A brain-friendly approach to 21st-century learning and teaching

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 disquieting 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. What makes this even worse, is that this happens at a time when there are proper research findings available for those who want to opt for more of a research-informed approach. These include the Learning and the Brain conferences, the International Mind, Brain and Education Society, with its annual conference and journal, as well as our own Mind, Brain Education Workshop. With this article, I provide a high-level discussion of some myths and findings from the research – with links to publicly available (and accessible) versions thereof.

On neuromyths

Myth 1: Learners have their own unique learning styles – effective teaching requires teachers to take note of this in preparing their lessons;

In his 2015 article, Phillip Newton explores the existence of this neuromyth, even though it has thoroughly and repeatedly been discredited. It is not only in Higher Education that the myth prevails, but also in basic education.

Myth 2: The “learning pyramid” is based on sound research and is a meaningful way of classifying and understanding learning activities. Thus, we need to encourage projects and collaboration as the ultimate way of teaching – at the cost of lecturing;

In their 2018 paper, Kåre Letrud and Sigbjørn Hernes state that: “Through comprehensive searches in digital libraries, we have found that versions of the Learning Pyramids have been part of educational debates and practices for more than 160 years. These findings demonstrate that the models did not originate from empirical research.”  They continue to state that “the conception of memory implied by the Learning Pyramids deviates significantly from the standard picture of human memory”. Yet, the myth prevails.

Myth 3: We only use 10% of our brains;

The series of lesson plans by Stephen L Chew include links to videos explaining the different parts of the brain and their functions. What would our brain function look like if the 10% myth were, in fact, true?

Myth 4: We can divide people into those who are left-brained and those who are right-brained.

Most of us have grown up believing that we are either more creative (right-brained) or more logical and mathematically inclined (left-brained). This article and video discuss the origin of the myth as well as the research that debunks it.

  • Kendra Cherry. Left Brain vs Right Brain: The Surprising Truth. Understanding the Myth of Left and Right Brain dominance.
  • For a quirky video on the topic, go to brainfacts.org.

Other myths include misconceptions on dyslexia, how we sleep, brain development, etc. For a more generic discussion of these and some already mentioned here, visit:

Neuromyths are extremely hard to dismantle

Although most of the research links above are fairly recent, the myths itself have been debunked for at least a couple of decades. Nevertheless, it seems that belief in neuromyths continues unabated – even as our knowledge of the brain and learning increases almost on a weekly basis. What these recent research articles show is just how difficult it is to unseat a myth once it has taken hold of our common belief systems about the world.

For a great discussion of this fascinating phenomenon, take a look at Elena Pasquinelli. Neuromyths: Why do they Exist and Persist? 

MBE and the 21st-century classroom

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.

Image sourced from:  https://www.nature.com/articles/npjscilearn201611/figures/2

Below is a number of findings from the field that can, and should, inform not only how teachers interact with students but also how they arrange their daily workflow during teaching:

  • Stress is, generally, bad for updating, consolidating and retrieving knowledge although some stress during encoding (what others call “good stress”) seems to help with the initial learning of material. Suzanne Vogel & Lars Schwabe. Learning and memory under stress: Implications for the classroom. (Please note that the article is also available as a downloadable PDF in the top right-hand corner of the webpage.)
  • Brains are not static, but keep changing based on our environment and experiences throughout our lives (neuroplasticity). Erin, Hoiland. Brain plasticity – what is it? 
  • The primacy-recency effect (the fact that the attention span of students peak twice during a lesson – right at the start and then again at the end of the lesson, with the first peak being the highest.) David Sousa. The primacy/recency effect.

These are just some of the interesting findings from MBE research that is relevant for teachers. There are many, many more. Below we look at two practical scenarios that combine a number of elements from the preceding research in order to make daily teaching more “brain-friendly”.

MBE and classroom practice

Consider the following scenario: A teacher starts a class by sorting out some admin, then quickly confirming the correct answers to homework, followed by a pop-quiz before moving on to the “real focus” of the lesson by introducing new material, which may include some worked examples for subjects like Maths and Science.

However, if we take the above into account, we can dramatically improve the efficacy of this lesson and the students’ mastery of the material as follows (without adding any additional workload to the teacher):

First attention span period

  • Start the lesson with a low-stakes pre-test on work not yet done in class: This will assist in preparing students for the next section where new content will be discussed and also pique interest. By not stressing-out students through the use of an unexpected high-stakes pop-quiz it becomes a proper teaching/learning intervention.
  • Immediately follow up the pre-test by explaining the new material that was covered by the pre-test (preferably by using various modalities) and doing worked examples where appropriate.

Lowest attention span period

  • Do class administration.
  • Hand out new homework.

Second attention span period

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

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

A brain-friendly approach to 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.

Conclusion

This may be a limited discussion of the topic, however, I hope that these few examples will inspire teachers and administrators to seize the opportunity to become neuro-mythbusters rather than practitioners of dubious beliefs.

Cover image created by rawpixel.com – www.freepik.com


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