Medina's Brain Rules: Informing Teachers as Researchers

John Medina’s Brain Rules is a great read: fun, breezy, informative and applicable: his website too is an awesome collection of resources.

I think an important and rising practice in teaching today is that of the experimental teacher, one who deliberately, and collaboratively, tests techniques in learning as an active educational researcher, and draws conclusions about best practice from first hand trial and error.  We know that there are others out there telling us how we should teach (Doug Lemov: Teach Like a Champion), and I think we should be paying attention, but I think we all can become better teacher-researchers ourselves.

For those educators who are practicing research, Medina’s book is a great resource: in every chapter he provides examples of brain-research based practices which should, he argues, improve learning.  But don’t take his word for it– try it and assess the results.   (And then publish them on your classroom teacher blog!).

Below are 8 of his suggestions especially well suited for such classroom experimentation, but don't be limited by these suggestions; use the book to discover your own opportunities for experimentation.

1. Exercise so boosts brainpower that learning is enormously enhanced when students are engaged in light exercise during or in times adjacent to learning.   Medina recommends treadmills under each student’s desk, which seems ideal but a bit impractical.   What if a teacher, in a 75 minute period, divided the students in half, sending one group out for a five minute brisk walk halfway through the lesson while the other group review notes, and then quizzed both groups afterwards.    Which group would perform better?

2.  In the Wired chapter, Medina makes a strong case for the significant advantages small classes provide over large ones, and small environments over large ones, for learning: “because a teacher can keep track of only so many minds, there must be a limit on the number of students in a class– the smaller, the better.”

Medina also suggests teachers seek to understand and apply the skills in the so called Theory of Mind, most of all the skills of empathy.    If we get inside our students’ brains, we can teach them better.     How to test this?  I am not sure– what if we asked our students to test in it teaching each other, by first using an empathy evaluator, and then having the high empathy students teach a group something, and then have the low empathy teach the group something, and assess which group learned better.

3.  The attention chapter is enormously valuable to educators, and suggests a ten minute rule– attention wanders after ten minutes, so consider only ten minute modules in your learning.  Teachers could teach one textbook chapter unit in the regular way, and test it, and then in the next unit try a new discipline of ten minut

e modules, or taking every ten minutes a one minute timeout for some emotionally resonant attention grabber– anecdote, joke, role play, youtube video– and then similarly test.   Which unit has better test results?

4. This youtube video offers a classroom experiment in short term memory, and the value of repetition.  Check it out, and test it yourself.

5.  The sleep chapter is fascinating; Medina makes quite a case for the significance of healthy sleep and learning.  “data suggest that students temporarily shift to more of an owlish chronotype as they transit through teenage years…..starting high school classes at 91m may make some sense.”   What if teachers surveyed students on how much sleep they had the night before tests, and then correlated that to test performance, and showed students the results?

6.  The Sensory integration chapter is also a must-read chapter for educators.    Some “rules” are provided:

a. Students learn better from words and pictures than from words alone.

b. Students learn better from animation and narration than from animation and on-screen text.

The discussion of smell in this chapter is incredible.   Seriously, he suggests that if you spray a strong smell in your classroom as you teach a subject, students will do much better on the accompanying test if you spray that same smell during the test taking time.   Experiment with it, maybe using popcorn.  If it works, think about what could be done for an AP course, or an SAT prep class (spray strong-smelling aftershave during instruction, and then urge students to apply it to their hands and wrists before the high stakes test).  This is serious, folks.

7.  Vision is the most powerful sense, and Medina brilliantly lays out how and why this is so.    Use images in teaching, he argues emphatically.   Less text, more pictures!  He also advocates for animation– use simple animation software or on-line sites to have students animate ideas they are learning, and teach each other with their animated lessons, and learning will improve.  This could be a great classroom experiment, having one group animate a lesson for themselves and each other, having the other group just write words in their learning, and then compare the results.

Powerpoint presentations also come under attack here, or wordy ones do.   Use slides, sure, but use them to deliver images and just a very few (2? 5?) words to accompany.  Try your powerpoints for classroom lectures for one unit with 25 or more words, and for another with ten or fewer, and then compare the results on the unit test.

8.  Loved the last chapter on exploration– the brain loves to learn by exploring the world around it, by trial and error, by actually acting in the mode which one is trying to learn.   He uses the example of medical school education, which is based on the idea that people learn to be doctors by pretending to be doctors, by being apprentice doctors, by being immersed in real-world hospital settings, or by being given challenging real world case study one after another.    Surely there are excellent experiments here for classroom teachers– what ideas do readers have to suggest?



  1. […] 2. “Use your own classroom as your research lab.”   I love this point, and only wish it had been elaborated.  There are many “experts” and researchers offering us advice on how we should teach, but I don’t think our our faculty’s professional autonomy ought to be compromised by a requirement to abide by, for instance, Doug Lemov’s research.  But teachers as leaders could show leadership by experimenting  and testing such ideas in their classrooms and reporting on the results, and then making their own decisions about which research-based recommendations they accept and implement.   For more, see my post Medina’s Brain Rules: Informing Teachers as Researchers. […]

    December 6, 2010
  2. […] Brain Rules by John Medina.   Better than most others, this book combines strong and deep brain research and knowledge with a very high accessibility for the general reader, and offers great suggestions and insights that you can really apply in your daily life, and in your classroom.  For more on applications of the book, see this post: Medina’s Brain Rules: Informing Teachers as Researchers. […]

    June 14, 2011

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