Monthly Archives: December 2013

R Brains and Learning

Post by Glenn Whitman


Left brain, right brain, top brain and bottom brain. Over the years there has been a lot of discussion and attempts to “compartmentalize” various functions of the brain, a seemingly complex task considering how both hemispheres of the brain are engaged in all learning processes. Books like Daniel Pink’s, Why Right Brainer’s Will Rule the World or the recently published Top Brain Bottom Brain have pushed forward the effort to differentiate brain regions. But recently, St. Andrew’s hosted Dr. Judy Willis ( in which she worked with various constituencies of the school to share the research about how the brain learns that should be informing educators and parents. She offered another way to think about the brain that somewhat simplifies for teachers how their curriculum decisions and conversations with students engage students’ reflective or reactive brains.

The decision as to whether R reflective or reactive brains are engaged in deeper learning or mere survival is made in the brain’s emotional switching station, or traffic cop, the amygdala. Based on incoming information or experience, it is in the amygdala that the brain reacts in one of four ways: fight, flight, flee or focus. Learning is advanced by challenge, personal relevance, and choice, and when dopamine boosts drive student’s to be more engaged. However, learning is inhibited by threat, stress, and fatigue. Moreover, student identity, class, gender, sexual orientation, and income all contribute to whether the reflective or reactive brain will win the tug of war between brain regions.

While there is a growing body of research about the amygdala, the challenge with any research is to make it relevant to teachers, for them to see what it means for their curriculum design and work with each student. One faculty member at St. Andrew’s took the research presented by Dr. Willis and refashioned it in the attached poster. This poster is a gift and a reminder about how important it is for educators to know the architecture of the brain; how it receives, filters and uses information to help all students meet their potential as learners and as individuals. In addition, it reminds educators the importance of loving the amygdala of each student.