Changing how we think, talk about and practice education
June 14, 2018
By Dr Lieb Liebenberg

On 23 and 24 May 2018, ITSI hosted the First Mind, Brain and Education (MBE) Seminar in Africa, presented by Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher. Glenn and Ian are the authors of  Neuroteach – one of the most accessible and significant publications on research-informed teaching and learning to appear in the last 5 years. They regularly present at Learning and the Brain conferences in the United States. Their workshops include a unique blend of research-informed theory and practice – delivered with inspiring passion and energy. The event on 23 and 24 May was no different and judging by the engagement, tweets and comments of the 199 delegates; this was the start of something truly unique for the lecturers, teachers and administrators of the more than 80 unique schools, universities and colleges that attended.

A richer conversation on teaching and learning

The significance of an event like this in our South African and African context cannot be underestimated. Annually, we have many conferences with many conversations about  21st-century learning,  bridging the digital divide,  addressing the inequality gap,  the role of technology in education,  the use of print books vs e-books or even no books, and the ultimate “classroom” platform. Although some of these conversations are more trivial than others, at least they are happening. But when it comes to an informed discussion about what some call “the learning brain”, the intersection between neuroscience, psychology and pedagogy, the conversation is rather thin. Even worse, when it does happen it is all too often dominated by neuromyths rather than neurofacts.

This first MBE conference has started a new and hopefully lasting local conversation (one that has already reached 69 000+ people) introducing terms like neuroplasticity, working memory, the forgetting curve, priming and others into our daily education conversations about 21st-century learning. And therein lies the significance:  unless we rethink many of our existing beliefs and practices, we are going to miss out on one of the most promising opportunities for teaching and learning to emerge in the last 50 years. We have a choice, we can persist with the past or embrace the future. We can stick to our so-called “tried and tested” methods, many of which are harmful to learners and learning while others are simply inefficient and outdated. The responsible and ethical choice is to embrace a proper research-informed approach that will benefit all students and ensure that they are well prepared for the challenges of the 21st-century.

The insights we have gained over the last 30 years about the brain and how learning works have huge implications on how we think and talk about education, but more importantly how education is practised by teachers. There is so much evidence available about what works and what does not, about the relation between emotion and learning, stress and performance, etc. that it will be foolhardy to ignore. We now have the knowledge and means to impact every learning brain positively. This opportunity is already being embraced by top schools in the US and UK

Moving Forward

It is sometimes said that good teaching is an “art” – but like any craft, every teacher is only as good as her/his skills and mastery of the tools of the trade. In every industry, those who fail to move with the times and embrace the latest state of the art are surpassed by those who do. It seems that it is only in education where there is this (completely unproven) conviction that what has worked in the past must/will work not only today but also in the future.

However, the enthusiasm with which the MBE movement has been embraced in many schools all over the world in the last couple of years is proof that change is possible. Similarly, the indications from the first MBE conference in Africa show that local educators from schools, universities and colleges alike are not only willing to join the global conversation, but perhaps more significantly, become active participants. On our part, we at ITSI will do our best to ensure that the local MBE momentum is maintained. Watch this space!

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