The Three Elements of Great Teaching


The 12 Brain/Mind Learning Principles describe several processes that are all happening at the same time.  The body is active.  Senses are engaged.  Students are searching for meaning and trying to understand.  The way that they connect with others powerfully influences what they are thinking and feeling.  And so on.

Notice that the Principles rely on teaching that is dynamic, i.e., experiential, project based, challenging and largely student directed.

There is just too much going on for each element to be addressed separately by teachers as they teach.  However, some general patterns emerge from the principles that become a very useful frame of reference for teaching.  We just refer to them as the three core elements of effective teaching.  Here they are.

1. Relaxed alertness

All learning is impacted by the state of mind of the learner and the relationships and overall atmosphere in a learning environment.  The principles indicate that the optimal state of mind and atmosphere are what we call relaxed alertness.  It consists of a state of mind that combines confidence, competence and intrinsic motivation in the learner, together with a low degree of threat.

When in this state of mind, students are ready and able to respond to appropriate exposure to the subject matter of the curriculum by asking questions that personally engage them, and to persist with their inquiries and with appropriate practice and rehearsal.

2. Orchestrated immersion of learners in adequate experience

The only way to simultaneously engage the many processes and capacities reflected in the 12 Brain/Mind Learning Principles is through complex experience.  That is because life experience is the context within which all the different aspects of brain/body/mind functioning are naturally integrated.  For example, even when just sitting and typing a report on a computer, a person is seeing, moving, thinking, feeling,  remembering and paying attention.

The way to translate this notion into education is to orchestrate the immersion of learners in experiences in which content standards are embedded.  More specifically, students need opportunities to do such things as:

  • Physically interact with what is to be learned or understood.
  • Make associations or have opportunities to recognize how what is being experienced links to what they already know.
  • Frame their own actor (learner) centered adaptive questions.
  • Research the world of formal knowledge, which includes what experts know about the students’ questions.
  • Be where those who are more expert in the subject matter can be imitated and where they can participate in natural conversations about the subject matter.
  • Pick up concepts and procedures by simply being in places where the subject matter is being lived, just as people pick up much of their culture and first language.
  • Engage in deliberate or mindful practice and rehearsal as they master a wide variety of skills.
  • Create products or perform in ways that call for the use of vocabulary, concepts and skills tied to real world standards.
  • Receive feedback on their work.
  • Use the new knowledge in spontaneous situations.

3. Active processing of experience

Although experience is essential, students do not automatically learn all that they need to learn just by being immersed in experience.  The key is for the teacher to move away from providing information only to assuring that students have many opportunities to receive feedback and digest, think about, question, examine and process what they are experiencing – guided by teachers and the questions asked by teachers and others. This continuous and personal engagement by students is what we mean by active processing.

Active processing should include, where appropriate:

  • Detailed sensory observation;
  • Deliberate practice and rehearsal;
  • Making links to previous learning;
  • Multiple modes of questioning;
  • Incorporation of expert knowledge;
  • Analysis of data and sources;
  • Ongoing reflection on feedback; and
  • Expansion of capacities for self-discipline and self-regulation

Active processing is doubly useful because it simultaneously provides feedback for both teachers and students while it can be used to expand and deepen student thinking.  As Fullan and his colleagues point out (2006), the timing of feedback and the timing of responses to feedback is critical.  In this way formative and summative assessment are largely integrated.

These three elements and their components do not need to occur in a linear or sequential fashion.  Rather, they should be seen as a triple helix, with each element supporting and being a part of the other two.   For instance, when a student pays attention to a chemical reaction in a test tube, and responds to a supportive teacher’s questions that help him/or her to see more clearly, all three elements are incorporated into the same process.

Learning outcomes

The more fully these three elements are incorporated, the greater the depth of learning.  And so we would see a shift, for instance, from memorization to understanding.  We address different types of learning outcome in our next post.


About the author -

Geoffrey and Renate Caine

Renate and Geoffrey Caine are co-authors of ten books, and have written many articles and chapters, that integrate brain research, psychology, small group processes, systems thinking and education. They coined the term “Brain Based Learning in their ground breaking article in Educational Leadership in 1990. Their work has been used as foundational material for some of the world’s leading edge educational reform efforts. Visit their Caine Learning website.


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