Game changers for learning

In the first of three articles on the key areas affecting L&D today, Nigel Paine explores the world of neuroscience

Are we at a golden age, as some would have us believe, where we can rapidly crank up the impact and effectiveness of learning simply by applying a few golden rules from neuroscience research? Or are we subject to over-optimistic assumptions where a little bit of science dazzles us into drawing naive conclusions?

Anyone who thinks that it is too early to embrace any lessons for learning from neuroscience research should read the Royal Society’s free report: Brainwaves No 2: Neuroscience: Implications for Education and Lifelong Learning that was published in February 2011.

The Royal Society describes the report as highlighting: “… advances in neuroscience with potential implications for education and lifelong learning. The report’s authors, including neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists and education specialists, agree that if applied properly, the impacts of neuroscience could be highly beneficial in schools and beyond. The report argues that our growing understanding of how we learn should play a much greater role in education policy and should also feature in teacher training”.

But it adds the warning: “The report also discusses the challenges and limitations of applying neuroscience in the classroom and in learning environments throughout life.”1

However, there is also a Guardian piece by Kate Button, a research psychologist at the University of Bristol, which is based on an article in Nature in 20132 which warns of the very small sample sizes that some neuroscience research uses to make striking conclusions, and warns the more casual reader to track carefully when quoting research to substantiate a claim or make a policy decision based on the conclusions
from neuroscience.

What is the poor learning person to do then in the face of contradiction and challenge? Not give up certainly, but perhaps treat the evidence cynically until it has been stated and then restated by a second piece of research. But, in many ways, the policy of trying to make decisions based on some research evidence beats repeating a lot of common training myths as fact! You still hear nonsense spouted by learning professionals who should know better. The most blatant is the abject nonsense: “we remember 10 per cent of what we read, 20 per cent of what we hear, 30 per cent of what we see…” and so on, that is erroneously attributed to Edgar Dale who must be turning in his grave to see how his wise words about the impact of media on learning have been twisted into pseudoscientific bunkum. He never attributed percentages and whoever did was deliberately setting out to confuse and obfuscate the truth.

Back to neuroscience. What makes the claims today different from earlier research is that people now have the direct evidence from brain imaging to substantiate their conclusions, and they base their research on actual practice, rather than theoretical models. And what they have told us is well worth considering. What is absolutely clear is that learning is a complex process and the absolute key to brain health throughout life. And in a knowledge economy, surely learning is of
the essence!

Our centuries old belief that all learning takes place in the pre-frontal cortex (the bit of brain essentially behind our forehead), and that learning is a rational process, is finally put to bed when you witness the brain learning. Far from being a rational process, deep learning engages the whole brain which makes it a rational and emotional process at the same time. That is why we learn more from a teacher we like and learn next to nothing from a teacher who terrifies us. The more of the brain we engage, the more we learn. Fear, far from concentrating the mind, reduces the brain to its ancient reptilian core: fight or flight. It actually shuts down cognitive processes and leaves us in self-protection mode.

So what do we know? There are five things that we can say with some certainty. They form the conclusions from the Brainwaves report and are widely supported from research evidence.

Firstly, that people learn most effectively if they are emotionally engaged with what is being learnt. Learning is not only a rational process, it’s an intensely emotional one. The best learning is when the learner feels engaged committed
and enthusiastic.

The more we learn about the brain the more we realise that what is good for the heart, and heart health, is good for the brain and brain health. A recent Fast Company article referred to sitting as “the new smoking”. Generally, people are expected to sit for far too long, and if it is at all possible (and there are obviously people for whom this is impossible) they should be encouraged to stand move around, go for walks during face-to-face learning sessions etc. This rarely happens even though we know that after less than 45 minutes concentration begins to wane as the brain gets tired and needs to refresh just as the body does during physical exercise. This is the reason why the new Apple Watch uses its haptic sensors to gently tap the wearer on the wrist to encourage them to stand at least one minute every hour and 12 minutes every day. This is not fanciful but based on solid research that even small amount of standing improves health and improves concentration. When working with groups, move people around constantly, encourage them to go for walks to discuss key issues in pairs, organise stand-up report back sessions and generally ensure that participants do not spend the entire day sitting in the same room.

Thirdly, [pullquote]we learn much better in stimulating environments, both online and physically. Not enough attention is paid to layout design and colour in learning spaces[/pullquote]. When they are branded, designed and open to flexible use, it makes a measurable difference to the impact of the learning. If you go into the National Australia Bank learning centre in Docklands Melbourne, the head office is a very orthodox environment with open plan seating. The learning centre on the ground floor is totally different. Full of nooks and crannies, movable partitions and colourful flexible spaces. Many of the regular staff in the bank have meetings in the learning centre if there is space simply because the environment feels much more conducive to serious work. The whole thing was designed to be much less like the rest of the building and much more like an attractive and exciting new environment.

The same goes for online, poorly designed and constructed online learning environments. They create antagonism and resistance before anyone has done anything! Lloyds Bank transformed the acceptance by staff of its new LMS by adding colour, illustrations and photographs – and a redesign to its landing page. It went from dreary to welcoming and the result was remarkable. From initial resistance to the new LMS, emerged all-round acceptance that it was a better way to access learning.  This is not about expensive makeovers, simply consistent architecture, good clear design, coupled with some consultation and user testing around what works and what people need to access early on in their engagement with the online environment.


There is a myth that we cannot learn throughout life, and that by the time we reach a certain age it is better if we do the same thing repetitively and resist challenge. Nothing could be further from the truth. The ageing brain is different but because it is full of the experience of a lifetime it can learn in ways unavailable to younger people. [pullquote]The worst thing you can do for your ageing workforce is to assume that less challenge is desirable and that staff should “cruise into retirement”[/pullquote]. These are the people with the most experience. If they feel valued, if they feel challenged, if they feel stimulated, they will deliver for the organisation right through to the end of their career. You will also be setting up for a positive and powerful retirement. Dementia is in part caused by vascular degeneration based on diet and lack of exercise and represents shutting down of the brain. We cannot know our genetic likelihood of developing dementia but everybody should be taking steps to ensure they lead long, healthy lives. Organisations have a huge role to play and within them the learning function should be at the helm.

Finally, the brain needs time to reflect to embed learning. [pullquote]We are not big on reflection during our working days or lives! Often content is crammed into our head during a learning programme and the minute the content finishes, the course finishes[/pullquote]. This is a hopeless way of delivering learning and almost guaranteed to be less than optimal. In this instance, less really is more. Time to discuss, time even to think quietly on your own or go on a walk and talk with a colleague pay huge dividends in terms of impact and commitment. 

 When we are babies, our brains are intensely plastic. The brain is building neural pathways at an astonishing rate. That is why babies have to sleep so much so that the brain, rather than the body, can recover and prepare for the next bout of stimulation. We are all overawed by a baby or young child’s learning ability.

Clearly as we grow older we do not, and cannot learn at such a rate that we can maintain neural plasticity throughout life. The brain is most plastic when we are young, when there is a major trauma to the brain and it has to try to recover and when we are challenged. You only have to think about going on holiday to a strange place with a different language, different customs, currency, street layout and so on. We work so hard to regain our comfort. We learn a few words of the language, we work out where places are, we find a good restaurant and by the end of a holiday we are entirely comfortable in that location. Our brain has worked overtime to process all that new data. That’s exactly the kind of challenge that we should be delivering in the workplace to all our people; facing challenges are enormously healthy for the brain and also help us perform. And, if our brain maintains plasticity, if there is any damage to our neural pathways, our plastic brain will route around that damage and attempt to maintain optimum functionality.

There is a slide from Dr Joel Kramer at the Osher Center in San Francisco that shows an MRI scan of the brains of two men in their 70s. Both have symptoms of advanced Alzheimer’s. One is completely incapacitated, the other is functioning pretty well. One brain has responded to the damage and routed round the plaques. The other less plastic brain cannot do this and therefore has begun to shut down. If this is not an argument for lifelong learning, I cannot think of any other makes the case more forcibly.

The British academic Professor Guy Claxton concludes that one of the most powerful roles for a leader is to be an enabler of learning for his or her team or, as Guy puts it, “a coach of learning power”. Therefore, along with work-based tasks, leaders, and especially learning leaders, should be developing habits of mind that go beyond “data analysis, reasoning, decisiveness and training”. He believes in developing key learning habits like inquisitiveness, perceptiveness, determination and scepticism as well as broad thinking. Cultivate these and it will pay back manyfold during the working career.

 We are really at the very beginning of understanding neuroscience, what is certain is that as our deeper understanding of learning and what motivates human beings to learn is extended and developed we will begin to engage our workforces in a way that is almost inconceivable now. This is a massively
exciting challenge.         

Next month Nigel will be looking at Big Data 

A fully-referenced version of this article is available on request.

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