“When teaching is learner-centered, the role of the teacher changes, …. They are no longer the main performer, the one with the most lines, or the one working harder than everyone else to make it all happen”. The day I read this, I knew I will never be the same teacher again. It wasn’t just the text, but the environment within which it was read and it just so happens that I had to travel over 5,000 km to experience this neuroscience teacher training and undergo a transformation.
On Sunday 6th June at exactly 3.06am, I touched down in Uganda – sorry Nigeria, I had really wanted you to be my first destination in Africa but it was not meant to be. The airport was simple, the drive to the hotel uneventful and my sleep was dreamless. Daylight brought with it activity of the calm type; a visit to the local church with colleagues, banter with the hotel staff as we sought to identify the English name for a local bird species, the Kahloree also known as the Marabou Stork.
Evening was met with conversations on the banks of the Lake Victoria which the locals insisted was a beach. I didn’t blame them; any land locked country will mistake the vast nature of this lake for the sea. The day was pleasant in every sense of the word and I will come to appreciate these events on my first day in Uganda as the calm before the storm, after all, I was not in Uganda for pleasure.
I was in Entebbe – Uganda to join 25 other neuroscientists from across Africa for an annual teaching tools workshop. In its 10th year, this week-long workshop brought together neuroscientists from Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Botswana, Ethiopia and Cameroon. For all purposes, it was a neuroscience teacher training workshop which aimed to enhance the pedagogical skills of participants in the field of neuroscience and introduce tools to enhance the delivery of content.
The neuroscience teaching tools workshop was the brain child of Professors Sharon Juliano, Janis Weeks, John Martin, Nilesh Patel and Evelyn Sernagor. Over the past 10 years, these 5 highly accomplished neuroscientists from the USA, UK and Kenya have been sharing their wealth of knowledge and teaching experience with fellow neuroscientists on a continent where the study and understanding of brain structure and function is still a young field.
Over the years, many others have come and gone in support of their efforts but these five remained a constant. This year, the team was supported by Drs. Sadiq Yusuf, Musa Mubandla, Rufus Akinyemi, David Fotsing and Professor Melissa Coleman. With funding from the International Brain Research Organisation (IBRO), the International Society of Neuroscience (ISN) and the Grass Foundation, the10th Teaching Tools Workshop soon proved to be the most successful yet.
What happens at the Teaching Tools Workshop?
The workshop begun with a session on how to be an effective teacher with particular emphasis on learner centered approaches to delivering a quality lesson. Having already been prescribed reading from the book “Learner Centered Teaching” by Maryellen Weimer, we were in a position to discuss these teaching strategies in light of our various teaching environments and experiences. This session was soon followed by back to back content specific sessions on Introduction to the brain and neurotransmission and Principles of Electrophysiology. With that, day 1 came to an end as participants and facilitators reflected on the day’s content over cocktails.
The next four days saw much of the same, – minus the cocktails. We received a mixture of content specific lectures from facilitators on subjects such as The olfactory system, Higher order cortical function, Motor systems and The thalamus. Everyone present took inspiration from the teaching methods which the facilitators employed. In particular, the neuroanatomists among us who felt they had been short-changed by their own lecturers, now believed they too had been short changing their students – content was so well broken-down. Content sessions were further interspersed with pedagogy sessions on Presentation skills, Classroom management strategies and Assessment strategies. My personal favourite was the use of color coded flashcards as a low tech alternative to Clickers.
Tools for learner centered teaching
All these sessions were built around getting students to own the learning process. Prof. Janis Weeks shared how at that start of her course, students are involved in decided the weighting of course activities towards their final grade. A session dedicated to Online learning saw Dr. Sadiq Yusuf share low cost alternatives to digital tools for enhancing communication and assessment. Due to all these tools, a large portion of group discussions during the week were centered around how these concepts could be best utilised within the diverse contexts we found ourselves. The highlight of the week was undoubtedly the Electrophysiology lab session led by Prof. Melissa Coleman which saw participants get familiar with the Spikerbox. It is not a neuroscience teacher training workshop, until you get to play with some neuroscience tools.
For the non-electrophysiologists among us, visualising electrical activity was a novel and enjoyable experience. For the electrophysiologists such as myself, it was a reminder of the simplicity which underlies a very powerful research tool. Either way, you can never get tired of seeing a cockroach leg dance to the beat of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”.
The teaching tools legacy
No academic activity is complete without time allocated for merry making. It was a time to reflect and affirm commitment towards neuroscience excellence in Africa. It was also a time to create a roadmap for how best we could contribute towards the advancement of neuroscience on the continent.
I am proud to say that I belong to the 10th cohort of the neuroscience teacher training workshop. Barely a month after our first meeting, members of this cohort have already started implementing changes in their lecture halls. I have personally had the opportunity to use the SpikerBox in public engagement activities to raise awareness around neuroscience.
To crown it all off, the Ghana Neuroscience Society is creating a neuroscience teacher training programme which incorporates content from the Teaching Tools Workshop in an effort to reach a wider audience with the excellent pedagogy strategies shared. This will be in line with the society’s mission to improve access and excellence in neuroscience. Without a doubt, it’s a good time to be a neuroscientist in Africa and I look forward to meeting the 11th cohort of the Neuroscience Teaching Tools Workshop.