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Friday / December 15

How to Exercise the Brain Through PBL

Like myself, many people hear the term brain-based learning and think, “Isn’t all learning brain-based since that is what we use when we are learning?” Brain-based learning means that the brain responds and grows when presented with certain skills and activities. It is sort of like exercising your muscles. If you want to develop large biceps, there are certain exercises that will target that muscle group. You have to wisely choose what exercises you use if increasing your bicep muscle is your goal. Similarly, the brain is like a muscle. Certain skills and activities help it to grow more than others. And then there are others, many of which we employ in the traditional classroom, that do not.

So the question a teacher has to ask is, how do I avoid being the elliptical machine? Anyone who has ever been to a gym knows what this exercise machine is. It is the one that looks like a cross between a treadmill and an exercise bike. People are effortlessly pumping their legs and thinking they are burning fat. Although these machines are easy to use, make you look like you are exercising a lot, and are very popular, you are not burning the fat you think you are. There are many other exercises that would stimulate the body and burn fat far better, but of course they require a little more effort. The same goes with teaching techniques associated with brain-based learning. They require a little more effort than the traditional methods, but they are so much more effective at growing the muscle we want to grow in the classroom: the brain.

Here are three of the most effective instructional techniques for brain-based learning:

  1. Orchestrated immersion–Creating learning environments that fully immerse students in an educational experience
  2. Relaxed alertness–Trying to eliminate fear in learners, while maintaining a highly challenging environment
  3. Active processing–Allowing the learner to consolidate and internalize information by actively processing it

All three of these techniques are the basic concepts I discuss in my book Creating Life-Long Learners: Using Project Management to Teach 21st Century Skills. By using projects, you certainly are immersing students in a learning environment. Traditional methods of whole class instruction, often with the teacher at the front of the room, require very little effort on the part of the students. They are passive participants in the learning process, having information provided to them, which they are required to memorize only to regurgitate at a later time in the summative assessment. Not a very effective way to learn. It would be like trying to get fit by watching others exercise. If students are to learn effectively and grow their brain, they need to be fully involved in the learning process.

Projects, when done correctly, are excellent at immersing students in the educational experience because they are as much about process as they are product. In other words, we often focus on what students produce at the end of a lesson, but not on how they got there. How they got there should be where most of the brain-based learning is going on. It is where the crux of the learning takes place with the final product merely acting as a display for this learning. If you can make your project authentic in nature, there is going to be even more of a connection with the real world and it is these connections that are the most effective at achieving brain-based learning.

One way to make it authentic is to present the project to the students as a job where they are competing against the other students in the class. It might look something like this:

Shark Tank Project

Objective: The goal of this project.

Design a startup business that you will be presenting to a group of investors for start up money. You are to create your own product or service, but you must prove to the investors why they should invest in you; why is your product or service better than what is already out there? Or is there nothing else like it and you are creating your own market?

This project will consist of 3 to a group. You will be given some time in class to work on this project. Each of you will be responsible for specific roles. Below you will see the descriptions. Before you start, you must tell me who is taking on what role.

  • Manager – Your role is to make sure your group is on a specific task every day. You must create a deadline for everything that needs to be done for this project. This means that you have to make sure your team is doing what they are supposed to be doing. For each time you meet, you are to record what you are working on during the time given to you. Time management is crucial in this project.
  • Tech – Your role is to design and edit the presentation that you will be giving to the investors. You must make sure that the final product is working and ready to go the day before it is due.
  • Reporter/Writer – Your role is to make sure the business plan is put together in the right order, including a title page and page numbers. Although everyone will be writing specific sections, you are responsible for making sure that the final draft is free from grammar errors, and it makes sense.

Part 1 – About Your Business: You will conduct a brief presentation (< 5 minutes) telling the rest of the class what you are doing and why. You must include the name of the business, who is taking on what role, the type of business you are setting up, and what product and/or services will you be offering. This is to be professional and everyone in the group must speak.

Part 2 – Writing the Business Plan: You will be writing a business plan that outlines your new start up company.

Part 3 – Commercial: Create a commercial clip of your business service and/or product. Your commercial should include at least a slogan, music, service or product in action, and creativity.

Part 4 – Presenting to the Sharks: You will present your proposal to the investors. Don’t forget to include how much money you would like for what percentage of ownership, and what you plan to do with the investors’ money. Keep in mind that you are fighting everyone else in the class for the start up money (only one group will win), so you have to get creative with your presentation. After all presentations are done a winner will be selected.

This would of course be accompanied with rubrics, templates, calendars, and possibly learning contracts to help keep students guided along the way.

By using longer-term projects to create this learning environment you are providing students a relaxed alertness where it is OK for them to fail. Throughout the process of a project students will encounter successes and failures. The key is to not let the failures act as a roadblock and to develop a plan to move forward. Because the process is not being assessed as a letter grade, students feel more comfortable in taking risks and failing because there are no repercussions for doing so other than having to adjust your project. It is difficult to move on from failure if that failure occurs on the summative assessment because many times after this test, the lesson is over. A project-based management environment provides a safe place to work–but not so safe that students will never face challenges.

You as the project manager/teacher have to allow students the opportunity to take a risk but not to the point where they are in danger of failing. Here is what the levels of learning look like:


In the comfort level at the center there is not much learning going on. Learners are covering things they possibly already know and although it feels good, they are not getting much out of it. On the outer edge of learning is the danger zone. If you put learners in a place they are so unfamiliar they are fearful of it, they will shut down and no learning will occur. Learners have to walk the precarious tightrope of the risk zone. Learners must be challenged, feeling a little uncomfortable, but not so much they are in danger. That is the optimal place where brain-based learning is at its maximum capacity. Project-based learning certainly provides this risk zone, especially if students are used to a more traditional way of learning.

The active processing occurs during the process of working on the project. You have to provide space for students to do this processing and how to learn from it. One of the best ways to learn from this processing is being intentional about the reflection of a project. The steps I lay out in my book look something like this:


Closing the project is something we do not do in the classroom enough. Having purposeful reflection where students can process exactly what it is they learned is very important to creating life-long learners. It is where the crux of the brain-based learning is going to take place because students are figuring out what they got and did not get from what they did. Many times this might not be what you intended to with the lesson, but what is important is that the individual student figures it out for herself. Only then will she be able to grow her brain. During the monitor and control progress phase of the project there can be active processing as well where students conference with the teacher to reflect how things are going and how they could be better.

You can do a lot of things in your classroom to accomplish each of the three educational techniques that work the brain the best, but by using projects you are getting all three in one package. You are working the muscle the most effective and efficient way possible and your students will be better learners as a result.

Written by

Todd Stanley is the author of 7 teacher education books, including Creating Life-Long Learners: Using Project-Based Management to Teach 21st Century Skills. He has been a classroom teacher for the past 18 years and was a National Board Certified teacher. He helped create a gifted academy for grades 5-8 where they employ inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, and performance-based assessment. He is currently the gifted service coordinator for Pickerington Local Schools where he lives with his wife, Nicki, and two daughters, Anna and Abby.


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