Building a Better Brain – The Case Against Seat Time and Sameness

Building a Better Brain – The Case Against Seat Time and Sameness
Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell

Part VIII in a Series on Empowerment and Potential

Humans find great joy in getting better at something. It is probably not an exaggeration to state that the evolution of our species depends on this characteristic being passed along from generation to generation. For example, our entire educational system, when working properly, should ultimately empower students and move them towards their potential. Drawing on a wide variety of resources and discussions with staff at Currey Ingram Academy, I am writing a series of Extra Credit articles for the 2015-2016 school year on the topics of empowerment and potential as they relate to education. The articles focus on how individuals and groups can take purposeful steps towards empowerment on the road to achieving their potential.


In the August Extra Credit article I asked, “What if we focus on what is right?” In September, I asked, “What if we maximized our talent?” For October, I investigated the idea of mastery. In November, I speculated that creativity ought to be emphasized even more in all educational organizations. I explored the important role that schools can play in dealing with life’s most difficult situations in December. For January’s piece, the topic was citizenship — what it means and the fundamental role the education system plays in developing citizens. For February, I made the case that public speaking ought to be emphasized more in K-12 education. For this article, I will present the case for how the educational system can build better brains.


An enduring premise of our educational system is seat time and sameness are critical features of learning. It is now clear, however, that our brains are as different from one another as our bodies and faces.

No two brains have the same preferences and profiles, nor do they develop the same. The traditional instructional approaches of seat time and sameness are not consistent with how our brains like to work. There’s enough knowledge available to show us how we can build better brains.

Traditional Views of Intelligence

As an educator with experience using and interpreting traditional IQ tests, I appreciate their utility. They satisfactorily correlate with school grades, thus predicting who’s more likely to get higher grades in school. It is also true that, all other things being equal, those who get better grades in school will have higher IQ scores (as measured by these tests).

Ultimately, however, traditional IQ tests effectively measure just a thin sliver of intelligence. A more creative, socially-oriented and practical view of intelligence is necessary. Moreover, 25 years of neurological research have concluded our brains like creative, socially-oriented and practical (i.e., relevant) instructional approaches.

Seat Time and Sameness are Relatively New Ideas

From an evolutionary perspective, the traditional “sit and git” instructional approach is a very new way for human beings to learn. The fact that we contain a passive group of children (and adults) in a confined space and generally tell them what they need to know does not suit how our brains have evolved to learn.

For tens of thousands of years we learned by doing. We worked with our hands. We learned through stories and by observing and experimenting, and we generally did it together.

The Jury is In

The good news is decades of research and thinking in education, psychology and medicine have identified, beyond a shadow of a doubt, brain-friendly ways to educate students.

First, our brains have evolved to be stimulated by novel, challenging, meaningful and open-ended instructional approaches. For example, there is an instructional approach called Problem-based Learning (PBL) that incorporates these ideas.

In PBL, students are presented a novel, challenging, highly relevant and open-ended problem. Typically, a group of students work together to solve a complex problem by applying, synthesizing and evaluating knowledge learned in other facets of the class and from previous classes. Any given day, I can find examples of this approach at Currey Ingram Academy, and I know a number of public and independent schools in the area have moved toward PBL, as well. I find this very encouraging.

As noted above, our brain is also “social.” For eons, humans learned together. Thus, we thrive in learning contexts that are highly collaborative — feeding off one another until the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. PBL serves this need, as well.

Research also shows just how integrated and holistic the brain is. Despite the fact that for some functions, such as speech production, specific areas of the brain can be identified as playing a dominant role, brain imaging studies clearly show how large areas of the brain light up when even basic learning is happening. When the learning is more complex, and the learner is using multiple senses during the learning experience, the brain lights up like the sky on the 4th of July. When you have brain-wide activation, numerous connections to a single idea are established, hence better understanding ensues.For several thousand generations, our ancestors were on the move. Thus, our brains have evolved to enjoy movement before, during and after learning. Chemicals are released that awaken and stimulate thought processes, enhancing learning. As an added benefit, the consistent flow of healthy chemicals awash in the brain has a positive impact on the perception and feelings of stress.

We now know neurons develop faster, and they become thicker, longer and more branched in enriched environments. This is perhaps the ultimate demonstration that we literally can build better brains by exposing learners to enriched environments.

Also, the cortex thickens, leading to improved abstract thinking. The brain feasts in these learning contexts.

What’s Next

One hundred years ago, John Dewey wrote, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” We are still trying to realize what progressive thinkers like Dewey were trying to tell us, except now we have empirical evidence for what seemed sensible all along.

I’m sure Dewey would have been amazed (but likely not surprised) by the mountain of evidence that shows passive and uniform learning is not the best way to educate.

John Dewey, Democracy and Education, New York: Macmillan Company, 1944, p. 167.

Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is the head of school for Currey Ingram Academy. “Extra Credit” is provided each month by Currey Ingram Academy to help parents at all schools and at all stages of the parenting journey.

Currey Ingram Academy is a private K-12 day school for bright students with learning differences and unique learning styles. For more information, click here.

About The Author

Kelly Gilfillan is the owner-publisher of Home Page Media Group which has been publishing hyperlocal news since 2009.

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