Brain Matters

Where Are the Brains?

As educators, we need to bring a far greater understanding of how the brain works to our conversations on teaching, learning and student success in higher education, argues Karen Costa.

June 28, 2016

Five years ago, while I was browsing at Barnes and Noble, a book caught my eye: Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School by John Medina. Its cover proclaimed it a New York Times best-seller, and the summary piqued my interest. It was a no-brainer purchase (pun intended).

There are certain books that we can’t unread; they change the color of the lenses with which we view our worlds. Professors assign some of these books to us in college or graduate courses, we find others in our spiritual buildings, and still more are passed to us from the hands of a friend, with a note of urgency that we cannot live another day without reading this book. Ironically, I was lucky to find one of my most valuable, color-changing books in the bargain bin.

After tearing through its pages, I returned to my work in higher education with my new paradigm in tow. Just as the women’s studies courses I took in college taught me to always ask the question, “Where are the women?” Brain Rules trained me to ask, “Where are the brains?” The irony that one of the most ubiquitous facets of human existence was largely absent from my scan of the higher education landscape jolted me, as an educator, as a parent and as a lifelong learner.

I’ve sat through my fair share of meetings on the topics of student learning and success in my professional career. The brains weren’t there.

I have two advanced degrees in education. The brains weren’t there, either.

I have been teaching success strategies to first-year students for a decade. The brains weren’t in my courses.

When I recently attended a huge national education conference, I found some of the brains. Two educators stood at a table in what is sometimes considered the second tier of conference life, the poster session, speaking about brain-based teaching and learning. I told them they should be the keynote speakers, and my hunch that they were not was later confirmed, for the brains were not to be found in the big-ticket keynote event that evening.

I will be the first to acknowledge my own brainless guilt. For years, I trumpeted the importance of learning styles in my administrative roles and in my teaching. It sounded good, this idea that all students learn differently and that I could vary my teaching style to meet their distinct learning needs. Medina, a highly trained brain scientist, wrote Brain Rules, in part, to debunk myths such as learning styles. (Note: Learning styles and multiple intelligences [MI] are distinct concepts. MI is supported by the research.) His book includes only studies that have been published in peer-reviewed journals and that have been replicated at least once.

Learning styles don’t make the cut, because they don’t exist. They’re a quaint decoration, the drawer in your kitchen that maintains aesthetic value but doesn’t actually open. We are all visual learners, Medina argues. Vision is the sense that trumps all others.

Who among us has ever filled a PowerPoint slide with so much text that we had to decrease the font size to make it fit? Who is offering, or even requiring, that students take the VARK learning-styles assessment as part of your first-year programming? Pause for a moment and ask yourself what you really know about learning styles. If you’re like me, you won’t like the answer.

In the years since first reading Brain Rules, I’ve been on a quest to not only find the brains, but to bring them to the center of our conversations on teaching, learning and student success in higher education. Whenever I attend a meeting or present to a group, I like to share recommended readings with colleagues or attendees. Brain Rules is almost always my first recommendation. I’m both saddened and hopeful at the numbers of people who scribble the title onto their notepads, or who tell me they’ve just ordered it online in the time I’ve taken to describe it. They didn’t think about the brains before, but they want to.

This essay is the first of several articles for Inside Higher Education that will explore Medina’s rules in the contexts of higher education, student success, online learning and faculty development. The articles will probably leave you with more questions than answers, for though each episode of Star Trek famously declared space as our final frontier, it’s my belief, after falling in love with brains over the past several years, that putting a human on Mars pales in comparison to ever fully grasping the miracle inside our own heads.

Could this very complexity be what keeps the brains hidden from our daily work? The Catch-22 of neuroscience is that its immense scope and depth have the potential to transform education. But that same scope and depth keep us cowering in the safety of illusion, clinging to our beliefs about how people learn despite evidence to the contrary.

Which brings us to Medina’s greatest gift. It isn’t the science; it’s the accessibility. His work has allowed this C-minus student in high school chemistry to ask this question: Where are the brains? In some upcoming articles, you can find them here.


Karen Costa is a Massachusetts-based adjunct instructor who teaches college success strategies to online students. Connect with her on Twitter @KarenRayCosta.


Back to Top