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Is teaching an art or a science?



During human progress, every science evolved out of its corresponding art (— Herbert Spencer Education: Intellectual, Moral and Physical (1861), 77.)


I remember listening to the lecture of Prof. Andrew Papanicolaou (a world-renowned expert on Magnetoencephalography - MEG), where at the beginning of his talk, Prof. Papanicolaou posed a question of whether MEG remains an art rather than a science.


The other day, I was reminded of this art versus science question when recording a new Neurocareers podcast episode with Prof. Michelle Miller (a top Cognitive Psychology expert who applies cognitive psychology principles in education). Among other topics, we talked about teaching - is it an art or a science? Can we use scientific knowledge, including neuroscience findings, to guide our teaching practices to facilitate students' learning - engagement, understanding, information retention, and retrieval, among other things? The answer as of today is a definite YES (thanks to the rapidly developing field of educational neuroscience! – more on that in Neurocareers Episode 19, Part1 and Part2), but this was not always the case.


In fact, for a long time, teaching was considered an art that you master (or fail to do so!) with time and experience. Some educators intuitively were finding ways to engage the audience. This is precisely what Prof. Papanicolaou did, posing a question at the beginning of the presentation I mentioned above. Such an approach might be considered an example of using question-potentiated learning to facilitate memory. You can still see the effect that his simple but powerful approach has created - I remember his lecture to this day, although it happened at least six years ago.


However, many educators failed to a degree to ensure that their content reaches the audience. Is simply giving a lecture based on our PowerPoint slides enough to promote learning? To a certain extent – yes, but it goes only so far. We need more, including the engagement of our audience in learning activities, providing participants with hands-on experience, and letting them try and experiment. Also, we want to create a place for learner's curiosity to show up and for the moment of "Awe" to happen (more on that, you can learn from Neurocareers podcast Episode 13 Part 1 and Part 2 with Assoc. Prof. Anthony Barnhart).


This is what I aimed for when preparing for a Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) session at the ISACT2022 event organized by Soumick Chatterjee, PhD, Erasmo Purificato, and Rupali Khatun, that I was invited to present in my hometown – Orlando, Florida. At that time, I had just finished an "Applying the Neuro, Cognitive, and Learning Sciences to Instructional Design" course offered by the Online Learning Consortium and was eager to implement the knowledge of the principles of brain-based learning in my educational practice!


Ready to implement my neuroeducation knowledge in the BCI session at ISACT2022


I set myself with the goal – of providing my audience with the best learning experience possible. To engage the audience and offer hands-on opportunities, I equipped myself with carefully prepared PowerPoint slides, various types of media, the Unicorn Hybrid Black BCI system from g.tec medical engineering GmbH, the 3D model of the brain, and both intracranial and surface electrodes for recording electric brain activity. Already in the conference hallways, I was conducting a short survey – I was asking people about what they know about electroencephalography (EEG) and BCIs, and what aspects of this topic interest them the most.

I made sure to engage the audience with the presentation content, pose questions and problems and discuss possible solutions. Participants got to handle electrodes, record brain activity, observe the EEG recording and its changes due to various probes, critically evaluate and question our findings, and more. The outcome exceeded my expectations – the questions from the audience did not stop coming in!

Providing hands-on experience mounting the EEG headset at ISACT2022


The greatest difficulty for me was finishing the workshop on time due to an overwhelming number of questions from the audience. After this presentation, I can tell from my own experience that teaching can be a science when the principles of brain-based learning are implemented. Of course, I have new things to learn and implement, but I am determined to build an evidence-based foundation for my teaching. If I were asked to make a recommendation of where to start implementation of the evidence-based principles that can help turn the art of teaching into a science, I would recommend looking into: (1) creating a stress-free and emotionally positive learning environment; and (2) utilizing the Universal Design of Learning (UDL).


1. Stress and emotions: the effect on learning

High-stress levels significantly impact our #brain by creating a cascade of chemical changes. For example, the stress-activated autonomic nervous system releases a cascade of catecholamines (for example, noradrenaline). This impairs the learner's performance because catecholamines negatively affect attention and memory. Therefore, the first and foremost goal for successful learning is to create a stress-free learning environment.


A smile and warm encouragement go a long way! Our emotions play a key role in attention and memory processes, without which learning cannot occur. Therefore, creating a positively charged emotional atmosphere in a classroom is crucial for high student performance.


A smile in the classroom goes a long way! (BCI session at ISACT2022)


2. Universal Design of Learning (UDL)

All learners are different! To be precise, the nervous system of each learner is unique. That is why we spend so much time mapping the brain before the brain surgery – the approach "one brain map fits all" does not work here. As Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa put it in 2011, "Human brains are as unique as human faces." So, how can we provide learning material in such a way that it would facilitate learning among all members of our audience – with all the existing neurodiversity?


Here is where UDL comes in. Its goal is to provide any learner in a classroom with the opportunity to engage with the course content and learn. For example, the UDL encourages educators to present curriculum-related information in different formats – visual, audio, text, tactile, and combination. Within one final course project design, educators may choose to provide students with an opportunity to choose their individual sub-project relevant to their life experience, preferred field of study, and/or future career plans.


Presenting information in different formats at ISACT2022 BCI session


I want to thank again Dr. Christoph Guger and Dr. Soumick Chatterjee for providing me with the amazing opportunity to provide a learning experience to ISACT2022 attendees. I look forward to more opportunities like this! I also want to thank Online Learning Consortium for its courses on neuroscience-based teaching. I express my gratitude to Prof. Michelle Miller, and Prof. Kristen Betts, Assoc. Prof. Mariette Fourie (DEd), and Katherine Fisne for their contagious passion for neuroeducation.


So, what do you think - is education still an art or a science? What type of neuroscience-based evidence practices are you using in your teaching? What are your approaches to education? What helps you to engage your audience and facilitate learning? Please, share in the comments!

References:

  1. Powerful Classroom Strategies From Neuroscience Research. https://www.learningandthebrain.com/documents/WillisHandout.pdf

  2. About Universal Design for Learning. https://www.cast.org/impact/universal-design-for-learning-udl

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