Why mind, brain and education matter

| April 10, 2018 | 0 Comments

BY DR LIEB LIEBENBERG

Every day, millions of students are taught in schools and universities by teachers and lecturers operating with a mixture of a common-sense understanding of the brain and neuromyths.

Equally disturbing is the fact that policymakers and politicians make decisions on the future of learning based on these same unfounded myths and their concomitant assumptions about what it means to prepare learners for the 21st century. Some of these include:

• Learners have their own unique learning styles – effective teaching requires teachers to take note of this in preparing their lessons.

• Knowledge is constantly changing, its shelf life continuously shrinking, therefore learning facts is a waste of time – so the best we can do for students is to ensure they can do a proper online search and use technology efficiently.

• The “learning pyramid” is based on sound research and is a meaningful way of classifying and understanding learning activities, so we need to encourage projects and collaboration as the ultimate way of teaching – at the cost of lecturing.

• The brain stops growing at a certain age, meaning that its capacity is fixed.

• We only use 10% of our brains.

• We can divide people into those who are left-brained and those who are right-brained.

To make this practical, I would argue that the myth “If you can Google it, you do not have to study it” is perhaps best proven as a myth precisely because policymakers, politicians and teachers are so easily misled into believing it! Because they lack a proper understanding of the brain and learning, they are easily misled by these myths about learning which is “just one click away…”

An infamous example that one cannot simply “Google everything” is, of course, former South African president Thabo Mbeki’s denial of the cause of AIDS. Although he is an educated man, he allowed himself to be misled by a dissident voice (because his field of expertise was not virology), instead of accepting the consensus from the majority of experts in the field.

There is a lesson to be learnt from this last example, for those who are working with students (and their brains) on a daily basis: it is undeniably better to be informed by sound research than relying on neuromyths to inform their teaching practice. It is time to banish neuromyths from teaching practices, once and for all.

What is MBE and why should schools and teachers take notice?

In preparing students for the 21st century, we need to make use of best practices – as teachers will surely agree. It seems obvious that the most important one of them is to replace our common-sense understanding of learning as well as our neuromyths with a mental model of learning that is scientifically informed. This brings us to the exciting field of Mind, Brain and Education (MBE).

Although the term “MBE” may be unfamiliar to many, the field itself is not that new and a journal on MBE has been in existence since 2007, which indicates that the field had already grown mature enough by then to sustain its own publication. Obviously not all research worldwide is done under the same umbrella term (“Science and the Brain” is another umbrella term), but it does seem that MBE has gained ground to become the primary term used to describe the connection between laboratory research and educational practice. The research disciplines that inform MBE include educational psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science and education – among others. One of the significant voices in the MBE field, Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, contends that MBE as a term is better “…than neuroeducation, more powerful than cognitive psychology and easier to understand than cognitive neuroscience, MBE is a paradigm shift in our understanding of the teaching profession”.2

As a discipline, MBE has grown tremendously over the last decade, to a point where there are numerous books and articles written specifically for educators on how to implement the latest MBE research into their classroom in preparing learners for the 21st century challenges that they will face. This is where things really get exciting, because MBE has advanced to such an extent that it is now possible for teachers to implement sound tools and principles that will immediately improve the efficacy of their teaching without necessarily forcing them to completely change their basic workflow.

MBE and the 21st century classroom

We are all familiar with the “six Cs” of 21st century teaching and learning (communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, citizenship and character). The two that are perhaps highlighted the most are creativity and critical thinking – which, on the face of it, seem quite far removed from the MBE discussion, when in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. But before we get to that, let us look at some of the lessons we have learnt from MBE:

• The attention span of students peaks twice during a lesson – right at the start and then again at the end of the lesson, with the first peak at its highest.

• Stress and anxiety are detrimental to learning and acquiring new knowledge.

• Brains are not static, but keep changing based on our environment and experiences throughout our lives (neuroplasticity).

• The working memory of a human brain is limited, which means it can only absorb so much new information.

• MBE also teaches us that memories require some kind of link to existing knowledge. In addition, memories are not static.

MBE and classroom practice

Consider the following scenario: a teacher starts the class by sorting out some administration, then quickly confirming the correct answers to homework, followed by a surprise assessment before moving on to the “real focus” of the classroom by introducing new material, which may include some worked examples for subjects such as maths and science.

However, if we take some of the bullet points listed above into account, we can dramatically improve the efficacy of this lesson and the students’ mastery of the material (without creating any additional workload for the teacher):

First attention span period

• Start the lesson with a low-stakes pre-test on work not yet done in class. (This will open up neural pathways in preparation for the next section, and also pique interest. By removing stress from the test, it becomes a proper teaching/learning intervention.)

• Immediately follow the pre-test by explaining the new material that was covered by the pre-test, and doing worked examples where appropriate.

Lowest attention span period

• Do class administration.

• Hand out new homework.

Second attention span period

• Revise homework, giving special attention to outliers via worked examples.

By simply by making a few adjustments to the workflow of the class and also reframing the “surprise assessment” to become a pre-test (low-stakes assessment) where learners know upfront that it is more about learning than about the marks, a standard lesson has become a more efficient learning experience.

MBE, critical thinking and creativity

There is a perception that critical thinking and creativity have very little to do with knowing facts. From an MBE perspective, this is very problematic. Given that students’ working memory is limited and that mastery of new knowledge is dependent on long-term memory, students will never be creative or critical thinkers unless we get their foundational knowledge in place first.

MBE enables us to interrogate our beliefs about learning and the brain, as well as our teaching practices, providing us with the knowledge and skills to deliver 21st century education to 21st century learners – which is nothing less than they deserve.

Although space does not allow a more comprehensive discussion of the topic, I hope that these few examples will inspire teachers and administrators to seize the opportunity to become neuromyth busters rather than practitioners of dubious beliefs.

References:

1. See: http://www.ibo.org/contentassets/477a9bccb5794081a7bb8dd0ec5a4d17/traceytokuhama-espinosa-thescientificallysubstantiatedartofteachinghollandoct2011.pdf

2. Ibid.

Category: Autumn 2018

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