10 Brain-Based Learning Laws That Trump Traditional Education

Quad Aces

If you play cards you know the importance of a trump.

A trump is a card which ranks higher than the played cards. A trump suit outranks all cards of plain suits.

Literally, a trump refers to any sort of action, authority or policy that automatically prevails over others.

The Brain’s Natural Learning Trumps

The fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience study how the brain takes in, stores, retrieves and applies information. Cognitive scientists and educators are learning new ways to apply this information. It’s that application that has lead to these learning trumps.

A learning trump card is one that reigns over more traditional and established education practices. When one strategy trumps another, it means that it is a better and more influential way of learning.

Hat tips go to author and trainer Sharon Bowman as she originally published six trumps of learning. I’ve modified some of Bowman’s trumps and added new ones.

10 Brain-Based Learning Laws That Trump Tradition

How can speakers expect their audience to remember what they say if they don’t know how people learn? These learning laws are powerful strategies that align with how our brains naturally operate and learn.

1. Brain science trumps traditional education.

Knowing how the brain naturally operates is similar to knowing the laws of driving. Could you drive without knowing the rules of the road? Sure you could! Yet, you would probably create a lot of traffic problems. And eventually cause a wreck.

The same applies to presenting to others without knowing how the human brain learns. If you do it, you increase the chance that it won’t work well. Unfortunately, the learner is the one that deals with the disaster.

2. Emotions trump facts.

For years we’ve assumed that dumping data, information and stats on audiences is in their best interest. We believe that we should separate feelings from facts and leave emotions at home.

Wrong! Neuroscience has proven that everything the brain learns is filtered through emotions. There are no exceptions. How we use emotion to aide learning determines learning’s success.

3. Talking trumps listening.

Here’s the law: the person doing the most talking during an education session is the one doing the most learning. So that’s actually the speaker.

We need to create more learning opportunities where the speaker talks for about 10 minutes and then the audience talks to each other. We talk in pairs or small groups so we can understand. We talk so we can remember. We talk so we can process.

No, not Q & A time with the presenter. Then only one person is talking and learning. Peer to peer or small group talking trumps one person asking a question any day!

4. White space trumps information dumps.

Many presenters try to cram as much information and data into their presentation as the time permits. We’ve assumed that content covered means content learned. We’ve also assumed that if we cover more content, the listener learns more.

Wrong! The amount of learning directly aligns to the amount of thinking and reflection. We need to create more white space (time for the learner to think) and less pushing of content. The more the learner is allowed to reflect, the more they learn.

5. Images trump words.

We remember images. We forget words. Why? 50%-80% of our brain’s natural processing power is devoted to processing sight. That’s more than all of our other senses. We actually see with our brains, not our eyes. Likewise, when we hear a word, our brain translates it into an image.

6. Writing trumps reading (and listening).

Most audiences have been conditioned to sit and listen and not do anything else.

We write to remember. We remember because we write. (Now insert type or text for the word write in those sentences.)

When we write or type, we are processing information. We are thinking about it and thinking increases the likelihood or retention.

7. Movement trumps sitting.

The longer an audience sits, the less they learn.

From the beginning of time, our bodies and brains were made to move. It’s in our genes. We think better when we move. For education, this means getting up and moving across the room to a new table. Finding someone you don’t know, introducing yourself and then sharing some new learning.

8. Shorter trumps longer.

Neuroscience has proven that our attention span is 10 minutes. After that, our attention starts to wane. Chunking content into ten minute segments and then allowing learners 10 minutes to digest is the best way to learn. Does this mean the three hour session is dead? Absolutely not. It’s just designed differently with lots of breaks to allow time for discussion, reflection and application.

9. Different trumps same.

We notice things that have changed. We ignore things that stay the same. Difference, novelty, uniqueness, contrast and the unexpected juice our brains. Boring is the nemesis of learning.

Example: mandating a conference branded PowerPoint template for all speakers creates an image of sameness in our audience’s minds from session to session and shuts down learning!

10. Insight trumps knowledge.

Knowing 2+2=4 is one thing. Knowing how to apply that fact is more important.

Our brains learn information by applying new knowledge to past experience. Gaining insight into how to apply a fact or research is more important to our brain than the fact. Our brains crave meaning!

Which of these learning trumps surprise you and why? Which ones could easily be applied in your next education program?

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  1. Loretta Hudelot says:

    Love it! Way to blend adult education and neuroscience.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      Thanks for reading and commenting. It’s time conference organizers work with and towards better programming at their events. Applying neuroscience is the way to go for sure!

  2. Rolando says:

    quite interesting article. A couple of years ago, I’ve read something about a Polac scientist learning about how we recall data from our memory.
    All those thinks has to be in education policy makers all over the world. But there’s a college in Colombia, called: Colegio Fontan. Kids learn without teachers, withouth blackboard, without exams and without classrooms. It’s Unbelievable but true.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and bringing to our attention the college in Colombia. I think we’ll see more and more of these type of unique education endeavors in the future.

  3. Jeff – love the post, thanks for synthesizing some important points about the brain and learning. I hate to trouble you for more, but can you list a reference to a study or authoritative source that supports each assertion? I’d love to be able to take these to a skeptical faculty that will require proper sourcing to convince. Thanks.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      References for each learning law? Wow, that would take me a while. There are literally hundreds of research studies by neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists that would point to these assertions.

      Here are some books that have compiled some of the studies that will get you started in that direction:

      Evidenced Based Training Methods by Dr. Ruth Colvin Clark
      Brain Rules by Dr. John Medina
      Why Don’t Students Like Schools by Dr. Daniel Wilingham
      Teaching With The Brain In Mind by Eric Jensen
      A Celebration of Neurons: An Educator’s Guide to the Human Brain by Dr. Robert Sylwester
      Brain Based Teaching In A Digital Age by Marilee Sprenger

  4. Mireia says:

    Such an interesting post and applicable!
    Completely agree with “brain learns is filtered through emotions”

  5. […] education practices. When one strategy trumps another, it means that it is a better way of learning.Via velvetchainsaw.com Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  6. ‘@Jeff – thanks for those, some of which I recognize, and I’ll check out the others. Much appreciated.

  7. […] 10 Brain-Based Learning Laws That Trump Traditional Education A learning trump card is one that reigns over more traditional and established education practices. When one strategy trumps another, it means that it is a better and more influential way of learning. Hat tips go to author and trainer Sharon Bowman as she originally published six trumps of learning. […]

  8. BrianSJ says:

    `and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?’ Alice in Wonderland

  9. […] 10 Brain-Based Learning Laws That Trump Traditional Education. […]

  10. […] 10 Brain-Based Learning Laws That Trump Traditional Education […]

  11. Kate R says:

    I am doing staff development in a traditional,college-prep, lecture style high school and would like to use
    and site your blog post in my next training. I see the references to the research. Can you please identify your profession? Teachers will want to know your “qualifications.” Thank you for the article.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      My formal training is in education with post-baccalaureate work in adragogy, the study of how adults learn. You can read more about my bio here. Scroll down to my bio – Jeff Hurt.

  12. […] Via velvetchainsaw.com Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  13. Wm. Casner, M. Ed says:

    Good job, Jeff. Most of what you have pointed out is embodied in Dr. David Kolb’s work on Experiential Learning. The Learning from Experience cycle takes most of the 10 points into account and gives you a practical tool for applying these, (& other), insights in a fun and engaging way. I’ve been using it for 15 years and, believe me, it really works.

  14. Linda waldon says:

    This is a great consolidated list of learning principles that held true 25 years ago and still guide us. The media may have changed but people haven’t! Learning happens when we apply new information to a situation. Thank you for the reminders.

  15. When you set up a “Stupid Straw Man” and then knock it down so successfully – such as: “For years we’ve assumed that dumping data, information and stats on audiences is in their best interest” – my Brain gives you a negative score. Just so you know.

    1. Phil says:

      Claims of support from neuroscience should include references to peer reviewed studies by, you know, neuroscientists.

  16. Kimberly says:

    Jeff…thank you. I am taking classes in training and development and was very excited to see the intergration and brain sense in your brain laws. We can love to learn…we are wired for it. I think sometimes we forget that we are wired not for data but for connecting and integrating experience and information. It can be enjoyable and if it is we most likely are learning.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      I like what you said, “We can love to learn…we are wired for it.” So true. Thanks for adding that to the discussion here. And thanks for reading.

  17. jaya vinod says:

    I ve taken BBL as my research topic.I want to bring BBl strategies in biology…Can you give me suggestions regarding it

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Try Brainrules.net for more info on BBL and biology.

  18. […] from Meeting Professionals International, this blog post from Harvard Business Review or this one from Jeff Hurt (check out item #4). If you are more inclined to trust me, then I will just ask you […]

  19. […] 10 Brain-Based Learning Laws That Trump Traditional Education From velvetchainsaw.com – Today, 10:46 AM A learning trump card is one that reigns over more established education practices. When one strategy trumps another, it means that it is a better way of learning. […]

    1. Heidi Speer says:

      The 10 Brain- Based Learning Laws That Trump Traditional Education:
      I agree with these points! Chucking information helps students to retain and interact with lessons. I particularly liked the point about “talking trumps listening.” Asking students to engage in small groups and discuss or teach each other the topics they have read helps them to internalize their learning.
      One method I have tried to use is to ask students to turn and “teach your partner”. Similar to the above mentioned point that “Talking trumps listening.” Is a student can talk about a topic, they are more likely to retain their learning.

  20. Lorie says:

    This was interesting. It sounds very similar to what our dyslexic students need in big doses. Thanks for posting.

  21. […] brain friendly principles to work is really much easier than you think. The biggest challenge you will face is giving up […]

  22. Graham Moore says:

    None of these trumps surprise me – I was using them intuitively as a teacher 15 years ago and ever since as research has supported these practices.

    All our inspirational courses are designed with these principles in mind and are hugely successful in engaging large numbers of students.

    My dream is that one day every school in the world will embrace these ideas as the norm and that Social and Emotional Intelligence will form the backdrop of education everywhere.

  23. Karen Emanuelson says:

    I don’t struggle with the “why” we should make changes in our meeting design, I struggle with the “how”. First, I am swimming upstream with internal people who think that jamming our agenda with talking heads and panels is the way to go. Change is difficult and I am trying to present info such as this to make a point on why to make a change. Now they are listening, but don’t know how to go about making this change. Any advise you can give for how to shake things up with our formatting would be great!

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      Yes, change is hard and getting people to do things differently is always a challenge. Making these changes does not happen overnight. It is a long term process and the first step is educating your staff and speakers on how to properly present so that the attendee actually learns. Some organizations require their speakers to attend webinars where the information is introduced. Some have face to face trainings for their speakers along with the webinars then staff and speakers see the process modeled. Some also provide regular, short articles on how to improve presentations. One of the best things to do is that if you use a Call For Proposals, put in the CFP that speakers selected must attend a webinar and must show which adult learning technique their session will use. I also suggest that all panels must dedicate 50% of their session time to audience/peer discussion.

      I hope that helps some. Don’t give up on this. It’s critical if you want to really have learning occur at your events.

  24. […] how do we stop boring our students? I particularly appreciate this blogpost: 10 Brain-Based Learning Laws That Trump Tradition. In short: emotions trump facts, shorter trumps longer, white space trumps information dumps, […]

  25. […] the lead from Jeff Hurt over at the Velvet Chainsaw where he shares his insight into audience engagement and effective brain based learning. Audiences are hungry to be informed […]

  26. […] A learning trump card is one that reigns over more established education practices. When one strategy trumps another, it means that it is a better way of learning.  […]

  27. Beverley says:

    Thank you for these easy to retain bite-sized insights. I am in the Software Testing industry and am interested in learning more about brain-based learning with a view to creating software testing workshops for adults, based on brain-based learning.
    Are you able to point me to anything that is available in South Africa, or something online that would meet my needs?
    Many thanks

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      You might try one of the following books, Evidence Based Training Methods by Ruth Colvin Clark, Design For How People Learn by Julie Dirksen or Michael Allen’s Guide to eLearning.

  28. Beverley says:

    Many thanks Jeff

  29. […] Make course content easy to digest and retain by delivering it in bite-sized chunks. Jeff Hurt refers to the science that backs up the chunking principle: […]

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