Brain Research and the Great Debates of Learning


The debates rage on.

Nature versus Nurture. Phonics versus Whole Language. Reductionist versus Constructivist. Traditional versus Progressive. Once the conversation begins lines are quickly drawn and, as educators, we either withdraw or begin to espouse our current position. We have heard it all before. Parents and others in the public take sides as well, taking their cue from their own experience or from someone they believe and respect. Meanwhile, politicians use whichever position they believe will further their own agenda, whether in the best interest of children or not. After all, who are they to believe?

Over a period of several decades the author both witnessed and participated in the arguments listed above. Finally, after realizing the same issues recycled every 20-25 years, he began to search for areas of agreement in the work of brain researchers and other cognitive scientists to see if there is a body of agreed-upon evidence to support or refute the various claims. The search resulted in a list of eight promising candidates for the basic theorems of learning. The listing was reported out at the Learning and the Brain Conference at Harvard and MIT in May of 1999 and is included here for your consideration and comment. It is not assumed that the list is all-inclusive. It may contain redundancies and may contain items all researchers would not agree upon. It is intended as a starting point in an effort to limit energy-wasting arguments over particular teaching techniques, instructional strategies and curriculum designs. All this said, here are the eight candidates:


At birth, our brain is made up of tens of millions of basic neural networks, each programmed through natural selection to process a specific element of the environment.

Stage Development

The growing brain is especially well equipped for particular kinds of learning at certain stages of development.

Mental Models

Infants form mental models about how the world works and, as they receive new information from the environment, they modify their theories to better explain to themselves what they are hearing, seeing, and feeling.


Emotion plays a central role in cognition both by driving attention and by aiding in memory storage. High challenge and personal meaning enhance learning, threat inhibits learning.

Handling Crisis vs. Slow Developing Problems

The brain is better at sizing up and responding to high contrast, sudden changes than in monitoring slowly evolving, subtle changes.

Brain Plasticity and the Role of Experience

Brains are self-organizing, making connections and allocating space in response to each individual’s experience and perceptions. They are capable of growth throughout life. Learning is a reflective activity that allows us to draw upon past experiences to create meaning, formulate deeper understanding, and shape our futures. Knowing depends on engagement in practice.

The Social Nature of Learning

Learning is essentially a social, collaborative, problem-solving activity.

Adequate Time

Adequate time is needed for assimilation and integration of new knowledge.


Bob Valiant, Ed.D. is the Owner and Senior Consultant of Valiant, etc. where he works with districts throughout Oregon and Washington on school improvement issues. He has served on the OASCD Board and is a Past President of Washington ASCD. Bob served several terms on the International ASCD Board, was a member of the International ASCD Executive Council, and chaired the Annual Conference Planning Committee for the 1992 conference in New Orleans. If you would like to enter into a dialogue with the author regarding the proposed theorems or their use in planning educational programs, he can be reached by email at:


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