Mind Brain Education (MBE) - What it is and why it matters

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 unfounded myths include:

Learners have their own unique learning styles - effective teaching requires of 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 search and use technology efficiently;
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 that are left-brained and those that are right-brained.

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

MBE involves a number of disciplines and sub-disciplines. (Source: Tokuhama-Espinosa (2011)

In preparing students for the 21st-century, we need to make use of best practices. 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 an academic journal on Mind, Brain and Education 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, but it does seem that MBE has gained ground to become the primary name 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 (2011), 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”.

MBE and the 21st-Century classroom
We are all familiar with the “C's” 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 Mind, Brain and Education 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 learned 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 and in addition, memories are not static.

So how is this relevant for 21st-century teaching and learning with its focus on critical thinking and creativity?

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 surprise assessment before moving on to the “real focus” of the classroom by introducing new material, which may include some worked examples for subjects like 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 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 removing stress from the test, it becomes a proper teaching/learning intervention).
Immediately follow the pre-test by explaining the new material which was covered by the pre-test and doing worked examples where appropriate.

Lowest attention span period
Do class administration

Second attention span period
Revise previous homework, giving special attention to outliers via worked examples

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 neuro-myth-busters rather than practitioners of dubious beliefs.