Neuroscience and the learning brain: Is there a better way?

Lauren Waldman delves into neuroscience and learning, ahead of our latest #TJwow discussion webinar.

Reading time: 6 minutes.

Can the findings of neuroscience help learning and development professionals design more effective learning experiences? 2.5 years ago, I couldn’t have answered that question for you. But after quitting my job as a Canadian director of learning, in pursuit of certificates in neuroscience from Harvard and Duke, the louder question became, how can’t this help!?

Probably the best way to look at how neuroscience can help us to rethink and redesign our training, is by debunking some myths and looking at some fundamental truths. Now, we won’t cover everything (let’s face it, the brain is as vast and expansive as the universe) but I do hope to shed a little light and share a couple of tips to get you started. So, let’s dive in.

Myth #1: “I’m a _______learner”

Ahhhh, the ‘Learning Styles’. You may be wondering why I surround ‘Learning Styles’ in quotes. Design for the verbal learner, the auditory, the kinesthetic etc. I don’t know how many inventories I’ve participated in over the last 16 years. Myers-Briggs, Kolb’s, Colours to name a few. Just like many of you reading, I was educated on, and encouraged to design with the learning styles in mind. 

We should consider designing for the brain and not the learning style. 

This has been one of the most profitable neuro-myths of the last 20 years. Extensive research in the last decade though, has shown no empirical evidence to support this.

“The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” wrote Harold E. Pashler, a professor of psychology at the University of California at San Diego, in 2009. Currently this is still what the research is indicating. 

There is no doubt that as learners we express our preferences for the type of learning we like to engage in, but until the research tells us differently, we should at least consider designing for the brain and not the learning style. 

But the brain is so intricate…where do we start? 

Tip 1# Choose a mode

Researchers have found that fundamentally we have two modes of thinking, the focused mode and the diffuse mode. Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski from University of California, San Diego used this model in their popular course “Learning How to Learn.” 

In an excerpt from her book Dr. Oakley says this about the focused mode: “It involves a direct approach to solving problems using rational, sequential, analytical approaches. The focused mode is associated with the concentrating abilities of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, located right behind your forehead.[iv] 

“Turn your attention to something and bam—the focused mode is on, like the tight, penetrating beam of a flashlight.”  And this about the diffuse mode “It is what allows us to suddenly gain a new insight on a problem we’ve been struggling with, and is associated with ‘big picture’ perspectives.

“Diffuse-mode thinking is what happens when you relax your attention and just let your mind wander. This relaxation can allow different areas of the brain to hook up and return valuable insights.”

As far as Neuroscientists know, you can’t be in the focused mode and the diffuse mode of thinking at the same time. That being said, the interplay between the two modes can be a powerful learning tool. So how can we use this for our designs?

In the focused mode, you can consider looking at your materials and ask yourself questions like “Which aspects of this training will require focused concentration?” “Which areas are going to lay the foundations to the next pieces of content?” Here is where you may put in some more of the heavier content. 

Then think about where some diffuse mode thinking can be put into place to support the focused. How can you work in some time for the brain to relax and engage in some unconscious work? Sleep is a great way to go into the diffuse mode, but we typically don’t have the luxury of built in nap times in our training sessions. 

What you can do though, is look to see where you can strategically put in breaks, a pause for a little exercise, a change in environment for some social time, whatever you deem fit for your design and audience.

Myth#2: We only use 10% of our brains

If you take a moment to imagine how the streets in your neighbourhood may look if everyone were zombies, it may be a fair representation of what this myth would look like if it were true. Since we’re humans and not zombies, who have the ability to form memories and retrieve, what better a place for our next tip.

Tip #2 Design for retrieval 

I haven’t met a client yet who has said that they don’t want the learning to stick, have you?

When we design, it can’t hurt to have an understanding of how long term memories are formed for retrieval, and the places we can lose them along the way. The science of this can get rather confusing though, so allow me to explain by taking you on a quick journey through memory storage.

When we allow our experienced brains to play with the research, we can dream up new and more impactful ways to reach our learners

Picture, if you will, a treasure map. Your mission is to take your ship ‘The Forever’ which is full of precious memories, and deposit them in the treasure chest on the top of Long Term Memory Mountain.  

The first stop on your map is ‘Short Term Memory Island’. There you encounter a gang of memory bandits. If you don’t defeat them, your memories will be taken to the Land of the Forgotten, this is the place where nothing is known and nothing remains. 

Luckily you get past the first obstacle of your journey and set sail again, next stop ‘Working Memory Island’. There you are met by a crew of thieving pirates who want to steal your memories, and take them back to…you guessed it, the Land of the Forgotten. 

It’s quite the battle, but fortunately, you leave victorious! You’re on the home stretch. One more stop and you’ve made it to your destination. Arriving at ‘Encoding Cove’ you and your crew transfer your treasure of memories into chests and make the trek up to the top of Long Term Memory Mountain. 

Your booty is now safe forever, and you can go back and visit it whenever you want. 

The moral of this story when it comes to looking at your learning design is this: Your methods will always change depending on the content that needs to be taught, be it story telling as demonstrated here, hands on practice, webinars etc. but the end game should always look the same. 

Ask yourself – how can I align my methodologies to help my learners retrieve their treasure?  *Additional tip, if you want to engrain this concept into your long-term memory, try making an illustration of the map in the story.

So, my fellow friends in the world of learning, though the science is still new and we’ll need to give grains of salt as we navigate all the research and information coming out from it, when we allow our experienced brains to play with the research, we can dream up new and more impactful ways to reach our learners, and for me that’s where the real treasure lies.

YARR for now;)


About the author

Lauren Waldman is CEO of Learning Pirate.


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