Two decades ago, Eric Jensen, who was then a middle and high school English teacher, participated in a workshop that, he says, "knocked my lights out." And it changed his career. The workshop focused on ideas for educating young people based on information about how the brain works. Jensen says he was so impressed with this concept that he co-founded an experimental academic enrichment program for teens called SuperCamp. Since its inauguration in 1980, SuperCamp has graduated 35,000 students.
In 1988, Jensen left SuperCamp to devote himself fulltime to the Jensen Learning Corp., which he describes as a “bridge” for educators. The mission, Jensen explains, is to translate the "best of brain research" into language educators can understand and then package it into 3, 5, and 6-day workshops. "Our focus is on the science of teaching and learning," says Jensen. "We call it applied educational neuroscience."
Jensen is also the author and co-author of several books for educators about how to apply brain science to learning and education, including Teaching with the Brain in Mind and his newest book, Arts with the Brain in Mind.
BrainConnection: What do you hope educators will most understand about “teaching with the brain in mind?”
Eric Jensen: I’d like teachers to become far more effective by understanding and applying the research behind learning and the brain. They don’t need to become biologists–just attentive to what learning is all about.
BC: How do you define “brain-based education?"
Jensen: I define brain-based education as a multi-disciplinary approach based on what we currently know about how our brain learns.
BC: How receptive do you think educators are to ideas about brain-based learning, and how has that changed in the 20 years since you have been doing this work?
Jensen: The most receptive is the group of teachers who has been teaching for at least five years and who know, from experience, that what I’m talking about makes sense. The least receptive are brand new teachers and ones who are just ready to retire and want to get out of education. What’s changing is that more and more newer teachers than ever before are becoming brain savvy.
BC: What are some of the biggest misconceptions educators and others have about education based on how the brain learns? Isn’t all teaching and learning making an impact on the brain?
Jensen: Misconceptions include thinking that brain-based learning is all about boring biology (it’s not–it’s about making a difference). Other myths include thinking that it’s either old hat (it’s not) or just recycled good teaching (if common sense was so common, why do we need to teach it?).
Yes, all teaching makes an impact on the brain–for that reason we ought to find out how the impact is made and under what circumstances. Does music influence serotonin? Which music should I play and when? Does the brain “overload easily?” How much should I teach? These are simple questions that suggest we ought to know more about this topic.
BC: Pat Wolfe talks about brain-based education as knowing the difference between what she calls “fad or foundation”; she warns educators not to rush to accept fashionable trends, but to try to understand brain research and how to use it effectively. What is your sense of that? How big do you think is the danger of teachers using unproven techniques?
Jensen: I think that teachers should learn what they do and how they do it. They should know some science behind their profession. Yet many are not interested in this field and most won’t get enough background to make smart decisions. Is too little information dangerous? It’s certainly not preferable. But I’d rather teachers make errors of enthusiasm by at least making an attempt to learn, than to make the error of apathy.
Survival is the reason for change. There is more danger that teachers will bore their kids into becoming apathetic than that they will over-excite them from unproven strategies. Most mistakes are benign from my experience. It’s not like we’re asking them to convert to a “new math” curriculum.
BC: How much do you interact with neuroscientists?
Jensen: I interact with neuroscientists four ways: 1) I am a member of the Society for Neuroscience and attend the annual conferences, where I can interview scientists in depth; 2) I bring scientists into my 6-day workshops and brain EXPOs as guest speakers; 3) I have extensive e-mail contacts with many scientists in reference to their authorship on published studies; and 4) I visit many researchers in their laboratories to find out how they learn what they learn; in the last 5 years, I have made over 40 lab visits.
In addition, I have two researchers on staff who look up topics for me. I surf the Internet, read books like crazy, have several journal subscriptions; and have others who send me things or call me about new research.
BC: Do you think brain scientists fully understand or appreciate the importance of using brain research to enhance learning and education?
Jensen: Most of the neuroscientists that I work with (about a dozen or so) do understand and appreciate what I’m trying to do (link educators with researchers). But on the whole, probably less that 1 percent see any link between neuroscience and teaching methodology.
BC: What new developments from neuroscience research are you most excited about?
Jensen: Right now, I am trying to make sense of how our brain learns implicitly. So I am very excited about the discovery and applications of “mirror” neurons. I am very interested in neurogenesis, too.
BC: In your workshops, you have advocated the use of the Fast ForWord. Why?
Jensen: What’s impressive about Fast ForWord is that it’s one of the first legitimate learning products to come to the educational marketplace based on neuroscience. The potential is unlimited.
BC: In your book Teaching with the Brain in Mind, you argue that standardized testing, with its requirement of “right” answers, is not the most brain-compatible way to learn. Can you talk more about that?
Jensen: We become more intelligent by learning to think on our own two feet, test out a hypothesis, make mistakes and practice skills and knowledge in a supportive environment. We do not become smarter by being taught a narrow range of responses that will be needed on a test. Smart people got smart not by knowing all the answers, but by being better thinkers and eliminating the bad answer choices. That comes from time-consuming projects, discussions, research, building, designing, reflection, and brainstorming. Tests rarely reflect those items.
BC: What is your opinion of standardized testing?
Jensen: We all need standards and a way to objectively measure how learners are doing. But we learn at least 10 ways (procedural, stimulus-response, sensitization, episodic/spatial, habituation, subperceptual, etc.) But most tests only test our semantic, explicit memories. That subclass of learning may actually comprise less than 5 percent of what a student learns daily. Until we learn to better assess all of the things we learn, we are getting an incomplete, therefore possibly inaccurate picture.
BC: Your Teaching with the Brain in Mind takes a very holistic, common sense approach to learning and teaching: interacting with children is better than teaching to them; good food with plenty of water, sleep, and physical activity all prepare children for learning. Yet these ideas seem foreign to the modern classroom. How did that happen and how can a focus on brain-based learning bring them back?
Jensen: School policy-makers long ago made the decision that schools should become more efficient. That was a mistake. Schools are not efficient, but they ought to be effective. That’s also why they made the decision to focus on test scores.
Focusing on long-term neurobiological development, however, is more important. Schools should ask questions like: How do we best support long-term development of our emotional systems? How can we develop better thinking, processing, and decision-making skills? How can we improve stress-responses, teamwork, creativity, and moral judgment? Those skills, not higher test scores, will strengthen the world of tomorrow. In 20 years, we’ll all see the terrible, terrible toll on society from these bad educational decisions.
BC: Your book strongly recommends removing all negatives, such as threats and humiliation, from the classroom. How much are these types of negatives a part of the contemporary classroom and why is it so important for teachers to realize how damaging they can be?
Jensen: Most teachers give lip service to removing negatives from the classroom, but they are still there. Teachers use them for two reasons. One is control–that’s how many teachers control their students throughout the day. Second, teaching is a very, very stressful, demanding, complicated, and challenging job. It pushes your physical, emotional, stress, and psychological limits. When teachers get pushed, they often make mistakes. The child pays the price.
If I had my way, teachers would only be able to teach four days a week–their time would be limited just as an airline pilot’s time is limited. The other day would be for collegial sharing, learning, and preparation.
BC: Nearly everything you talk about in your book about how the brain learns is opposite, it seems, of what happens in most classrooms. Do you agree? Given that, does educating educators feel like a daunting task?
Jensen: Much of what I advocate is not being done, but fortunately, much of it is happening in many schools. Yes, educating teachers is a tough task, but the satisfaction is well worth it. I’m a pretty persistent, tenacious and stubborn soul who is determined to get the word out.
BC: Is there one single most important issue or idea that educators need to know about teaching with the brain in mind?
Jensen: The single most important concept is that we humans (meaning all our intelligence, personality, skills, etc.) are highly context dependent. You can’t tell how smart or obstinate a student is until you optimize the environment. In some cases, this may mean getting that student to another teacher or even another school.
Kids are just responding to the foreign country (it has its own language, rules, leaders, and territory) called school. Because the brain is so highly adaptable, it can adapt to ineffective teachers or schools, but the result might be a bad adaptation. Such students might learn to sit in back, never volunteer, and only cause trouble or disconnect. Until we give kids an absolutely great environment for learning, we will never fulfill their potential.