental health crisis plaguing so many adolescents, as described so well in the first ten minutes of Princeton Professor Laurie Santos’ pre-pandemic presentation to the National Council for Behavioral Health.

After all we’ve been through, do we really want to return to our pre-pandemic state? Wouldn’t we rather apply what we’ve been learning to design a better way of operating, one that makes the very most of our time together and apart?

Describing the resilience and creativity that early Vermonters brought to the hardships they faced, historian Zadock Thompson wrote, “They were aroused to their highest energies by the difficulties they were compelled to encounter.”

And we are doing the same! We are adapting and evolving in ways we can’t even recognize or appreciate yet. As bad and scary as it feels and is, we are making remarkable discoveries.

And I sense that all of us — students, educators, and families — are more ready than ever to adopt a contemporary educational operating system. One compatible with the science of why and how people learn. One in sync with what our communities need, and one that adheres to, rather than violates, fundamental laws of learning.

What are these laws of learning? And how would school be different if we operated according to these scientific findings?

Let’s take a look at five of them.

1. Humans continuously learn from and adapt to their experience.

This means that we are all learning all the time.

Even when we’re sleeping — especially when we’re sleeping, it turns out — the process continues. It is relentless. You cannot stop it.

Our nervous system attunes to our ongoing experience, getting and generating a feel for things. These non-verbal sensations stem from the older parts of the brain, which regulate our body systems and generate feelings that impact our states of mind.

These states of mind determine what we do, far more than that slim-but-mighty cortex, the relative newcomer to the brain that enables us to problem-solve. We like to think that it’s this rational part of our brain that’s driving the bus, but that’s not so.

And here’s why this is so, so, so important for educators: while it’s true that learning is relentless and cannot be stopped, it’s also true that learning is hard to direct or control. Learning is wild, and like most wild things, resists being corralled and coerced.

You can bring students to school, but you can’t force them to learn what you want. And we as educators are no different. You can require teachers to attend professional development, but you can’t control what they learn.

And here’s where so much organized learning goes wrong. When you take away learners’ sense of agency, you cut them off from their biological inheritance: that insistent and thrilling urge to explore, experiment, and work with others to make sense of their most pressing concerns.

So they adapt to school, learning how to game the system to meet their needs, conserving their highest energies for what matters most to them. This is evolutionary biology at work, not the willfulness of students who just won’t pay attention. They are paying attention! Just not always to what we want.

Wise educators design experiences that tack with, rather than tamp down, these biological, gale-force winds.

Our Industrial-Age Operating System: A Brain-Based Operating System Would:
Creates curricula that are disconnected from, and often discounting of, students’ pressing questions about their experiences and interests. Design learning experiences in sync with students’ emerging conceptions of and questions about their experiences and interests.
Rewards students for demonstrating grit and persistence in the pursuit of short-term learning. Inspire students to tap their highest energies as they pursue long-lasting learning.
Makes learning a private, individual, and competitive race that celebrates getting into a good college. Make learning a public, social, and collaborative celebration of learners’ growth and their current aspirations.

2. We learn best by performing badly at something we want to get better at.

When did you learn the most about teaching? Was it in the courses leading up to student teaching, during your student teaching, or throughout your first year of teaching?

And when did you learn the most about using technology to facilitate learning? Was it during the last ten years of occasional professional development? Trying it out and having to Google what went wrong?

Or has it been during these months of actually having to use technology to facilitate learning?

We all learn the most by doing the actual thing, or a very close approximation. We want to learn. Learning how to play a new game? Don’t spend too much time reading the rules. Jump into a game with people who know how to play. You’ll pick it up in no time.

But schools tend to be places where we’re taught the directions and information we’ll need for playing a game that’s years away. And we are bad at this; it is not how we learn. We have a hard time paying attention because, well, we’re paying attention to the games we’re in right now, the ones that matter most to us.

The most vibrant programs in our schools — those that cultivate the kind of full-throated buy-in that generates the energy enduring learning requires — are those that invite students to prepare for public performances. Just look at the performing arts, and athletics. The more real the performance and the larger the audience, the greater commitment on the part of the learners. Learners conserve and invest their highest energies for these kinds of challenges.

Creating opportunities for students to perform for real audiences generates engagement. Without this purpose, teachers exhaust themselves lugging students up the plodding path of compliance, avoidance, and rebellion.

Our Industrial-Age Operating System: A Brain-Based Operating System Would:
Separates most learning from a real purpose, performance, and audience. Connect most learning to a real purpose, performance, and audience.
Perpetuates the misconception that learning is a linear process that begins with knowledge acquisition rather than “getting in the game.” Enact the scientific finding that learning is a nonlinear process that works best when we’re “in the game.”
Practices massed learning, disrupting sleep and well being in ways that cause fatigue, forgetfulness, and anxiety. Practice spaced learning, improving performance, memory consolidation, and well being.

3. Why and how we measure learning impacts learning.

When and how to shine the light of measurement on learning is a tricky topic. Given how sensitive our nervous systems are, we shouldn’t be surprised. When we know we’re being observed and measured, we adjust what and how we’re acting and thinking.

Since learning is wild, it can be skittish. The bright light of measurement can cause it to recede.

So we should be wary of why, how, and when students see this light headed their way. Too soon, and we’ll elicit the self-consciousness reflex, pushing students back inside themselves to study the rules, rather than drawing them out to play.

So why, how, and when should we measure learning? The answer lies in the latin derivation of the word assessment.

brain-based learning

When students experience assessment as an ongoing conversation with a trusted and caring community that wants what’s best for them, enduring learning thrives.

But when students experience assessment as compensation for doing daily tasks and a system for ranking them according to a GPA, compliance, avoidance, and rebellion take root.

One of the charms of very young learners is their unabashed enthusiasm. Despite continual bumps, bruises, and bellyflops, they persist at falling until they can walk. Relentless and unstoppable, indeed.

But as students get older, their brains change. The curse of self consciousness kicks in, and if we’re not careful, this wild thing called learning retreats to its inner den. Sometimes for years. And sometimes while managing an impressive GPA and stellar test scores.


Our Industrial-Age Operating System: A Brain-Based Operating System Would:
Creates a culture of compensation that incentivizes extrinsic learning, conditioning students to invest only enough energy to earn the pay (scores) they want. Create a culture of communication that incentivizes intrinsic learning, conditioning students to invest their highest energies to achieve their personal best.
Requires teachers to determine and report students’ quarterly learning and provide an annual report summarizing the year’s learning with a single grade, number, or symbol. Require students to document and share the story of their learning, creating a portfolio that provides a current and long view of who the learner has been, who they’ve become, and who they are becoming.
Prepares students for valid and reliable standardized tests, which narrow learning to content that can be measured (and forgotten) easily. Prepare students for life by engaging them in the complexity of their current lives, which expands learning by inspiring students to become their best selves.

4. Human beings construct their own understanding of the world.

When we listen to another’s expertise — especially when the expert is skilled at simplifying complex ideas — we experience the illusion of learning. We think we’re learning, but more accurately, we’re getting glimpses of someone else’s learning, which feels like it will last, but that sensation should be accompanied by a flashing warning sign: temporary access only.

Even if we take good notes and then study for the test, we’re practicing short term recall. Until we’ve integrated ideas into our own schema through experience and application — constructing our own learning — these fleeting insights fade into the dustbin of short-term memory (sometimes within days of acing a test).

One of the drivers of our outdated operating system is a fundamental commitment to schools being teacher centered. Most university and high school classrooms are designed for learners to sit facing and listening to their teachers. The older students get, the more their classrooms look like performance spaces, where their teachers take the stage to do the work.

A contemporary educational operating system would be learner-centered.

Students would come to school to be studied. Three, recurring questions would spiral throughout the k-12 experience:

  • Who am I?
  • Why am I here?
  • What will I do?

Of course students would learn from their teachers, but the ongoing focus would be on the learners’ evolving stories. Each year students would become better known and better understood, and each year their particular affinities and aptitudes would be nourished and leveraged to work on areas of challenge.


Our Industrial-Age Operating System: A Brain-Based Operating System Would:
Perpetuates a model of teaching and learning that assumes that students learn by listening to experts. Enact a model of teaching and learning that assumes that students must construct lasting learning.
Resorts to “never enough time instruction”, racing over content in the name of coverage and test prep. Employ “just in time instruction”, staying in sync with their learners’ emerging conceptions in the name of enduring learning.
Creates a culture of overload and fragmentation; students study disconnected disciplines out of context and with no connection from year to year. Create a culture of coherence and connectedness; students practice disciplines to help them answer the recurring questions, Who am I? Why am I here? What will I do? 

5. Expectations impact performance.

If you’re not familiar with the expectation effect — how our expectations and the expectations of others impact behavior — watch this remarkable three minute video.


Educators’ expectations get shaped over time not by the wild learner within all of our students but, tragically, by the adaptive behaviors students exhibit within the corralled confines of school. And as educators begin expecting and planning for seemingly inattentive and apathetic students, they begin messaging this expectation, perpetuating a self-fulfilling prophecy that sustains our operating system’s failures.


Our Industrial-Age Operating System: A Brain-Based Operating System Would:
Expects that most students are not capable of or ready to call on their highest energies to learn deeply. Expect that all students can learn deeply, when they experience challenges that call on their highest energies.
Focuses on creating structures and systems that punish disengaged students and reward gritty students. Focus on creating structures and systems that inspire, respect, and celebrate the wild learner in all our students.
Narrows expectations to get data that show whether same-aged students are meeting particular content-based proficiencies each marking period. Expand possibilities by engaging students in long-term projects and require the development of transferable skills and the enduring learning of content.


Now what?

If you’ve never seen the backwards bicycle video, it’s a humorous and visceral reminder of how tight a grip our long-practiced habits and beliefs have on us. Even when we are highly motivated to change our operating system, we wobble, stumble, and fall. It’s awkward, even embarrassing.

Teaching and learning during the pandemic has made us all novices. It has not gone smoothly. It has not been pretty. And it sure hasn’t felt good.

But it has activated our brain’s most miraculous feature: its plasticity. The ability to imagine and create better ways of operating, when confronted with difficulties that call on our highest energies.

One reason why so many of us are so wiped out? We’ve been giving it our all.

Fortunately, our exhausted minds don’t need to imagine novel solutions. The jury’s been in for a long time now about how to create learning experiences compatible with why and how people learn. Rather than conjure new initiatives or launch another reform effort, what if we looked backwards to promising but poorly implemented ideas and committed to getting them right? What if we got rid of those practices and structures that interfere with what we and our learners need?

We can do this, but we need to resist the siren song of the status quo. We need to trust our secret sauce.

As counter-intuitive as it feels, we need to slow down. We need to simplify. And we need to connect.

In this way, educators and their students can regain their sense of agency and bring their highest energies to the difficulties we’ll continue to encounter throughout our lives.

Final Thoughts

Before signing off, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share some resources to help you take some doable next steps, regardless of where you are in your education journey. I hope these three collections help you find what you need.

  1. Ideas for the Too-Tired-to-Design Educator
  2. Annotated Collection of Articles & Videos to Skim and Pick
  3. Annotated Book List

It takes courage to trust and apply the findings of cognitive science, which often run counter to how our current schools run. And it takes commitment to confront the generational poverty of pedagogy that we’ve inherited. That industrial-aged mindset that saps, rather than inspires, learning.

“Until one is committed,” Goethe reminds us, “there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.” But when one commits, “…the entire universe conspires to assist you.”

Let’s commit to bringing an end to the Sisyphean tragedy of teaching in ways incompatible with how learning works.

And finally, let’s commit to making school a place that leverages what millions of years of evolution have bestowed in all of us: the relentless urge to work and play together to solve pressing problems so we might lead more satisfying lives. What a difference this would make in our students’ lives, our communities, and our world.



What do you think?