Professor Ken Purnell, PhD

CQUniversity Australia

Learning and teaching

Do you wish to help people learn?

'The implicit goal of education is to change students' brains by improving both their knowledge base and their understanding of information acquired through the guidance of their educators.' (Willis, ca 2018)

As a neurologist, who later became a classroom teacher, Dr. Judy Willis (ca 2018) observes: 'As educators, we are "brain changers" because we provide learning experiences that activate students' neural networks as their brains construct memories and knowledge. . . Memory is held not in individual neurons, but rather in multiple neurons in communication with one another. . . a neural network.' On my webpage 'Neuroscience and Education' I explore these ideas and others in educational neuroscience and provide links to a range of relevant resources.

So, what makes someone a an effective teacher?

Education students commencing their studies often give quite fascinating responses to this question. Often a recipe list of characteristics is provided. A story then unfolds that if someone has, or develops, most of these ingredients, in the right mix, then they can be an effective ('good') teacher. Is that true?

As a parent teaching your child, as a young person teaching another young person, as a teacher teaching Grade 4, as a coach coaching a netball team, as a business person doing staff training, or as a professor teaching postgraduate students, what makes you an effective teacher? Sometimes you may be very successful at teaching (leading the learning of other people and/or yourself), sometimes you may not. So while humans are natural born teachers, to be a professional teacher with significant expertise requires considerable knowledge and skill in key areas such as teaching (especially pedagogy), assessment and curriculum (see Figure 1). This is similar for other educators too - whether a parent, a clinical psychologist or football coach - what is to be taught (curriculum) is done using effective strategies (pedagogy) and checking that acceptable evidence of achieving results is obtained (assessment). All in rich learning environments that promote approach-based, optimal, thriving learning - some ideas on how to achieve those are on my 'Neuroscience and Education' webpage and much more fully covered in our Graduate Certificate of Brain Based Education at CQUniversity Australia.


Figure 1: The interactive nature of pedagogy, curriculum and assessment with learning experiences

Basically, a high quality (good) teacher is one who creates approach-based, optimal learning environments with their students to maximise and lead learning. They are a bit like a neurosurgeon, a psychiatrist, and a psychologist insofar as they contribute to changes in the very form and function of the brain by using its natural plasticity. But instead of using say a scalpel, medications or focused talk therapy (and other tools and strategies of medical practitioners and those in allied health), they use learning experiences to promote thriving learning. Such learning environments are calm and supportive of learning, often enjoyable with fun as they develop appropriate and tailored stretch goals for their students to achieve. They improve both student achievement and wellness at the same time - and are often good stewards of their own professional learning and personal wellness. Like other professionals, high quality teachers develop substantial and insightful knowledge, skills and practices that they constantly refine and improve over time drawing upon their own reflective iterations that are valid and reliable to develop even greater expertise.

Willis (ca 2018) reminds us that 'highly effective teachers develop intuition and experience with which they interpret their observations and responses to their interventions.' Oh, and yes, by the way, when someone talks about intuition or a 'heart felt' desire or a 'gut feel', we actually have about 100 million neurons in our gut that some refer to as our second brain (it has more neurons than our spinal cord), that is highly influential on our mood amongst other things - see, for example, Cytowic (2017). And, we have about 80 billion or so neurons in our brain with an average of 10,000 connections to other neurons each (see, for example, Cherry & Steven, 2018; Russell & Shipston, 2015, p. 170).

Learning experiences and changes to our neurology

Learning experiences to assist the brain to learn (form new neurological pathways - 'brain maps') as well as unlearn (prune some pathways [maps]). Learning experiences that involve cognitions, behaviour and emotions are most brain-compatible. Key elements of learning design are pedagogy (the science and art of teaching), assessment and curriculum (and other inputs such as resources). A graduate course that may be of interest to you in this area of neuroscience and education is headed by Ken:

Graduate Certificate of Brain Based Education with its four Units of

At present Ken also teaches two undergraduate Units:

Ken has five current PhD candidates in areas such as: Neuroscience of leadership, Student resilience, Using Brain Based Education to improve student wellness and enhance learning, Scaffolding in science and maths, and Enablers and inhibitors to the sustainable implementation of effective teacher delivered disaster resilience education through the NSW Geography Syllabus. Ken has had 21 candidates successfully complete their Doctoral or Master's theses with him and presently has 6 candidates, including one Master's, with whom he works.

Ken also teaches subjects (Units) at the undergraduate and graduate level in the Bachelor of Education (Secondary) and the Master of Teaching (Secondary)

Evidence based teaching

Professional teachers usually have a very substantive professional knowledge and practice that draw upon quality contemporary evidence-based research as well as relevant policy and learning priorities. Teacher behaviours in learning environments are critical to creating brain-friendly, thriving learning environments that optimise student learning through learning experiences that are engaging. Dysfunctional stress is minimised in such optimal environments and a calm brain state where students can effectively utilise the brain's natural neuroplasticity to enhance and consolidate learning. Students are often taught too about their brain utilising understandings from neuroscience and education. For example, the importance of having blood flow, neural electrical and chemical firing (or not - inhibitors) in the prefrontal cortex area and how to achieve that, and the critical importance of both the quality and quantity of sleep as well as good nutrition to feed their brain and movement (exercise). As an example in the sleep hygiene area - that so important to getting a good night's restorative sleep that allows new memory formation and consolidation too - see ideas in the resources from the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School - Healthy sleep: Understanding the third of our lives we so often take for granted.

What teachers KNOW and DO is the biggest single variable in learning (see, for example, Bantick, 2010; Darling-Hammond & Bransford, 2005; DEST, 2005). The Australian Government Department of Education Science and Training (DEST, 2005, p. 21) stated that “highly effective teachers and their professional learning do make a difference in the classroom. It is not so much what students bring with them from their backgrounds, but what they experience on a day-to-day basis in interaction with teachers and other students that matters”. In a nutshell: Quality learning is directly related to quality teaching - where quality teachers focus on the priority of achieving learning gains with students using their informed professional knowledge, skills and dispositions (Purnell & Muldoon, 2012). As an example of a website with contemporary information on evidenced-based education is The Wing Institute. There they note that:

'Evidence-based education is a paradigm by which education stakeholders use empirical evidence to make informed decisions about education interventions (policies, practices, and programs). "Evidence-based" decision making is emphasized over "Opinion-based" decision making.'


Another example is from the book Classroom Instruction That Works by Dean, Hubbell, Pitler and Stone where they note from the meta-analysis of relevant educational research the top 9 categories of instructional strategies:

  • Setting Objectives and Providing Feedback
  • Reinforcing Effort and Providing Recognition
  • Cooperative Learning
  • Cues, Questions, and Advance Organizers
  • Nonlinguistic Representations
  • Summarizing and Note Taking
  • Assigning Homework and Providing Practice
  • Identifying Similarities and Differences
  • Generating and Testing Hypotheses

In their book the authors provide examples of how to use these strategies in classroom practices.


It is important for educators to understand that student interest can be as important as their capabilities (Athanasou, 2008). Having hard goals has the greatest impact on learning as they focus attention, and increase persistence at a task. Research has shown too that do-your-best goals are little better than having no goals at all (Sadler, 2014).

Important things that teachers do to lead learning to support memory formation and consolidation is get learners to PAY ATTENTION to what matters and ignore what doesn't (reduce busy neuro-clutter and help remove other distractors to learning), and to get learners to LOOK FOR DIFFERENCE (compare and contrast - unborn babies do that in utero and that is a key strategy that we use in learning throughout life). They also focus on creating learning experiences within the students' window of stress related to students' interests that often grab their attention with novelty and have an emotional 'hook'. As the brain is a pattern-seeking organ various strategies to assist in the identification and memorisation of patterns such as charts and mnemonics can be of use.

Oh, and yes, Primary school age children should have an enforced brain break after about ten minutes: 'Simple physical movement.,stretching, drinking water, or changing to an activity that stimulates another sensory system or neural network can also provide a fresh outlook. . . Students replenish their supply of neurotransmitters and the amygdala cools down. Unless the break is enforced, these students will eventually reach neurotransmitter depletion and behave in unpredictable ways they may later regret. Planning and enforcing these brain breaks can prevent an overstimulated amygdala from limiting new information intake for the high cortical processing these students can achieve.' (Willis, ca 2018)

We need to be cognisant too as educators that human learning and memory is malleable and not 'set in stone'. While this is useful in education we need to be aware of this characteristic and its implications for memory recall and learning (so spaced practice of important skills and knowledge is critical). On this issue see, for example, Harvard Medical School (2017): Neurons involved in learning, memory preservation less stable, more flexible than once thought.


What strategies have you found the most successful in leading learning and why do you think this is the case?