Brain-targeted teaching is a bold new approach in the classroom

Children are not progressing well enough in their learning either to maximize their individual potential as human beings or to meet the collective requirements of a modern economy. We need to see dramatic improvements in the progress that children make in their learning. This requires bold thinking and innovative approaches to teaching and learning. The Forum for Life-Based Learning supports one such approach that is centred on teaching children the way the brain learns — ‘brain-targeted teaching’.

An online article, 6 Targets to Teach the Way the Brain Learns, sets out the basics of the brain-targeted approach in an accessible way, linking insights from neuroscience to actual classroom practice. It summarises a framework developed by Dr Mariale Hardiman, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in the USA.

The six targets (in simplified, non-technical terms) are:

  • Establishing the right emotional climate for learning so that children are relaxed and ready for learning
  • Paying attention to the physical learning space
  • Designing learning so that children connect old and new information
  • Teaching for ‘mastery’ of a topic so that children begin to store information in long-term memory
  • Encouraging children to be creative, especially with new information they have acquired
  • Helping children to evaluate their learning, particularly through assessments that give them useful and timely feedback

Although we may agree or disagree on the particular ‘targets’ (something that I will return to in future posts), it is the overall approach that I wish to draw attention to here — one that is informed by the way that the brain works.

The Forum for Life-Based Learning believes that we need to reform the school curriculum for young children. The Mind is one of nine learning themes — each with equal priority — through which we believe the individual subjects of the UK National Curriculum should be taught, in order to equip children with the knowledge, skills and values to tackle the challenges they will meet as adults.

By harnessing learning to the way the brain learns, life-based learning brings a crucial new dimension to children’s education. It is by working the way the brain learns that children will make accelerated learning progress.

The Mind

Click to read more about the life-based learning Mind theme

Brain-Targeted Teaching

Visit the brain-targeted teaching website

An Urgent Priority

Why we need a long-term strategy around learning and the brain

Image at the head of this article by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

How were you taught when you were in primary school?

How often do we hear people say that our schooldays were the best days of our lives? It’s a cliché, of course, evoking a sense of a happy and carefree time before the demands and responsibilities of adulthood weighed down on our shoulders. But I wonder how many of us look back with fondness at what actually went on in the classroom itself, and in particular at the way we were taught.

Which of the following approaches to learning do you recognise from your days at primary school? And which do you perhaps feel you most missed out on?

(1) Did your teacher have you repeating things over and over as a way of getting you to remember them?

When I was 10-years-old the teacher made us repeat the following sentence ad nauseam: “The numerator is on the top line; the denominator is on the bottom line.” When I was studying for my O levels — nowadays they call them GCSEs — at age 16, the teacher of French would ask each student in the class, one by one: “Que préfères-vous? Ce crayon ici, ou ce crayon là.” And each student would reply with which pencil they preferred — in French, of course.

Teachers still teach by repetition, but perhaps not in such obvious ways. Maths is often taught by setting lots of examples of the same type of sum to solve. In this learning approach the teacher teaches from the front of the class and does most of the talking.

(2) Or were you taught to learn the way the brain learns?

This is where you reflect on the learning process: knowing what the learning task is; thinking about what senses are picking up the information; aware of using your short-term memory in keeping information in mind just as long as you need it; keeping your attention focused; manipulating information to complete the task; and finishing the task in such a way that you will remember what you have learned.

In this approach the teacher helps the learner to understand the different levels at which the brain works and encourages practice of each. You become a genuine self-learner.

(3) Or were you a ‘constructor’ of knowledge, establishing what you know already, for example about Norman castles, and building on your knowledge?

In this learning approach, you are in charge of the learning, perhaps working with other learners, sharing knowledge, establishing shared questions and finding out together. The phrase ‘pupil as teacher’ comes to mind. The learning frequently starts with a discussion of what is already known and builds from there; this includes identifying known vocabulary and extending it.

The teacher is actually more of a facilitator than a teacher — acting as a learning guide and scaffolding the learning, for example by raising questions about Norman castles and encouraging discussion of the meaning of words about castles.

(4) Or were you aware of the teacher putting you at the centre of the learning, making sure you were comfortable in your learning and valuing you for your efforts?

In this approach the teacher considers the emotional connection to learning. It is important that the pupil has a good environment to work in and is comfortable in the learning space. A sense of belonging and positive self-esteem are also important for effective learning to take place. See Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for more about this. Children who are uncomfortable in their environment, disengaged with schooling and lacking self-esteem are not in a good learning space.

So, which style of teaching most applies to when you were at school? And which one did you most miss out on?

How children learn is so important to the life-based approach to learning that it devotes one of its nine life themes solely to children making best use of their brains. In the Mind theme, children are taught a combination of 2, 3 and 4 above:

  • learning the way the brain learns
  • constructing their learning from what they know
  • ensuring they feel comfortable in their learning environment, whether in school or studying at home

Learning by rote and repetition are not a feature of life-based learning. This does not mean that children are discouraged from learning the words of songs or poetry. It means that the emphasis is on the learner leading the learning, not the teacher. The teacher spouting from the front of the class for extended periods of time is a no-no! And yet I would guess that this is the way most of us were taught when we were at school. Too much of it still goes on today.

My thanks to Denicia Padgett for her article outlining the behaviourist, cognitive, contructivist and humanist learning theories: Learning Theories: Understanding the 4 Major Ones for the Classroom.

Image at the head of this article by Vlad Vasnetsov from Pixabay.

Landmark Treasury review calls for high-profile nature education

An important review has called for nature and the environment to be at the heart of learning in schools. The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review looks at the cost of humanity’s impact on the natural world and suggests eye-catching and often radical reforms to avert future catastrophe. Giving greater priority to environmental education in the curriculum at all stages of learning is one of the recommendations.

The Dasgupta review is groundbreaking because it was commissioned by the Treasury rather than by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). This is an indication that the most powerful government department is embracing the need to tackle the harm that humans are doing to the environment. For example, the review proposes changing how we measure national wealth, moving away from equating progress with gross domestic product (GDP) and recognising the importance of natural capital.

Professor Dasgupta, who wrote the report, said:

Truly sustainable economic growth and development means recognising that our long-term prosperity relies on rebalancing our demand of nature’s goods and services with its capacity to supply them … Nature is our home. Good economics demands we manage it better.

Professor Dasgupta, quoted on the UK government’s website

Professor Gupta talks of the need for us to develop an affection for nature and its processes. He goes on:

As that affection [for the natural world] can flourish only if we each develop an appreciation of Nature’s workings, the monograph ends with a plea that our education systems should introduce Nature studies from the earliest stages of our lives, and revisit them in the years we spend in secondary and tertiary education. The conclusion we should draw from this is unmistakable: if we care about our common future and the common future of our descendants, we should all in part be naturalists.

Preface, The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review

In the chapter on education the review states:

Connecting with Nature needs to be woven throughout our lives … It is a cruel irony that we surround children with pictures and toys of animals and plants, only to focus subsequently on more conceptual knowledge, marginalising environmental education relative to the wider curriculum.

Quote from Chapter 24, The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review

In its report on the Dasgupta review, The Guardian says that the review “would like to see an understanding of nature given as prominent a place in education as the ‘three Rs’, to end people’s distance from nature.” It should, in fairness, be noted that these exact words do not appear to be in the review itself.

Too many children are switched off learning as they struggle to see its relevance. A life-based approach will improve children’s motivation to learn. Life-based learning takes the current subject-based approach for children aged 5 to 11 a stage further. Subject content is respected — all of it — but it is delivered through nine life themes that directly address the challenges we face.

Three of the nine themes — Plant Life, Animal Life and Physical World — directly address our relationship with and appreciation of the natural world. A life-based curriculum will help children adopt the skills, values and practices that ensure they live sustainable lives in harmony with the needs of the planet.

Dasgupta Review

Click to read and/or download the abridged version of the review

Review Headlines

Click to read and/or download the review’s main messages

Life-Based Learning

Click to learn more about the life-based approach to learning

Image at the head of this article by pasja1000 from Pixabay

Award-winning school scheme shows life-based learning in practice

Innovative learning

A year ago the Guardian newspaper reported on a primary school in Essex that won a national dementia award for an “innovative intergenerational project”. The project is indeed an outstanding example of innovative learning.

The project involves older adults who are experiencing isolation, depression and early dementia visiting the school with volunteer support workers and taking part in activities including music, reading and games with young children (up to year 4).

According to the newspaper report, the project has achieved excellent results: “while nationally reception age children make six steps of progress over the year, children taking part in the [project] make 10.”

Click here to read the Guardian’s report.

This project is an excellent example of innovative thinking on education that boosts children’s learning and at the same time addresses life-based learning priorities:

  • Developing children’s communication skills
  • Giving them experience of forming bonds of friendship with people outside their immediate circle of family, friends and teachers
  • Building stronger communities by helping tackle the scourge of loneliness and social isolation

It is also encouraging that, according to the report, the number of such projects is on the increase and that there is also academic interest. We argued in a recent post that there needs to be “a more systematic approach to developing links between schools and those who are at greatest risk of isolation and loneliness, something that is surely more practicable that ever in this age of digital interconnectedness.”

Life-based learning enables, enriches and enlightens. Its nine learning themes animate learning, bringing purpose and meaning by tackling the urgent individual, social and environmental challenges of our times.


Find out about the three learning themes in the Society life area

Life-Based Learning

Learn more about what life-based learning involves

An Urgent Priority

Why we need a long-term strategy to tackle community breakdown

Image at the head of this article is credited to Martin Godwin/The Guardian and featured in the Guardian online article cited in this post

Let’s teach children why they are such quick learners

Children quick learners, for example, learning chess

An excellent newspaper article on adult learning recommends adopting the mindset of a child to help in acquiring new skills. We know that young children are exceptionally quick learners, with an insatiable appetite for new knowledge and skills. But is there an argument for teaching them why they are such good learners?

The journalist and author Tom Vanderbilt has published a Long Read article in The Guardian called The child’s gamble: Why beginners make better learners. It is well worth a look. His description of learning a new skill alongside his daughter (in this case, the game of chess) will doubtless resonate with many parents, and there is plenty for people involved in educating children and young people to reflect on as well.

Vanderbilt is a champion of lifelong learning, highlighting not just the intrinsic benefit of acquiring new skills but also the positive impact on mental acuity and general wellbeing. The trick, he argues, is to think like a child:

Children, in a very real sense, have beginners’ minds, open to wider possibilities. They see the world with fresher eyes, are less burdened with preconception and past experience, and are less guided by what they know to be true.

They are more likely to pick up details that adults might discard as irrelevant. Because they’re less concerned with being wrong or looking foolish, children often ask questions that adults won’t ask.

Tom Vanderbilt, The child’s gamble: Why beginners make better learners

The Forum for Life-Based Learning also focuses on how children learn. We believe that children’s learning will be better if they are taught how the brain itself learns.

Let’s teach children about the role of the senses and sensory uptake, and about different types of memory — short-term, routine, working, operational and long-term.

But there is an important emotional dimension to learning as well. The current National Curriculum turns too many children off learning rather than engaging and motivating young minds and instilling a love of learning.

We need to combine what Vanderbilt refers to as “the spirit of the novice” — the open mind, the willingness to have a go, the courage to fail — with oodles of praise and encouragement. We need to make learning a pleasurable and rewarding experience, not a disagreeable chore.

The Mind is one of the nine life-based learning themes through which we believe the individual subjects of the UK National Curriculum should be taught, in order to equip children with the knowledge, skills and values to tackle the challenges they will meet as adults.

If children know why they are such effective learners, they are more likely to carry that knowledge and that mindset into their adult lives — exactly in the way that Tom Vanderbilt advocates.

The Mind

Find out more about the Mind learning theme

Life-Based Learning

Learn more about what life-based learning involves

An Urgent Priority

Why we need a long-term strategy to improve children’s learning

Image at the head of this article by Anna Ventura from Pixabay

Any strategy for communities must look at what we teach children

Children's community education is emphasised by the image of lots of  people networking each other

Strong and vibrant communities are the bedrock of society. The actions of families, friends and neighbours during the Covid-19 pandemic have often demonstrated communities at their best. Sadly, however, for many people community breakdown is a fact of life, and its effects are perhaps more apparent than ever.

Any long-term strategy to build stronger communities must involve looking at what we are teaching children in school. Today, more than ever, we need to raise the profile of community education to ensure that our children have the knowledge, skills and values to contribute positively to community life — to the mutual benefit of both.

Vibrant communities nurture and enrich us as individual human beings. The website Reference captures this well:

Communities are important because they allow people to interact with each other, share experiences, develop valued relationships and work toward a common goal. Without communities, people would have to live isolated lives with minimal or no contact outside of their immediate circle. Getting to know new people is essential to the enrichment of a person’s life.

Why Are Communities Important?, Reference

Conversely, community breakdown damages us and breaks us down as individual human beings. Consider this analysis from psychotherapist Dan L Edmunds:

One of the most destructive problems is the breakdown of community, and it is this breakdown that has often led to the breakdown of persons. Though we may put many around us, we are alone. Relationships have become superficial, there is no longer concern for the other, and we are pressed by societal and financial pressures to focus on our own survival. We do not concern ourselves much with the plight of others except a few we may call family or friends, and even then, our concern and attention is waning.

Distress and the Breakdown of Community, Dan L Edmunds EdD, BCSA

Life-based learning raises the profile of community learning by treating it as one of nine equal themes through which all subject learning can be delivered.

Life-based learning organises learning to address the modern-day challenges we face. The Society area of life — how we interact with each other — is taught through the themes of Communication, Relationships and Community.

The Community learning theme aims to deal with our lack of social cohesion, with too many young people alienated, lacking a sense of purpose in their lives and contributing little to society in consequence.


Find out more about the Community learning theme

Life-Based Learning

Learn more about what life-based learning involves

An Urgent Priority

Why we need a long-term strategy to tackle community breakdown

Image at the head of this article by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay.

Bold thinking to tackle the blight of relationship breakdown

Children learning relationship skills is crucial in their development of happy, healthy and emotionally rewarding relationships in life .

Children learning relationship skills is emphasised by the image showing a marriage certificate being cut in half.
Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

It is an inescapable fact that relationship breakdown has terrible, life-changing consequences — not least on children, far too many of whom are caught up in, or witness to, child and domestic violence, sexual violence, partnership breakup, family breakdown and the fallout from workplace stress.

It is a tragedy when just one child’s life is affected by such events. The reality, sadly, is far grimmer. National statistics paint a sobering picture of relationship breakdown in the home, the workplace and the wider community.

Here are just some of them, detailed on my Fractured Relationships webpage:

  • There are up to 3 million cases of child abuse, involving nearly 5.5 million children
  • Something like 5.4% of adults – in other words 1 in 18 adults, or 2.4 million people – suffer domestic violence
  • An estimated 20% of women and 4% of men experience some type of sexual assault after the age of 16
  • The UK continues to have some of the highest levels of family breakdown anywhere in the world
  • According to a 2018 UK workplace stress survey, 49% of all working days lost in 2016-2017 were reported as being due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety. The Health and Safety Executive cites relationship problems at work as one of the main drivers of workplace stress.

It would be foolish to believe that such problems can be solved quickly. There is support available for those who need immediate help and to deal with the human consequences of relationship breakdown.

However, we also need a longer-term strategy, one that is sufficiently radical and ambitious to address the root causes of relationship breakdown rather than just its symptoms. Part of that strategy needs to involve teaching children — the next generation of adults — about how to build happy, healthy and emotionally rewarding relationships with family, friends and fellow pupils.

Relationships is one of the nine life-based learning themes through which the Forum for Life-Based Learning believes the individual subjects of the UK National Curriculum should be taught, in order to equip children with the knowledge, skills and values to tackle the challenges they will meet as adults.

The Relationships learning theme arms children with key skills as they begin to construct an ever-expanding web of relationships at home, in school and in the wider world, including — ultimately — the workplace.


Find out more about the Relationships learning theme

Life-Based Learning

Learn more about what life-based learning involves

An Urgent Priority

Why we need a long-term strategy to tackle relationship breakdown

Image at the head of this article by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay.

The UK Primary School National Curriculum needs an urgent reboot

National Curriculum reform: The gap between what is known and what is delivered to children in the National Curriculum is every widening. 

For example: children learning about and looking after their bodies (1), their emotions (2) and their minds (3).

(1) Physiology scientists know more about the body, yet the National Curriculum focus is not on the knowledge and the skills children need to be genuinely supported in learning about and looking after the body. 

(2) Psychologists know more about how to develop emotional resilience (EQ if you like), but the knowledge is not applied to the learning set up in a consistent and intentional way so children are not getting the emotional development they could be getting.

(3) Cognitive neuroscientists know so much more about how the brain learns and therefore, how teachers can facilitate learning so that children can learn the way the brain works – it is not happening

Given the urgent challenges facing individuals in today’s fast moving and everchanging society, the sooner the National Curriculum gets its act together the better.

Harnessing the curriculum to fully nurture children’s ability to communicate

Children's communication skills need to be than the ability to read and write well. Communication is the key word in the image.

Effective communication is much more than being able to read and write well. We urgently need an approach to learning that recognises the role that all curriculum subjects can play in developing children’s communication skills.

The National Curriculum in England for 5- to 11-year-old children places a huge emphasis on reading and writing. This means that not only is speaking given a back seat but also all other forms of communication. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that English is seen as the pre-eminent subject, to be taught separately from other subjects whose own role in fostering communication is neglected as a consequence.

Life-based learning brings together each of the curriculum’s individual subjects under the umbrella concept of communication education, opening up the possibility for all subject areas to contribute to and enrich children’s learning about communication in all its forms — reading, writing, mathematical, verbal, dance, drama, music, graphic/art and multi-media.

Through the Communication learning theme children’s learning is boosted by focusing not just on English and mathematics but on all the various ways that ‘information and understanding is passed from one person to another’ — the dictionary definition of communication.

The expressive arts — art, dance, drama and music — increase the breadth of children’s communication skills and strengthen their connection to the cultural and creative sphere.

Science, design and technology, history and geography all have their own communication languages for children to discover and set about mastering.

Learning a foreign language broadens horizons and opens up a world of amazing cultural and language diversity. Computing, itself a language, is the bedrock of the modern digital world.

In the life-based approach to learning, communication is the glue that joins individual National Curriculum subjects in a focused understanding that proficiency in each different subject language enhances our ability to communicate with others in increasingly rich and varied ways.

At the same time, the opportunity is there for teachers to ensure that facility in the use of spoken and written English permeates all subject learning, with children constantly increasing their vocabulary and their ability to express themselves through highly interactive, broad-based activities.


Find out more about the Communication learning theme

Study Action Areas

Specimen content for the Communication study action areas

An Urgent Priority

Why it is imperative that we act to improve children’s communication

Let’s go for change as we move into the 21st year in the 21st century

A change in the focus by the UK government in the education of primary school children — aged 5 to 11 years — is long over due to meet the urgent challenges of the 21st century.

It is clear our children need to learn to speak, read and write English, be proficient in mathematics and have an all=round education in all the other subjects that make up the National Curriculum in England — science, history, geography, art and design, computing, design and technology, a foreign language, music, physical education and PSHE.

But must the curriculum be taught as individual subjects that have little or nothing to do with each other?

How is it that we have not moved on since education was first rolled out to the masses in Queen Victoria’s 1870s in the expression of learning as no more than a bunch of subjects to be mastered?

The Life-Based Approach to Learning brings meaning to the education of our children by teaching the subjects through vitally important themes: children learn to know about and look after themselves in areas critical to their development; acquire the communication, relationship and community skills to meet the social challenges the country faces; and gain a grounding in the how and why of living sustainably, as we must all surely learn to do.

Oh! … and by the way: children’s progress in the core subjects of English and mathematics [and all the other subjects] will be the better for a fresh approach to education that is more than a jobs market competition.