Neuroscience evidence

fmri_scanbrainscan wiringRecent advances in neuroscience have significantly increased our knowledge of the brain and, hence, our understanding of the learning process.  The scan on the left shows the areas which are active when one type of thinking is happening, while the image on the right shows the connections between brain areas.  Our understanding has advanced significantly since 2000.

The neuroscience evidence takes the form of both providing explanations for the effective teaching methods highlighted in ‘Classroom evidence’, but also suggesting new possibilities for effective methods.  EBTN is concerned, at present, with the first type: explanations for proven methods.


Brain models for teachers.

As teachers, we do not need the complex brain-diagrams and technical jargon used by neuroscientists.  EBTN uses simpler models.

This ‘Learning Cycle’ diagram has been developed from one by Geoff Petty.  It summarises the learning process without jargon and provides an explanation for the majority of effective classroom methods (see Six steps to outstanding learning).

It explains, for instance:
  • why ‘linking to prior knowledge’ is so vital
  • why repetition is essential to forming long-term memories
  • why using visual and graphical methods is so successful
  • why students cannot listen to words and read other words at the same time


 This brain area diagram, developed by Mike Bell, shows some of the main brain areas as a ‘map’, looking from above.  The visual area is at the back of the head, while the ‘hearing speech’ area is on the left side.  The ‘motor cortex’ runs along the top of the head.This diagram helps us see the different parts of the brain which are active during different types of thinking and learning.
my brain diagram l
This is a brief summary of some of the findings:
  • The brain consists of a series of specialist areas.
  • “Intelligence” is what emerges when most of these areas are working and communicating well.
  • “Learning difficulties” emerge when specific skills are missing.
  • “Plasticity” means that the brain can change and most skills can be improved.
  • New learning must link to existing knowledge (unless learned by rote).
  • The brain naturally links things which are similar. We remember things by their groupings (classification etc). 
  • Memories require several links and repetitions. No links + no repetition:= No memory. More links + repeats:= better memories.
  • Working memory is very limited – 5 to 9 ‘slots’. Complex thinking needs secure memories (chunking) or working memory will overload.
  • Abstract objects and processes (ones we have not seen) are understood using similes and analogies.
  • “Working memory” and the “Sketchpad” are needed for abstract thinking.

Taking it further

EBTN has published “How Brains Learn” – an ebook available from Amazon Kindle