It’s a No-Brainer: Beginning Teachers Should Learn About the Brain

By Andrew J Martin

Universities around the world train professionals to support children and young people’s academic and social-emotional development. A lot of this training is about the brain. Paediatricians, for example, learn much about the biochemistry of the child’s brain. Endocrinologists learn a lot about the brain’s role in adolescent psycho-physical development. Developmental neuropsychologists learn about the brain’s neural structure. Occupational and speech therapists learn about neuroplasticity. For teachers, it is the human memory system that is central to what they do—especially for how they develop and deliver instruction. The recent Strong Beginnings report has quite rightly recommended that initial teacher education include core content related to the “brain and learning”.

The Human Memory System Goes to School

The human memory system—especially working and long-term memory—is central to how we learn (Baddeley, 2012). Working memory is the space for information that students are currently and consciously aware of, and where they focus their attention in the moment. Long-term memory is where information is stored for later retrieval and application by the student (such as when they attempt to solve a problem, or answer a question). Working memory is very limited in capacity and duration—just a few items of information for about 15-30 seconds. Long-term memory has vast storage capacity. When information moves from working memory to long-term memory, we can say that it has been learnt. 

Where Do Teachers Fit?

The task for teachers is to develop and deliver instruction in a way that accommodates the limits of students’ working memory and harnesses the vast potential of long-term memory. According to cognitive load theory (a major theory of instruction; Sweller, 2012), teachers do this by managing two types of load on students as they learn: intrinsic cognitive load and extraneous cognitive load. Intrinsic cognitive load refers to the burden put on learners by way of difficult subject material, syllabus content, and learning activities. Extraneous cognitive load refers to the burden put on learners by way of unnecessarily complex, confusing, and unclear instruction. 

If there is too much cognitive burden on students, their working memory becomes overloaded and only part (or none!) of the information will be encoded to long-term memory. That is, the student does not learn. Effective instruction reduces cognitive load on students, eases the burden on working memory, and maximises the opportunity to encode information to long-term memory. Load reduction instruction (LRI; Martin, 2016, 2023; Martin & Evans, 2018) has been developed as a practice framework for putting key tenets of cognitive load theory into action.

Load Reduction Instruction

LRI is an instructional approach to help teachers manage the cognitive burden on students as they learn—especially when students are learning something new or difficult. LRI has five key principles as shown in Figure 1. The first four principles are:

  • Principle #1: Reduce the difficulty of instruction in the initial stages of learning, as appropriate to the learner’s level of prior knowledge and skill; 
  • Principle #2: Provide appropriate support and scaffolding to learn relevant knowledge and skill; 
  • Principle #3: Allow sufficient opportunity for practice; 
  • Principle #4: Provide appropriate feedback-feedforward (combination of corrective information and specific improvement-oriented guidance) as needed.

Figure 1

Load Reduction Instruction (LRI) Framework – adapted with permission from Martin (2016)

These first four principles are quite linear, systematic, and structured approaches aimed at easing the burden on students’ working memory in the initial stages of learning (when they are novices)—so they can successfully encode the information to long-term memory. 

Then, when teachers are satisfied students have learnt the necessary information, principle #5 comes into play: 

  • Principle #5: Guided independent learning.

Independent learning is appropriate at this point because students no longer benefit so much from highly structured approaches once they have acquired fundamental knowledge and skill (the “expertise reversal effect”; Kalyuga, 2007). They now benefit from more open, problem-solving, inquiry-oriented approaches. 

The Brain as a Basis for Building Pedagogical Bridges

In fact, the fifth principle of LRI is where explicit and constructivist instructional approaches can be drawn together. That is, once the teacher has provided sufficient difficulty reduction, instructional support, practice, and feedback-feedforward for students to learn requisite knowledge and skill, more exploratory and inquiry-oriented independence is beneficial for students’ further learning and development. 

Teachers’ knowledge of the human memory system is thus essential for capitalising on the pedagogical opportunities afforded by explicit and constructivist approaches to instruction. When they understand and teach to the human memory system, gone is the false dichotomy of positivism (e.g., explicit instruction) and constructivism (e.g., discovery learning) that has plagued initial teacher education for decades: as far as the human memory system is concerned, the success of one instructional approach is inextricably tied to the success of the other. 

To the extent that core content in initial teacher education focuses on the learner’s brain and helps beginning teachers understand the human memory system and their part to play in this, bring it on. 

Andrew Martin, PhD, is Scientia Professor, Professor of Educational Psychology, and Co-Chair of the Educational Psychology Research Group in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales, Australia. He specialises in student motivation, engagement, achievement, and quantitative research methods.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

3 thoughts on “It’s a No-Brainer: Beginning Teachers Should Learn About the Brain

  1. Kylie Murphy says:

    Aaaaahhhh. Thanks, Andrew.
    How refreshingly *complete*, compared to the discourse on other platforms.
    “When [teachers] understand and teach to the human memory system, gone is the false dichotomy of positivism (e.g., explicit instruction) and constructivism (e.g., discovery learning) that has plagued initial teacher education for decades: as far as the human memory system is concerned, the success of one instructional approach is inextricably tied to the success of the other.”
    Alas, there will be some who continue to believe that learners learn best when they direct their own learning (shunning any form of explicit teaching). And, equally problematic, there will be others who continue to argue that principle 5 represents too great an “opportunity cost”. Why invest time in the meaningful culmination of principles 1-4, when you could more “efficiently” just keep looping through 1 to 4 in more topic areas – hoping that learners will “discover for themselves” what the purpose of that learning is.

  2. Susan Barclay says:

    An old school teacher like myself has always scaffolded the learning to enable the learner to connect new concepts to what is already known/understood /so this new information can be absorbed,/processed/and then used to make new learning.It is not easy for kids to do this on their own without explicit prompts and one only has to study new mums to see how this approach ignites such speedy learning in the infant years. I am 75 years old and teach in a large high school ( category 1) I engage the students by using the narrative =stories about all sorts of things at first a bit like a grandmother.I have found children have been very keen to engage in sharing their thoughts and asking questions? However it seems so many children have not had the opportunity to do this in their early years and now social media is telling the stories to them …and what of deep thinking, challenging sources, holding influencers to account? Not happening. Man!
    I teach my learner some basic ideas about how the brain works and how it is natural and healthy for young people to test the status quo. Also how easy it is for people who understand this to influence others and have power over them and erode critical thinking and free speech. Cancel Culture is not new..Anyone remember Hitler.Pol Pot, Mao, Stalin etc. and let”s not forget all the religious extremists and the really dangerous swing to the right wing.. and they want to reduce the study of humanities. i mean duh!!!

  3. Chris says:

    What I think needs to be addressed here is the strange way in which talk of memory systems (cognitive functions) is conflated with talk of ‘the brain and learning’. A teacher could understand everything written here (from para. 2 onward) about memory systems without any knowledge of underlying neurophysiology (i.e. ‘the brain’). Facts about long-term memory are facts about cognition, and not about neurons or neurotransmitters. This difference is important, and under-recognised (and doesn’t require you to be Cartesian dualist, by the way…) The TEEP report has signalled ‘the brain and learning’ as a core content area, but evinces no awareness of the difference between brains, minds and persons. Teachers’ work is primarily with persons, relationships and minds, not with brains. This work on cognitive load is really useful, but it is not an example of ‘the brain and learning’, which seems to be fuelled more by hype than by utility.

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