Brain Rules in the Classroom: Part 1

If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a classroom. If you wanted to create a business environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a cubicle. And if you wanted to change things, you might have to tear down both and start over.
— John Medina , Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School

The quote above from John Medina sounds like a calling for radical change in education, but he actually offers 12 basic principles that help us understand how the brain functions. Since we at Infinite Horizons want to help you keep up-to-date with the latest research in education, we are going to spend the next few newsletters, synthesizing the 12 rules and offering insights and implications for classroom and personal practice. The exciting part is that the information in this new research directly links to all of the things you’ve heard at Kathleen’s workshops or read in our books and newsletters. We are thrilled to have even more science to back up what we know is “just good teaching!”

This month we will introduce the first 3 of John Medina’s 12 brain rules.

Brain rule 1 - Survival: The human brain evolved, too!
“The strongest brains survive, not the strongest bodies.” The human brain has had to adapt to its surroundings in order to survive. In order to handle challenges of survival, humans have developed the ability to learn from past mistakes and to form collaborative relationships in order to solve problems. So, our ability to understand each other and work together is our most critical survival tool. Also, if we don’t feel safe, our brains do not perform at their best.                                                                                                         
What does this mean in our classrooms?

First, we need to create the kind of environment in our classrooms in which students feel safe and included. That’s why it’s so essential to create a risk-taking, mistake-making, “fair is not same” learning environment. (See our free posters and past newsletters on growth mindsets.)
Students don't care what you know until they know you care! It is important to let students know that you care about them as individuals. Creating lessons around topics of students’ interests is one way to show that we care about who they are and what they want to learn. You can learn about their interests and preferences by doing interest inventories. (See Inspiring Learners Books for more tips on creating safe environments and our website for free interest surveys.) 
Finally, it’s essential to teach students how to collaborate by including numerous opportunities for them to work in flexible groups and partnerships. Not only is working with others engaging, but it also teaches students interpersonal skills that will help them thrive and survive throughout their whole lives. (Take a look at this Free Resource for more information about partner and group work: chat chums, CORE groups, etc..) 
 What does this mean for YOU as a teacher? 

Recognize that your brain works best when you work with others as well. Make time for collaboration with colleagues.
Seek out opportunities to work in groups to improve your practice.
Be gentle with yourself. You’ve spent a lot of time teaching your students that taking risks and making mistakes is a positive thing, make sure you remember that for your own learning adventures as well. 
Brain rule 2 – Exercise: Exercise boosts brain power!
It increases oxygen flow into the brain, which reduces brain-bound free radicals. One of the most interesting findings of the past few decades is that an increase in oxygen is always accompanied by an uptick in mental sharpness. Exercise acts directly on the molecular machinery of the brain itself. It increases neurons’ creation, survival, and resistance to damage and stress. Bottom line, if you want to learn better, you need to get moving!
What does this mean in our classrooms? 

Be intentional and transparent about how regular exercise impacts the learning brain. gives even more information about how exercise benefits the brain. 
Our students need movement and exercise. Though we are not all P.E. teachers, we can build movement practices into our teaching. 
View or download, Movement in the Classroom – Dr. Martha Eddy, CMA, for tips on how to add movement into your lessons. has a few more tips for successfully including movement in your lessons. 
Fight to keep and expand fitness programs at your school and in your district. tiosourc
What does this mean for YOU as a teacher? 

We now know that even short amounts of exercise make a difference. Even if you can only carve out a few minutes in your day for exercise, make it a priority. There are lots of “one-song workouts” on the internet that help you get in a little endorphin kick on the days where you just can’t find much time to move your bod! (You can search on You Tube for many one-song workouts that will get your heart pumping!)
Kill two birds with one stone by taking your collaboration on the road! Try going for a walk with a colleague while planning or reflecting on your teaching.
You’ve, no doubt, been adding “brain breaks” into your lessons. Make sure you give yourself some time to move and stretch in between lessons.
Brain rule 7 – Sleep: Sleep Well, Think Well!
We all know from experience that we think better when we are well-rested. Research has shown that when subjects who should have gotten 8 hours of sleep received only  4 hours, their memory dropped to the bottom 9% when compared with those who got the right amount of sleep. A lack of sleep not only affects our memory, but also our attention, executive function, mood, logical reasoning, quantitative skills, and even motor dexterity. The amount of sleep necessary varies according to gender, age, health, and other such factors, but general guidelines can be found on the Sleep Foundation website.
What does this mean in our classrooms? 
Remind students about the appropriate amount of sleep for their age groups.
Consider how much homework is reasonable to expect from our students every night. Be sure to give students enough time to complete longer projects.
Help parents understand how sleep impacts their children’s learning brains.
Propose later starts for your schools so that students are able to get enough sleep.

What does this mean for YOU: 

Take care of yourself! Make sure you’re getting enough sleep every night. Don’t stay up that extra hour to come up with your lesson plan. Do what you can, and then trust that your brain will work faster in the morning to finish the plan after a good night’s sleep.
Take a nap! Taking a nap might make you more productive. In one study, a 26-minute nap improved NASA pilots’ performance by 34 percent. 
Closing: Through reading Medina’s work we are recognizing that we need to care for our brain just as much as we need to care for our bodies. So this month, work with your students and focus on working with others, getting exercise and sleep!
Stay tuned for the next few months as we continue to explore the brain rules and how they relate to our work in the classroom. Remember to take good care of your own brain! You can find all of the brain rules at Medina’s website, See the side margin for printable posters on the first three brain rules that you can post in your classroom.

                                                        Written by:  Michelle Leip  with  Kathleen Kryza