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Special Article

Kagan’s Brain-Friendly Learning Principles

Kristi McCracken

To cite this article: McCracken, K. Kagan’s Brain-Friendly Learning Principles. Kagan Online Magazine, Issue #58. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. www.KaganOnline.com

Educators tend to teach the way they were taught. New information about the brain’s neuroplasticity suggests that certain types of teaching can increase IQ. Dr. Kagan’s most recent book, Brain-Friendly Teaching, has condensed the research in this field and offers numerous efficient teaching strategies.

Having gathered over 2,000 research studies, Dr. Spencer Kagan culled those down to 1,000 studies and condensed the findings into six main principles for educators. His book describes the process of teaching in a way that works with the brain so it can learn and remember more effectively.

Special Article 5 addresses the first three brain-friendly principles of nourishment, safety, and social. This article covers the remaining three principles of emotion, attention, and stimuli.

When addressing over 400 educators in Fresno last month, Kagan’s intent was to inspire them to revolutionize teaching by shifting their pedagogy or teaching practices to align with the new brain research. When teachers combine collaborative structures to assist students in deepening their academic conversations with these brain-friendly principles, attention is dramatically increased and retention soars.

One brain-friendly principle that makes learning memorable is that of emotion. Retrograde memory enhancement suggests that anything followed by emotion is remembered better. People remember where they were when news of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 reached them due to the strong emotion associated with it.

When positive emotion is elicited, thinking improves. Praise elicits positive emotion. Students are often praised after doing well on school activities, but when asked to think of something that makes them happy before taking a test, it also resulted in higher scores.

Having students create a cooperative team handshake can have a positive effect on emotions. Handshakes change brain chemistry because oxytocin is released by touch. Oxytocin inhibits the amygdalae in the brain that is prone to anxiety. When praise is given before a task, it quiets the amygdalae, allowing students to do better, and praise given following a performance enhances memory.

Humans turn to others to reduce anxiety. When the movie gets to a scary part, people get closer because there’s safety in numbers. Some believe we’re genetically predisposed to this because the straggler in the herd was the one more likely to be attacked. Structured classroom conversations can help reduce anxiety, produce positive emotions, and process new content.


“Don’t teach the way you were taught. When asking students a question, structure simultaneous interactions so that more students have more opportunities to talk every class period of every day.”

Another brain-friendly principle is that of attention. When teachers can capture student attention, it increases their retention. While researching, Kagan found that allowing students frequent opportunities to process new input is as important as anything else educators can do to boost achievement.

Processing frequently includes writing or discussing content, which helps move information from short-term to long-term memory. Talking about new content helps to clarify and refine thinking because students discover what they know and find out what they don't know well enough to articulate it yet.

The working memory fills up, so teachers need to periodically stop inputting and allow students time to discuss using equal sharing strategies such as RallyRobin or a Timed Pair Share. This clears the working memory and moves the new content into long-term memory.

The last principle which helps brains retain what they learn is stimuli. Though Kagan delineated over a dozen stimuli in his book, he focused on gestures during the talk. Gestures are an independent symbol system because they even occur among the blind. People naturally express themselves with gestures.

An engagement structure used to demonstrate this principle was Show Me. Kagan taught several kinesthetic symbols for punctuation such as making a fist for a period and curving the hand into a “C” to signal a comma. He displayed and read a sentence, pausing to allow participants to respond with the gesture for the needed punctuation with the prompt… Show Me.

Another use of gestures is to ask students to independently come up with own gesture for a vocabulary word such as democracy. Students displayed gestures, teachers asked them to describe what they meant, and that generated conversations. This actively engaged students and boosted achievement.

Dr. Kagan increased retention of the principles of Brain-Friendly Teaching by pairing each with a kinesthetic gesture. Educators placed their hands over their hearts while saying “emotions,” which helped anchor the fourth principle. Participants saluted while saying the fifth principle of attention. The sixth gesture was massaging the brain to trigger the memory for the principle of stimuli.

Kagan invited teachers to join an instructional revolution by making one basic pedagogical shift. “Don’t teach the way you were taught. When asking students a question, structure simultaneous interactions so that more students have more opportunities to talk every class period of every day.” Adding the brain-friendly principles by engaging emotions, attention, and stimuli enhances the efficiency of learning and increases retention.