Connecting Brain-Based Teaching & Learning to Differentiated Instruction and Problem-Based Learning

While we know that learning takes place in the brain and there is always more that we can discover about how that happens, the current research about how students learn and develop can and should inform how we teach.  Brain-based learning occurs when teaching is informed by that research and learning environments are intentionally designed or structured to support brain-based teaching.  The Great Schools Partnership defines brain-based learning in their Edglossary as “teaching methods, lesson design, and school programs 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.”  Differentiated instruction is one such teaching method that is used by teachers to support brain-based learning.  Differentiation allows each student to learn based on their interests, readiness for learning, and the ways in which they learn.  Understanding developmental changes is important but a deeper understanding of how the brain and learning are impacted by a student’s life experiences gives us a bigger picture of what is needed to foster a meaningful learning experience.

Jensen (2009) helps us understand the complex world of neuroplasticity and the research that demonstrates that “brains are designed to change” (p. 47).  He helps us to see that each student’s brain is constantly changing; the learning environment plays a major role in how those changes occur and that not only will brains respond to that environment, but they can actually exhibit or suppress genes based on that environment.  That places an enormous responsibility on schools and teachers to be informed and intentional in how they support brain-based learning.  Differentiation can be a valuable teaching method that is grounded in brain-based learning research.

Caine and Caine (2000) examined research across multiple disciplines to develop their “12 Brain/Mind Natural Learning Principles” and highlight how “different aspects of the body, brain and mind participate in the learning process” (p. 3):

12 Brain Mind Natural Learning Principles

These principles can help us to understand how brain-based teaching can be applied across content areas and through different teaching methods such as differentiation.  The principles serve as a “theoretical framework for brain-based learning, and offer guidelines and a framework for teaching and learning”  (Chipongian, 2004).

We have also been discussing problem-based learning over the last couple of weeks and making the connection with differentiation through PBL.  Brain-based learning informs how teachers implement PBL experiences for their students; Jensen (2005) challenges us to “ensure that knowledge in the student’s brain is well organized” (p. 48).  PBL is ideal for building metacognition with students and giving them skills to organize and plan their own learning experiences.  Jensen’s suggested strategies align well with how we implement PBL – building on prior knowledge, organizing strategies and information, peer learning, active learning by doing, products of learning that reflect process and new knowledge, and meaningful content and opportunities to practice and reflect on their process.

Here are five “ways of being” that I would incorporate into my programs based on the 12 Brain/Mind Natural Learning Principles:

  1. Build a learning culture that values group and reflection activities and processes to share what students think, feel, see, and like.
  2. Support students to organize their thinking based on their interests and multiple intelligences.
  3. Encourage social collaboration around common interests and goals.
  4. Provide individual support and feedback and celebrate effort and willingness to try new things.
  5. Model and embrace learning through making mistakes and demonstrate a willingness to listen and learn from students.


Brain-Based Learning.  2013.  In  Great Schools Partnership.  Retrieved from:

Caine, R.N., and Caine, G.  (2000).  12 Brain/Mind Natural Learning Principles.  Retrieved from:

Chipongian, L.  (2004).  What is “Brain-Based Learning”?., Posit Science.  Retrieved from:

Jensen, E.  (2009).   Teaching with Poverty in Mind : What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It.   Alexandria, VA:  Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development (ASCD).  Retrieved from:

Jensen, E.  (2005).  Teaching with the Brain in Mind (2nd Edition).  Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development (ASCD).  Retrieved from:

3 thoughts on “Connecting Brain-Based Teaching & Learning to Differentiated Instruction and Problem-Based Learning

  1. Yes, I agree. It’s important for teachers to understand that brains change due to circumstances. I always build my lessons off of my students knowledge and their background. Teaching in a Title I school, provide that educators really don’t know what environment our students come from. We might think everyone has a great childhood and parents are always in the picture, but reality it’s not the same. Even now at my new school, I see students brain change everyday depending on how their day started or things happened throughout the day to affect their work ethic in the afternoon. I had a student act out for no apparent reason one time, the first thing I asked him (knowing his background/environment) if he had breakfast? He replied no, I gave him a snack and the rest of the morning/afternoon (after lunch) his behavior was fine.


  2. It is interesting when we think about how a person’s environment affects their ability to learn. One thing that stood out in my reading was how researchers believe a person’s IQ can be affected by 30 or more points by the environments where they live and study. One of the frustrations educators experience is when we find a student who appears to have tremendous potential but gets little support at home. These are the kids who can easily fall through the cracks. It shows just how important our jobs are. If we can develop a connection with our kids and provide a safe, motivating, and appropriately challenging environment in our classrooms, we may be helping these kids overcome some of the challenges that could easily hold them back.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I really like your five ways of being. That’s something we should all be aiming for.
    Unfortunately, it is difficult to achieve! In my mind, such a classroom is a comfortable place where everyone is open, supportive of each other, and eager to learn. For starters, it is very difficult for adolescents to be willing to put themselves “out there” in such a way. You would also need to make sure that students are rested, well-fed, etc.
    One thing that you nailed–if students are going to be okay with failing publicly in class, the teacher needs to set the standard for that. We need to fail in front of our students, or share our failures and make them feel a little more comfortable with showing their human side.

    Liked by 1 person

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