Brain-friendly learning
Part 1: Pictures, patterns and connections

Margaret Cooling is well known for her writing, speaking and training, particularly in the area of RE. Here she starts a series of three articles looking at brain-friendly learning.

The last fifteen years have seen many discoveries in brain research. As a result, suggestions have been made concerning the ways in which we teach and learn, in order to make both more compatible with the way the brain works.


Three ideas for making RE more brain-friendly

1. Give 'big pictures' first

The brain likes to have the 'big picture' first and details second. It likes to know the whole before the parts. The 'big picture' is the overview, the at-a-glance 'map' of a subject. If the brain doesn't have the big picture first, it is like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle without the picture. If we have lots of bits of information without knowing the overall 'picture' of a subject, our brains don't know where to file information and it is more likely to be forgotten.

This is particularly important in RE where pupils often have very little subject knowledge and information about religious subjects doesn't relate to anything they know or are familiar with.

Always give the 'big picture' at the beginning of an RE unit/topic and fill in the details later. That way, pupils can see where information fits as they learn. Teachers can ask: "Where on our diagram does this piece of information fit?" Don't overwhelm them with lots of detail about a religion before they know where to store it.

Big pictures can be written as a series of headings. They can be drawn as pictures and put up as displays or diagrams. A 'big picture' of the church might look like the diagram opposite:


2. Create pattern and order

Think about the way in which you memorise postcodes and telephone numbers. Many people remember numbers or letters by creating sound or visual patterns such as 0115 939 20 76 or making words or sentences from the letters. N01 GUY would be an easy number plate to memorise since the characters can be grouped as words that make sense.

Random letters and numbers are difficult to store in our memories as each letter or number is stored individually rather than as a group. For example, GDT 720 is stored as separate letters and numbers (unless you can create a pattern) whereas N01 GUY is stored as a single phrase. The brain likes patterns and meaning so it searches for these. The brain is a meaning and pattern detector.

Teachers need to organise material to reveal the pattern that is present in an RE topic but which may not always be clear to pupils. Group similar or related ideas together and give clear headings. The amount a person can learn increases if information is sorted into 'bundles' of related information. This is like a person having lots of items in carrier bags, rather than trying to carry them all separately.

In RE, make links within a subject. Pupils will not automatically link stories with practice, or worship with sacred texts. For example, the Easter story relates to Easter worship. Beliefs about death/resurrection arise out of Easter and are reflected in practices such as communion and the funeral service. Artefacts such as the cross, the Stations of the Cross and the paschal candle are all linked to the Easter story. Make these links known; create a 'carrier bag' of information about Easter.


3. Connect when you can

The brain is full of cells that are built to connect. When learning takes place, connections are made between cells and pathways are formed. Connect whenever you can.

Start a RE topic by finding out what pupils already know and build on that knowledge. Connect their existing knowledge to any new knowledge that you give them. By doing this you are using pathways (connections) that already exist in the brain. It's like adding more information to an existing file rather than creating lots of new files.

Connect RE with experience and the world of the pupils. Know their world: their magazines, music, films and TV programmes. Connections between religion and life are not always apparent to pupils. Jesus drew on everyday examples that connected his teaching to the experience of his hearers.

Connect RE with other subjects (e.g., the environment, history and the arts) where appropriate. Spirituality has always been expressed through the arts (dance, drama, poetry, music and art) which makes connections with other subjects possible. Since religion is concerned with the whole of life, many valid connections can be made across other subjects such as science and English.

If this article has whetted your appetite to discover more about brain-friendly learning, check out the subscription service for RE teachers, the REthinking Network. Click here for more details.