This article first appeared in Educational Leadership, Vol 54, No 6 March 1997. ©1997, ASCD

CP: In Making Connections and in Education on the Edge of Possibility, you and Geoffrey Caine discuss principles of brain-based learning. Some people might say, ‘Well of course, we learn with our brains-so what else is new?,’ But you and Geoffrey have connected the latest cognitive and neurological research to education. What is new? What is the most significant finding that relates to what we do in schools?
RNC: We debated about using the term brain-based learning because, of course, all learning is brain-based. But if we just said “learning,” then people might not understand what we were talking about, either. Humans have a marvelous brain, whose possibilities appear endless. So when we refer to brain-based learning, we are concerned about maximizing learning — understanding how the brain works best — and we have encapsulated our findings in 12 learning principles that emphasize the connections and patterns our brains make . Our current studies are taking us into the great impact that early childhood development has on the way children learn. These findings have enormous implications for schools-even preschools-because so many neurological pathways critical for later life are laid down from age zero to age 3. These pathways affect the way children interact with formative experiences during later developmental stages. These patterns also include children’s beliefs about themselves and their world, which continue into adulthood.

In your work, you discuss threats that inhibit learning. What are these threats? What happens to learning when we feel threatened?
Many children’s lives are filled with threats to learning-child abuse, poverty, malnourishment, family and community violence. These are devastating experiences for the child-and human brain. These experience program the child to effectively live in anticipation of such experiences. Children who have lived with extreme threat develop perceptual loops; they look for certain signals in the environment that to some extent replicate their own experiences. Their brains are not programmed to help them cope in a healthy way. When we feel threatened, we downshift our thinking. Downshifted people feel helpless; they don’t look at possibilities; they don’t feel safe to take risks or challenge old ideas. They have limited choices for behavior.

What does downshifting mean for teachers?
We define downshifting as the psychophysiological response to threat, accompanied by a sense of helplessness or fatigue. The downshifted person experiences a sense of fear or anxiety, not the excitement of a challenge. Downshifting is accompanied by a feeling that you cannot access your own ability to deal with the situation. Downshifting can result from very drastic conditions in early childhood, as I mentioned; but what we’re seeing is that, to a lesser degree, downshifting is everywhere in the schools.

Do children face threats in school?
Yes, but here we’re not talking about traumatic threats like guns in school.

We are concerned about emotional threats to higher-order thinking and learning. The system of traditional education can be a threat that inhibits higher levels of learning. If as a teacher I am in charge of the curriculum, you the student are supposed to learn what I say you must learn. I know the answers that you have to get. I’m also going to tell you how long it will take you to learn this and when it’s due. And not only that-I evaluate you and your work. In this approach, where is your input? Where is your self-efficacy.? And what are you learning but compliance? So students are doing what teachers want them to do. And downshifted people can do some things well,like memorizing, because the brain perseverates under threat and likes to do things over and over again-repetition provides a sense of safety when you feel helpless. Memorization is compatible with traditional teaching. But real learning-making connections, higher-order thinking, and creativity-is incompatible with that kind of environment.

What are some examples of strategies that are compatible with brain-based teaching and learning?
Let me give you an example that shows how teachers faced a challenge that they first perceived as a threat. Geoffrey and I were working with teachers beginning to use a rich, brain-based approach to learning to read and write. The district suddenly mandated its own literacy program. All the teachers dropped the brain-based approach; they abandoned their new understanding of learning-they just implemented the district’s mandates. They were frightened; they did not have the self-efficacy they needed. In the mandated program, the students were scheduled to do unrelated tasks and drills every day. Soon, kids began to ask, “Why are we doing this? This isn’t any fun and we’re not learning anything!” Geoffrey and I also asked, “Why are you doing this?” Basically, the reason was fear; the teachers felt helpless in dealing with the district-they downshifted.

We encouraged the teachers to examine the literacy program and start incorporating it into what they knew about the human brain. The teachers then said, “Okay, what do we know about learning? We understand that children need to be in a community. They need to follow their own interests, and we need to constantly question and challenge them.” The teachers began to see that brain-based learning moves away from what you do on Monday morning to how children learn. They began to see that brain-based learning is not limited to one approach or strategy. In the process, the teachers took the best from the district’s program-but they also took the best out of Reading Recovery, whole language, and phonics. They began seeing kids in kindergarten and first grade doing critical thinking and analysis. As a result, this school has gone from the second from the bottom in reading in their district to the second from the top.