Brain Research and Learning in School

01 January 2008
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Netzwek Schule web site imageThe Berlin Netzwerk SPIEL / KULTUR is planning to found its own school. The following article is an extract from their prospectus. 


Evidence from modern brain research forms the basis for the following considerations about learning at the Netzwerkschule.


One important discovery of modern research is that the brain has lifelong adaptability. This knowledge is new – not so very long ago people still believed that at a certain age the development of the brain stopped. The adaptability of the brain is particularly pronounced in early youth; small children do learn particularly quickly, but although the adaptability of the brain declines with age, it is never entirely lost.

You do learn more quickly when you are young, but learning when you are older has its own advantages; it builds on knowledge that you have acquired earlier, adds new connections to a network that already exists, makes associations with experiences. 'Someone who has already solved a lot of problems can deal with fresh difficulties more easily; he has an appropriately named "treasury of experience."' (Spitzer, 2003). Lifelong learning has no meaning unless we accept that the brain has lifelong adaptability.

From this we draw the conclusion that there is no need to acquire all knowledge when one is young. To be perpetually anxious that school-children will not learn enough, is to overlook the highly relevant fact that the brain goes on learning right into old age.

What is more, brains are not designed to save up separate elements of knowledge such as events or facts. 'The brain is primarily a filtering system, rather than a storage system. It can store things up but its main function is to protect us from being flooded by information.' (Huhn, in Democratic Schools, Gabbert, 2006)

From the flood of information that comes in, the brain generates rules. A small child does not learn its mother-tongue by swotting up the rules of grammar. The brain extracts rules, and learns them by using them. 'Brains are machines for deducing rules.' (Spitzer 2002). Learning from experience cannot be replaced by the acquisition of pure information. This means that at the Netzwerkschule we will make it possible for children to choose their own practical encounters with reality.


Another finding of brain research is that lasting learning only happens when what is to be learnt is significant to the learner. 'The only things you will remember for a long time are things you feel are meaningful, things that make you curious. Things learned at the behest of others only reach the short-term memory.' (Huhn, in Democratic Schools, Gabbert 2006). Only the learners themselves can sensibly decide what is meaningful to them. 'It will almost always be enough to rely on young brains knowing best what they need at different stages of development and to trust them to use their own sense of values to make critical judgements and appropriate choices. As a general rule children are sufficiently curious and eager for knowledge to get what they need.' (Singer, 2002)

This is one of the reasons why we let school students choose what they want to do. A further reason comes from Deci and Ryan's theory of self-determination.


In their theory of self-determination Deci and Ryan postulate three basic psychological needs, which are innate, universal, and essential for health and well-being:

• autonomy

• competence

• social connection

Deci and Ryan start from the idea that the person has an innate motivational drive to feel connected with other people in a social context (social connection), to be effective within this context (competence) and to experience themselves as autonomous and capable of innovation (autonomy).

From their study they draw the following conclusion about learning:

'Being motivated to learn in a way that does not correspond to the learner's principles, for example by imposition from outside, impairs the effectiveness of the learning and at the same time interferes with the development of the individual self.'

Several studies show that self-determined learning has a positive effect on the intrinsic motivation to learn. As a result this leads to qualitatively better learning outcomes. (c.f.. Grolnick & Ryan, 1987; Grolnick, Ryan & Deci, 1991).

Connection and autonomy

According to Gerald Hüther connection and autonomy are two basic needs of every human being. This is a consequence of the fact that the development of the human brain does not finish at birth; it is able to adapt to the context it finds itself in after birth. For this learning process there must be an atmosphere of security and freedom from fear (connection) and the freedom to grow and develop (autonomy). Otherwise the automatic, purely life-preserving functions will dominate and the further development of the actively adapting, learning brain will be hindered.

If the need for connections and autonomy is satisfied, people develop a positive self-image. Then models and orientations can emerge, which are the basis for alertness and the ability to concentrate, for motivation, curiosity and enthusiasm. Attitudes develop, responsibility is assumed, it becomes possible to see things from other people's point of view (empathy). This is also called social and emotional competence. Finally, under these conditions people develop the ability to plan actions and assess consequences, which is known as impulse control. Armed with these skills, people can also deal with complicated situations in life.

If these needs are not met, the organism feels the need to compensate for a perceived lack; greed, acquisitiveness, avarice, envy, covetousness, hatred and jealousy are the result. In complicated situations in life people don't know how to react, they become frightened, and simple, partly archaic brain functions take over the helm. It is no longer possible for them to cope with problems. (See, among others, Hüther, 2006).

Voting under democratic conditions and self-determination – the two central concepts of the Netzwerk-Schule – ensure and maintain the connections and autonomy which are necessary for the best learning.

The role of the emotions

The emotional circumstances in which neutral facts are learnt decide what area of the brain they are to be stored in. In a positive emotional context the facts are stored in the hippocampus, in a negative one in the amygdala. These different storehouses have significant consequences for the ability to make use of the learnt facts later. What is stored in the hippocampus remains permanently available for use in the long term. In contrast, when the attempt is made to recall what is stored in the amygdala, there is a stress-reaction which prepares for attack and flight. Every attempt to call on what is stored in the amygdala also calls on fear. This means that creative use of what has been learnt is no longer possible. Enduring learning requires a positive emotional atmosphere. Such an atmosphere is more likely when the learner seeks out what he wants to learn for himself, and is able to influence the conditions under which he learns.

The complex investigations of brain research in the last few years also show that positive and negative emotional circles can develop. The positive circle leads from curiosity, challenge and successful achievement to positive expectations and is self-reinforcing. People talk about the so-called flow effect, which is characterised by the way the learner sets himself greater challenges as his skills increase and takes on neither too much nor too little. The negative circle leads from avoidance, worry and failure to negative expectations and is also self-reinforcing. This vicious circle can be broken. Self-doubt, the feeling of not being able to do anything and self-reproach are avoidable.

From our point of view this means that the Netzwerk-Schule, in its role as provider of education, makes a point of creating a positively stimulating atmosphere and the optimal conditions for learning. The individual student's choice of subject-matter strengthens his feeling of self-worth and systematically avoids over- and under-challenging. Self-determined learning increases the likelihood of the student getting into an individual flow channel and having a positive, self-reinforcing experience of learning.



Deci, E. & Ryan, R.: Die Selbstbestimmungstheorie der Motivation und ihre Bedeutung für die Pädagogik, Zeitschrift für Pädagogik, 39, 223-238, 1993.


Gabbert, Jan: Demokratische Schulen. Ein Film über die Lust, zu lernen. Berlin 2006.

Grolnick, W. and Ryan, R.: Autonomy in Children's Learning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 890 –898, 1987

Hüther, Gerald: Bedienungsanleitung für ein menschliches Gehirn, Göttingen 2006.

Huhn, Gerhard: Kreativität und Schule. Risiken derzeitiger Lehrpläne für die freie Entfaltung der Kinder. Verfassungswidrigkeit staatlicher Regelungen von Bildungszielen und Unterrichtsinhalten vor dem Hintergrund neuerer Erkenntnisse der Gehirnforschung. Berlin 1990.

Ryan, R and Deci, E: A motivational approach to self , in R. Dienstbier (Ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, Vol 38, Lincoln NE 1991

Singer, Wolf: Der Beobachter im Gehirn: Essays zur Hirnforschung. Frankfurt/Main 2002.

Spitzer, Manfred: Lernen. Gehirnforschung und die Schule des Lebens. Heidelberg 2002.

Spitzer, Manfred: Medizin für die Pädagogik . DIE ZEIT, Nr. 39, 2003.


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