Brain Rules in the Classroom: Part 2

If you look at the anatomy, the structure, the function, there’s nothing in the universe that’s more beautiful, that’s more complex, than the human brain.
— Keith Black (quoted in Discover magazine, April, 2004)

Understanding more about our amazing brains will not only help us take better care of ourselves, but also help us create the best environments and conditions for learning in our classrooms. For that reason, Infinite Horizons is keeping you up to date with the latest research in neuroscience and the learning brain. Last month we looked at three of John Medina’s brain rules, and this month we will dive into three more rules. 

This Month’s Brain Rules

Brain Rule # 8: Stressed brains don't learn the same way

The human brain is meant to respond to acute moments of stress with strength and agility. Think of this in terms of our evolution – in the past we needed to be able to respond quickly when being chased by a predator or facing imminent danger. But chronic stress has the exact opposite effect. Prolonged or severe stress causes the hippocampus (the place in the brain responsible for memory) to stop creating new neurons; it prevents new neural connections from forming, and kills brain cells. In other words, long-lasting or severe stress actually causes brain damage. 

What does this mean in our classrooms?

In order to help our students form new memories and strengthen their neural networks, we need to create a low-stress classroom environment and teach students how to manage stress. In last month's newsletter, Brain Rules in the Classroom: Part 1, we mentioned several ways to create a safe environment in your classroom.   

Even within a welcoming, nurturing classroom environment, students will still experience stress from time to time - especially during test taking season. We can build stress-reducing techniques into our classroom instruction to help students deal with stressful moments in the classroom and in life. One way to do this is by taking deliberate brain breaks. During these breaks you can lead students in stretches, deep breathing exercises, and cross-lateral body movement. Another strategy that we have discussed before is the practice of mindfulness. (See our past newsletters, Mindfulness Matters  and Mindful Practices to Prepare for Summative Tests for more details.)

What does this mean for YOU as a teacher?

So often, we expect ourselves to be super human. On a daily basis, we have to juggle many balls in order to give our students the education they deserve while simultaneously meeting state and school regulations. We need to make sure we take time to manage our own stress levels as well. Creating a habit of meditation or practicing mindfulness on our own and with our students is extraordinarily beneficial. Building our own mindfulness practice truly gives our brains some time to rest and be in the moment. And when practicing with our students, we are able to model brain-healthy habits that will help them for the rest of their lives. 

Brain Rule #3: Every brain is wired differently.

The basic structure of the human brain is essentially the same for everyone, but the connections between the different parts of the brain vary from person to person. In that regard, like fingerprints no two people have exactly the same brain. People process information in different ways using different parts of the brain. 

What does this mean in our classrooms?

This research confirms that no two students learn in exactly the same way, and it emphasizes the importance of creating differentiated lessons that are accessible and engaging for all learners. It is essential to vary our instructional methods and modalities. Kathleen Kryza has co-authored several books on differentiated instruction to support you in your efforts to meet the needs of your students. (Visit the Infinite Horizons product page to view titles and learn more about her books.)

We should also find ways to honor all learning styles in our classroom. Students can take surveys to discover more about their own learning styles and multiple intelligences preferences. We can create displays in the classroom with information on how to appeal to each type of learner. These displays will serve as a reminder to us (to mix up modalities) as well as to our students.

What does this mean for YOU as a teacher?

We need to recognize our own biases. Very often we teach the way we like to learn.  If we are not deliberate in our pursuit of differentiation, our lessons end up meeting only the needs of those who learn like us. This subconscious bias can be averted by consciously creating lessons that present and ask students to interact with material using a variety of modalities.

Some ways to ensure that you are branching out to different modalities could be to:

  • create a lesson planner divided into different teaching modalities (kinesthetic, musical, etc.)
  • collaborate/brainstorm with colleagues who learn differently. (You will each end up offering one another unique perspectives.)

Brain Rule  #4 : We don't pay attention to boring things.

If you’ve ever sat through a presentation in which the presenter read through a series of slides, you can attest to the fact that the brain doesn’t pay attention to boring things. In fact, the average brain has an attention span of only 10 minutes. We need to find ways to shake things up and take a break from the ordinary in order to stimulate students’ curiosity and interest. Like Dr. Seuss says, “I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells.” 

This brain rule also discusses the fact that, although commonly lauded as an important skill in many workplaces, multitasking does not work. Studies show that those who multitask make up to four times more mistakes and end up taking longer than those who focus on a single task.

What does this mean in our classrooms?

We need to intentionally and transparently teach our students about the impact of multitasking on time and focus. We can teach them to practice setting aside their technology for chunk of time and staying focused by giving themselves a timed tech break.

We also need to create lessons that align with the brain’s capacity for attention. Direct instruction should last no longer than ten minutes (less for younger students) before students have time to process and work with the information. To address this issue, Infinite Horizons has created the Chunk, Chew, and Check method of lesson planning. During the Chunk section, new information is presented to the students in time periods of around 10 minutes. Then the students have time to process or Chew the information before the teacher Checks for understanding. To learn more about the Chunk, Chew, and Check method of lesson planning, check out our newsletter, Chunk, Chew, Check: It's How the Brain Learns Best and our books. As we say, “Chunk, chew, and check—that’s how the brain learns best!”

 What does this mean for YOU as a teacher?

How many of us try to correct papers, plan lessons, and email colleagues at the same time? We know that we have fallen victim to this type of multitasking on more than one occasion. With so much on our plates, it can often feel like a struggle to focus on one thing at a time. But good ol’ fashioned single-tasking is ultimately going to make us better teachers and saner individuals. Try to separate tasks into different time slots, and keep that time slot sacred for that task only. Also, it’s important to share this information with our students. We should intentionally and transparently teach them that their brains work best when focused on one task at a time. As with anything else, these lessons are best shared through modeling the behavior ourselves.


The rules that we focused on this month all seem to align with good lesson planning and classroom environment. More information on this, transformative teaching, and the teacher’s hero’s journey can be found in our brand new book that should hit the shelves in September! In the meantime, we at Infinite Horizons are happy to provide you with materials to support you in both of these arenas. Try using our CUKAN template for planning your next lesson, and let us know how it helped you meet the needs of all of your learners. We’re excited to hear from you!

Stay tuned for the next couple 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 brain rules that you can post in your classroom. 

Written by: Michelle Leip with Kathleen Kryza and Sheila Kreichbaum