Teach With the Brain in Mind

In 1989 the scientific community in the United States declared the 1990s to be “the decade of the brain.” A great deal has been written in recent years about the research that has looked at the workings of the human brain. And the more we learn the more we declare with the psalmist, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14).

Every Sabbath School class facilitator hopes to change the human brain. As such, the more they know about how it operates, the more successful they can be. Francis Bacon was right when he said four centuries ago, “Knowledge is power.”

Can you answer these questions regarding the Transfiguration story from Mark 9? 

  1. 1. Whom did Jesus select to witness His transfiguration and later be with Him when He prayed at Gethsemane?
  2. 2. What are the similarities and differences between the other miracles that appear in the Gospels and the Transfiguration, which some have called “the greatest miracle”? 
  3. 3. Why are Moses and Elijah considered to be the two preeminent figures of Judaism? 

You cannot teach your brain to think.

Each of these questions required thought, but the type of thinking involved differs with each:

Question 1 requires you to simply refer to facts you have in long-term storage that recalls something you have learned about the disciples. (The answer: Peter, James, and John.)

Question 2 is quite different. You must first recall what you have stored in memory about the miracles of Jesus, separate the miracles into lists, then analyze them to determine which miracles were similar and which were different.

Question 3 requires the retrieval and processing of large amounts of information about the history of Judaism and the roles that Moses and Elijah played in contrast to other well-known historical figures of Judaism. Then you will form a judgment about whether you believe they were the two preeminent figures of Judaism, and not all scholars may agree.

These three questions require varying thought processes to arrive at acceptable answers. Brain scans show that different parts of the brain are engaged as the problem-solving task becomes more complicated.

You cannot teach your brain to think. You have been thinking from birth—if not before. However, class facilitators can help learners to organize content to facilitate more complex processing. Too often merely repeating the answer is considered more important than the process used to get the answer. We have become accustomed to dealing with learning at the lowest levels of complexity.

How Does Brain Compatibility Teaching Work?
In the 1950s Benjamin Bloom developed one of the most useful models for enhancing education. Bloom’s system of classification identifies six levels of complexity in human thought and is consistent with the latest research on brain functions.

These levels, known as Bloom’s Taxonomy, remain one of the most useful tools for moving Sabbath School facilitation to higher levels of thinking. The six levels, from the least to the most complex, are:

1. knowledge
4. analysis
2. comprehension
5. synthesis
3. application
6. evaluation

Although there are six separate levels, the hierarchy of complexity is not rigid. The learner may move easily among the levels during extended processing. Below is a review of each level using the story of Goldilocks and the biblical story of Joseph as examples of how two differing concepts can be taken through the taxonomy.

Knowledge is recall of semantic memory, the mere rote recall of previously learned material in the form in which it was learned. Knowledge is the lowest level of learning in the cognitive domain because there is no assumption that the learner understands what is being recalled. Thought processes are define, label, and recall. Because of standardized testing, today’s educational system is based on this level that only requires learners to retain information, learn facts, and be able to recall them on tests.

  • What did Goldilocks do when she got to the three bears’ house?
  • Who suggested this: “Throw him [Joseph] into this cistern here in the desert, but don’t lay a hand on him”?

Comprehension is the ability to make sense of the material by converting it from one form to another (e.g., words to numbers), by interpreting it (summarizing a story), or by estimating future trends (predicting the consequences or effects). Although this learning goes beyond rote recall, it is the lowest level of understanding. Thought processes: summarize, discuss, and explain. Comprehension questions attempt to discover if the learner understands the information in a sensible way.

  • Why did Goldilocks like the little bear’s chair best?
  • Why did Joseph’s brothers want to kill him?

Application. Application is the ability to use learned material in new situations with a minimum of direction, using rules, concepts, methods, and theories to solve problems. Thought processes: practice, calculate, and apply. The learner activates procedural memory and uses convergent thinking to select, transfer, and apply data to complete a new task. Practice is essential at this level.

  • If Goldilocks had come into your house, what are some of the things she might have used?
  • If Joseph had understood negotiation skills, how might he have convinced his brothers to pull him out of the pit?

Analysis. Analysis is the ability to break material into its component parts so that its structure may be understood. Thought processes: analyze, contrast, distinguish, and deduce. The learner must be able to organize and reorganize information into categories. This level works the brain’s frontal lobes, because the learner is aware of the thought process in use and understands both the content and the structure of the material.

  • How can we tell which things belong to each bear?
  • What lessons might Joseph have learned earlier about Potiphar’s wife that could have spared his imprisonment?

Synthesis. Synthesis refers to the ability to put parts together to form a plan that is new to the learner. Thought processes: imagine, compose, design, and infer. This is the level where learners use divergent thinking to get an Aha! experience. This level should happen in every Sabbath School class every Sabbath!

  • How might the story be different if Goldilocks had visited the three astronauts?
  • Retell the story of Joseph seeing his brothers for the first time, demonstrating legalism rather than mercy.

Evaluation. Evaluation concerns the ability to judge the value of material based on specific criteria. The learner may determine the criteria or be given them. Thought processes: appraise, assess, and judge. This is the highest level of cognitive thought in Bloom’s Taxonomy, because it contains elements of all the other levels plus conscious judgments based on definite criteria. Learners tend to consolidate their thinking and become more receptive to other points of view.

  • Do you think Goldilocks had a right to do what she did? Explain.
  • Do you feel that Joseph should have rewarded his brothers and all their families or just Benjamin and his father, Jacob?

These levels are cumulative. Each level above “knowledge” includes all levels of lesser complexity. A learner cannot comprehend material without knowing it. Similarly, one cannot correctly apply learning without comprehending it.

Convergent thinking: The lower three levels: knowledge, comprehension, and application. The learner recalls and focuses what is known and comprehended to solve a problem through application.

Divergent thinking. The upper three levels: analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. The learner’s processing results in new insights and discoveries that were not part of the original information. This reminds me of the quotation, “Train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thought” (Education, p. 17). I believe that this concept applies to adults, too!


  • Biblical facts would be learned, recalled, and/or reviewed through knowledge questions.
  • Checking for understanding would take place during comprehension questions.
  • Deep-level discussion would follow the analysis, synthesis, and evaluation questions.

So What?

  • Of course, it won’t matter to your class’s salvation if you fail to teach the finer points of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
  • But when it comes to the story of Joseph (a type of Christ), lessons of integrity, faithfulness, and belief in God change the heart and mind.

W. Eugene Brewer
© 2014 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists