What Would a School Designed By Your Brain Look Like?

Have you ever imagined your ideal school? For me, it is one where brain research truly informs learning structures. Walking through such a school, I might find:

Instead of desks in neat rows and bells moving students at regimented intervals from one subject to the next, learning takes place in mixed age groups with flexibility of time and work areas suited to their activities. Peers, teachers, and student-requested real world professionals guide students in the use of technological, vocational, and professional tools – from ovens to skill saws, electron microscopes to spectrometers, and oil paints to digital design programs.

Students in both indoor and outdoor spaces learn through online games chosen by students for knowledge and skillsets they want to acquire for projects and inquiries in their units of study. Students’ rapid keyboarding and focused concentration reflect the flow of their high engagement.

If you ask students why they are so responsive to educational games, they go beyond descriptions of cool graphics, and explain their brains’ dopamine reward response. They might say: “The games are challenging, but not too hard. I know if I work at it, I can make it. I use the feedback from my mistakes, and when I figure out what I need and get to the next level – wow, do I feel great. It is called intrinsic satisfaction and comes from my own brain’s chemical — dopamine — each time the game shows me that I’ve moved a step closer to my goal.”

Excessive rote memorization can no longer keep up with the information boom and changing facts, so students now have internet access during tests. Since children’s brains no longer reactively act out or zone out under the stresses of frustration or boredom, behavior management does not overload teachers.

Teachers are highly respected professionals, and can be seen throughout the school providing enrichment, remediation, and engaging students in problem-solving and inquiry activities. A physics teacher suggests to the group exploring Newton’s Second Law that they go meet with the P.E. teacher and see if any of the sports equipment could demonstrate the action-reaction phenomenon. When I check the gym later, I see students filming a punching bag and a trampoline jumper.

As I leave the school walking through the vegetable garden and weather station, I take delight that neuroscience has contributed some of the research that has made schools like this one blossom throughout the planet. Public schools are achieving the goals designed for these 21st century children, and we are witnessing an era of profound social, economic, scientific, and democratic accomplishments from the students educated therein.

Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed., is a neurologist/teacher/neuroeducator and author of several books and articles on how the brain learns. Her website is www.RADTeach.com.


  1. When I saw the topic, I was immediately drawn to the architectural response to the question. So I was thinking, “What would the spaces and building look like?” In that, I was thinking about how the spaces we create and allow students access to in our schools help them or hinder them in their thinking, inquiry, exploration, and learning. This is, after all, what architects do…conduct empty space with shapes, materials, light, so as to orchestrate human movements and facilitate human actions within those spaces.

    So in that, I’m totally drawn to the work of the architecture firm Fielding and Nair (see designshare.com). Their application of the ideas of Christopher Alexander and his concept of architectural patterns (see Alexander, A Pattern Language) to school design is phenomenal. Not only that, they have incorporated Gardner’s theories of multiple intelligences and basic brain-based learning theories into the design of their spaces.

    For me, then, the answer to “What would a school designed by my brain look like?” Well, it would be one that had spaces for solitary work, that kept me connected to nature, that allowed for open and free association with my peers (the brain craves social interaction at times), all this and more.

    I like Brad’s idea. School is a Habit of Mind. But I think that sort of begs the question. We still don’t know what that looks like. I’d like to hear more about it. I think the title question implies that we seek some kind of externalization of the mind. That is, a place for that “habit” to “inhabit”. Would that be a city, with its brilliant chaos, chance encounters, and flourishing intellectual centers? Or would it be a rural town, with a small town center, a single post office where everyone met to get their mail, a town hall, and numerous farms where we learned how to interact with and treat animals in humane ways.

    It’s a great question, this one Judy asks. I see quite clearly the inherent rewards based in games. I’ve watched programs with John Seeley Brown and Katie Salen. They’re thrilling and I love the concepts. Great ideas.

  2. Sign me up for that school! Student or teacher…either way…this really is modern learning. Goodbye memorization and regimentation…hello REALITY, where things flow, people work with their interests and seek out others to connect with, there are no tests (the way we see them now), and inspiration and creativity are the norm.

    Remarkable vision…but really not that different than what would happen if we just kept being kids and playing as we grow up!

  3. Thanks for the article – interesting take on this question. Here’s another idea – why do we need traditional “classrooms” at all? Why can’t any place in the world be a classroom? I think the Internet makes this possible, and mobile computing devices can help too. The main ingredient would be people of all walks of life willing to be mentors to students willing to be apprentices.

  4. I really like the way Judy brought up “intrinsic satisfaction.” I teach sixth and seventh graders and too often I feel like I am bribing the students work up to their potential. Whether it is fun Friday activities they earn, or treats I bring in, or little prizes here and there, I question what it is I am teaching my kids. Are they doing their homework because of the external rewards? If so, is that necessarily a good thing? I want my students to want to learn. When I think about video games and how kids are so into them these days, the immediate feedback/reward is apparent. If we could figure out a way to incorporate this into a school, we would be onto something! Just think of all the behavioral issues that would be solved if students were motivated to do homework in a similar fashion to completing levels of a video game.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this. I decided to explore some blogs for the first time ever tonight and after an hour of reading arguments about politics in education, I was very happy to stumble onto this
    As I was picturing this school in my head, I found myself smiling a little. It made me think of real situations where I have witnessed students learning in these ways, not all happening at one and in this ideal situation of course. I thought about teacher from different concentrations coming together at random and combining efforts to create learning opportunities.
    I sometimes daydream about a traveling classroom, where we could head to the best place to learn about whatever the topic at hand was. If a student asked me a question about why we have to pay taxes, we could explore the town and see our tax dollars at work. If they asked “how do blueberries get from the field to the store?” we could head to the fields or factory to find out. If they asked about drugs we could head to the hospital to speak with a doctor or patient, who could talk to us first hand about what the effects are. No matter what the curiosity was, we would be in the perfect place to learn about it.

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  7. I want to change the education process so that it is emancipatory for the individuals in it

    I want to make it a learning system, not an education system.

    I want the learner to be the driver of the learning

    I want the learning facilitator to scaffold the learning and coach the process

    I want the learning tools accessible for all

    I want self paced knowledge and skill acquisition

    I want both individual and group knowledge creation and skill development

    I want learning checks to forward the learning, and allow for re learning until the concept is mastered

    I want individuals to share mastered concepts to build confidence, leadership and sense of purpose

    I want a society of energized, purposeful, skilled and knowledgeable individuals marshaling their personal power together to achieve personal and community growth


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