12 Brain/Mind Learning Principles in Action – One Author’s Personal Journey by Renate Nummela Caine

Where do powerful questions come from? Those deep questions that drive some of us and determine a life’s path? I didn’t have the questions yet, not until much later, but even as a child I was observing or participating fully in learning.

My belief in myself and my ability to learn began with an exceptional teacher. She had a great deal of freedom because I grew up in Germany, which was just putting its educational system together after the war. She taught history by way of stories that intrigued us. She combined information and romance in order to capture our attention and young minds. She took us to the local museum where we could see a real Viking ship and look at the Viking mummy, which had been retrieved from the moors. Vikings often punished criminals by throwing them into the moors and watching them disappear. This was a horrible death, but to eight year-olds also terribly real and interesting. She took us on long hikes through meadows and woods and taught us about trees and where springs came from.

No memory of that long ago is ever totally accurate. Today we know that the brain takes the reality of the past and weaves a tapestry that joins feelings, information and later adult experiences to create a memory that combines actual facts with what one might hope or wish to be true. What is clear however is that I learned something lasting. I learned that I was a good student and that learning is both exciting and something I love to do. And along with academics, I learned to sing, draw, hike and love nature. By going to the theater at a very early age (encouraged and often sponsored by the school) and performing in plays, I also learned to love theater and performance. In Marion Diamond’s terms, I grew up in an enriched environment (Magic Trees of the Mind, 1998).

It is important not to generalize from my early experiences in Germany. I grew up at an unusual time, grew up in the country as opposed to a city, and had a truly exceptional teacher. Teachers like this are rare, but I believe that they exist everywhere.

Once we arrived in the United States, my education in San Francisco was totally different. Each course had a textbook, and except for Chemistry, everything to be learned came out of that textbook. Each teacher stuck to one text, and only the questions at the back mattered. I can remember thinking how silly it was to answer questions when all I had to do is find the place where the sentence was written in the book. No one seemed to care what students thought or felt personally. To this day, I can understand students who are bored and disinterested in school. I spent my time in Junior High School reading great books by outstanding science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, while doing the minimum in order to get by in school.

I tell this story not to chastise or criticize, but to demonstrate that I experienced two very different approaches to learning and that these differences have shaped my questions and my life.

This time also held a personal experience that has shaped much of my beliefs and understandings to this day. Coming from another culture, particularly so close to adolescence was not only difficult, in many ways it was devastating. I can remember feeling awkward and angry and not knowing how to act. I did not like myself as I continually tried to fit in. To this day, I feel a special kinship with students whose parents emigrated from one country and culture to another.

One day I came across a book in our home library – it said that human beings can change. I can still remember the joy I experienced as hope became real. I experienced a sense of freedom and choice as I went about examining my beliefs and behavior to see how I might like to change myself and why. Again, I did not know it at the time, but this experience turned out to be a great predictor of the spirit that would permeate my view of learning and my future work.

In the book, 12 Brain/Mind Learning Principles in Action, the underlying theme, that we can always become more, become more expert, and learn all our lives is spelled out in a very practical way. All four authors are committed to this belief. In terms of brain research, this view of what it means to learn finds support in the research on plasticity (the fact that neurons sprout dendritic connections or reorganize themselves on the basis of new learning).

Once reaching college my mind began to fly again, particularly if a professor asked me what I thought or would decide to do, given certain facts or conditions. In particular, learning was more exciting when my ideas and answers were met with a respectful discussion or argument.

Due to a number of circumstances, I became a teacher of German and History (I even taught English which finally taught me to spell and master grammar in both English and German) in Reno, Nevada (Jr. High) and New Orleans, Louisiana (High School). Being a German teacher helped me to understand the importance of knowing one’s subject. I had a great advantage as a native speaker. But I also learned that how a teacher teaches their subject is critical. My students learned German in a hundred different ways, from singing German songs to writing and acting out fairy tales and stories. My students ranged from football players to future teachers, yet I expected everyone to participate and everyone did. They memorized using fun drills and games, and spoke and wrote as often as possible. The results were pretty spectacular, and when my students won 1st, 2nd, 4th and 6th in the statewide language contest, my classes became an overnight sensation.

But there were those pesky questions again. How do people learn? How did life outside of my classroom impact my students? At this time I began to be very curious about the role of emotions in learning. What was happening in these student’s lives that was so distracting? Why did my top student end up using drugs? Why did the counselor tell one of my most gifted learners that he must be cheating because his I.Q. did not allow him to compete in a class with national scholarship winners? Why were my students so dedicated to German, to me, and each other? How did having fun together seem to help everyone learn better? Most powerful of all, I began to look at how most of my colleagues taught and I felt out of place. Ultimately I had to understand more. To do so I enrolled in the College of Education at the University of Florida.

Once again, fate put me in the very place I needed to be. It was the mid 70’s and I became a doctoral student during the last two years of a program headed by Dr. Arthur Combs, someone who has left a lasting and powerful impression on me, and thousands of educators. One could easily call Art Combs the father of Humanistic Education, but more importantly he introduced his students to something called phenomenology.

Phenomenology introduced us to the great Gestalt theorists who had been trying to figure out how perception works. My studies fascinated me because they were beginning to address some of my questions about my former students and about learning. It was at this time that I became convinced that only a holistic perspective of students and teaching could truly address the many questions teachers and educators face every day. The need to return to the classroom on a regular basis was born here and I personally remain skeptical of research, no matter how exciting, that is not also applied and demonstrated to matter in that chaotic, real life world.

Gestalt psychology suggests that everything comes together in the moment of action, and if we want to know why and how students are learning then we have to know how they are making sense of a situation – how they are relating to what is being learned. This was the very opposite of behaviorism, a theory that was also very popular at the time. Behaviorism taught that students would learn best if we rewarded them for it (I can still remember a woman in my class who was outraged because her little girl loved to learn but was suddenly given “m & m’s ” by her teacher for her right answers). Perceptual Psychology, as this field also became to be known, believed that people could change themselves through their own understanding and chosen actions, something that echoed the beliefs I had developed as an adolescent.

My dissertation demonstrated that when teachers were trained using Dr. Thomas Gordon’s Teacher Effectiveness Training (using “I” messages and active listening) and actually used it in the classroom, their students had a higher self-concept and better attitude towards school and teachers six months after the teacher changed his or her way of communicating with students. This proved something to me that I believe to this day and that permeates our new book, namely, that when teachers change what they actually do in the classroom, change in students follows.

As a brand new professor at California State University, San Bernardino, I taught courses in Educational Psychology. I loved my subject and tried to make my lectures interesting. I had so much to tell! But unlike teaching German by creating learning experiences or taking students to places where the subject could be observed first hand, discussed or debated, I lectured. There was always so much to cover!

After a few years I began to ask former students who were by then teachers, if they had translated any of the work by theorists we studied (Kohlberg, Erikson, Piaget) into classroom practices. They looked at me blankly. They hardly remembered the names of the theorists; let alone what they had said. My course and hard work had made no impact on their teaching. I simply had to understand why.

It was at this time that a colleague and friend, Tennes Rosengren and I became interested in a book entitled The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map by John O’Keefe and Lynn Nadel (1978). The book was utterly and completely fascinating to us and we met at least once a week in order to “translate” its content. At this time also we became very interested in something called Optimal Learning and we joined a month long program headed by Ivan Barzakov and Pamela Rand in San Francisco.

This turned out to be one of the most amazing teaching and learning experiences of my life. It required us to be very creative and we began to write poetry, do “concert readings” and write creative stories. We also performed new teaching feats and received educative feedback that was loving and very insightful and helpful. It was fueled by the work of Lozanov (1978), Ivan’s incredible knowledge of the arts and literature, and Pamela’s work as an actress.

This program was way ahead of its time and in all honesty, although it was extremely brain compatible, I cannot imagine how it might fit into a world governed by our current interpretation of what it means to learn.

Tennes and I began to see many connections to our own teaching and education in general and our readings in the neurosciences took on a life of its own. This was also the time when the neurosciences began to provide research in ways we had never experienced before. New research was surfacing on the role of emotions in memory, stress and motivation; the relationship between fear, helplessness and learning; how meaning supported learning; how the social environment shaped the brain; how memory worked; the role of creativity in learning and much more. With our mutual backgrounds in psychology, we could not stop making connections.

I became a trainer in Optimal Learning and it is here that I met my husband, Geoffrey Caine in 1986, who had been sent to the program by his Australian software company. Our backgrounds were so similar and included a fascination with learning. He had been exploring similar issues, and was particularly interested in how to help adults work together to process experience.

We were married in 1986. As we worked together, it became clear that all this information on learning, both past and present, had to be organized in some fashion so that educators and others could grasp it. This is when we first spelled out the 12 Brain/Mind Learning Principles (1990). The principles are general rules of learning that are substantiated, and continue to be substantiated, by research. They are based on a systems (holistic and integrated) view, which says that all learning is interconnected, something that is also true of the brain. Geoffrey and I used my sabbatical to travel around the U.S., visiting neuroscientists and educators in order to check out our emerging theory and the principles as much as possible

On the surface, the principles sound very simple, but once the research behind them is added, they provide a powerful view of learning. This gives each principle an enormous depth. Many educators began to generate their own principles or use some of ours that they liked and disregard the ones they didn’t like. They did this without spelling out the supporting research so that eventually we needed to clarify the basic characteristics of a principle.

What qualifies as a systems principle?
We suggest that principles based on a systems view of the learner should meet at least four basic criteria:

1. The phenomena described by the principle should be universal.
It must therefore refer to phenomena true for all human beings despite individual genetic variations, unique expressions, and developmental differences.

2. Research documenting any one specific principle should span more than one field or discipline.
Since the principle describes a systems’ property, one would expect a valid principle to be confirmed by research that crosses multiple fields and disciplines.

3. A principle should anticipate future research.
It should be expected and anticipated that research will continue to emerge that refines and confirms a principle. In addition, a principle is a continuous work in progress, as long as human beings delve into the rules by which life exists. A principle is never complete in the sense that new perspectives and ongoing research will continually refine and prove the principle.

4. The principle should provide implications for practice.
By their nature, principles are so general that they cannot be expected to tell educators precisely what to do. However, effective learning principles ought, as a minimum, to provide the basis for an effective general framework that can guide decisions about teaching and help in the identification and selection of appropriate methods and strategies.

The principles have gone through minor rewording as our understanding has grown but have generally survived the test of time:

1. All learning is physiological.
2. The Brain-Mind is social.
3. The search for meaning is innate.
4. The search for meaning occurs through patterning.
5. Emotions are critical to patterning.
6. The Brain-Mind processes parts and wholes simultaneously.
7. Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral perception.
8. Learning always involves conscious and unconscious processes.
9. There are at least two approaches to memory: archiving individual facts or skills or making sense of experience.
10. Learning is developmental.
11. Complex learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat associated with helplessness.
12. Each brain is uniquely organized

The Principles were first published by ASCD (1990), and were followed by our first book, Making Connections, Teaching and the Human Brain, also published by ASCD (1991). Geoffrey and I are currently revising and updating this book. It is scheduled for release by Corwin Press in 2005.

Making Connections caused a flurry of activity and a call for consulting. While we were much on the road and I was still teaching at the university (California State University) we began an ambitious project with a small elementary school in Sacramento. We committed to working together for five years, something that turned out to be a fabulous adventure for all of us. Towards the middle of this project I also began to work with a middle school in Yucaipa, California. Working with schools turned out to be really difficult. Translating from the principles and theory required a whole new way of communicating and thinking. We definitely learned along with the teachers. In terms of today’s primary measure of success, however, all the schools we ultimately worked with raised their test scores.

Most recently, I was asked to assist a low performing school in Southern California. Once again, test scores soared at the end of one year. We have never taught to the test, however. Our methods empower teachers to become the best professionals possible. They include giving teachers the principles, having them study them in Process Learning Circles and together develop appropriate teaching strategies based on what the principles and theory tell them about learning. Our work together is always based on implementing the highest standards.

In our new book, 12 Bain/Mind Learning Principles in Action, Geoffrey and I worked with two colleagues who are gifted Educators, Carol McClintic (a former teacher) and Karl Klimek (a former principal and assistant superintendent). Together we translated the Principles into useful language and practices that can be used by all teachers in all schools. As the senior author, this book provided me with the opportunity to put everything together that I have known to be true. It was not easy writing and I can talk easily now of a writer’s “dark night of the soul”, but the results are solid and provide a pathway that is true to a belief in a holistic view of the brain and human being. And it is a view that is full of hope and faith in the learner and teacher who decide to follow what it says and ultimately develop their own practices based on research, solid academic standards, knowledge of subject matter and teaching.

The work continues to be a passion. We still travel throughout the United States and overseas, and we continue to spell out ways of assessing what we put in motion and to link with schools, districts, departments of education in other countries and universities. At a time when education and educators are under so much pressure, it is a privilege and a joy to have a path to offer that can make a difference.


Caine, R. N., & Caine, G. (1990). “Understanding a Brain Based Approach to Learning and Teaching.” Educational Leadership, 48(2), 66-70.

Caine, R., & Caine, G. (1994). Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.

Diamond, M. & Hobson, J. (1998). Magic Trees of the Mind. New York: Penguin Putnam.

Lozanov, G. (1978). Suggestology and Outlines of Suggestopedy. New York: Gordon and Breach.

O’Keefe, J. &. N. (1978). The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Dr. Caine consults throughout the world on the brain/mind and learning. A Professor Emeritus of Education at California State University in San Bernardino (CSUSB), Dr. Caine was also Executive Director of the University’s Center for Research in Integrative Learning and Teaching. Her Ph. D. is from the University of Florida in Educational Psychology and she has either researched or taught every level from kindergarten to university. Her work with schools has been featured on “Teacher TV” on the Discovery Channel, “Wizards of Wisdom” shown on PBS, and elsewhere.

She is co-author of Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain, and six other books, and regularly conducts leading-edge teacher training programs for educational organizations. She and her husband, Geoffrey Caine, founded The Caine Learning Institute, located in Idyllwild, California. The Institute is dedicated to “expanding the family of those working with the brain/mind learning principles.” Recently Dr Caine worked with a low income, underachieving k-5 elementary school in California to help teachers design more innovative teaching strategies using the Brain/Mind Learning Principles and district standards in order to raise test scores. She is the senior author (along with Geoffrey Caine, Carol McClintic and Karl Klimek) of a new book entitled: 12 Brain/Mind Learning Principles in Action, The Fieldbook to Making Connections, Teaching and the Human Brain. You can reach her at renatecaine@earthlink.net

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