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Jan Hills

Head Heart + Brain


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Should your learning programme really be tough?


In this series, originally posted on our sister site TrainingZone, we look at a number of myths which have grown up around good learning strategy and design and take the findings from neuroscience to confirm or bust them. This series is drawn from the book Brain-savvy Business: 8 principles from neuroscience and how to apply them. Jan is giving away 20 books, one to each reader who contributes a short example of how they will use the ideas in the series or of how they have applied neuroscience to learning.

Start by reflecting on these questions and hold them in mind as you read on:

  • Will attending the programme reward participants’ CORE elements?
  • Are you creating an atmosphere where people want to learn, where they can have some fun whilst they’re doing so, and where they know how they’ll benefit from the learning?

When we design programmes for organisations the brief often specifies the number of days, the volume of content and the level of intensity required by the client.

For example. ‘One of the objectives of the programme is to, over three days, really put participants under pressure through multiple experiences and the expectation that they will come up with practical solutions in competition with peers.’ 

This is an (edited) exert from an RFP for a leadership programme. My heart sinks when I see this type of spec. not least because it pretty much guarantees the resulting programme will achieve little, other than stressed resentful leaders who learnt nothing.

All the science tells us stress reduces learning, cramming too much in reduces learning and competition, whilst it can be helpful, reduces learning when it interferes with social connection

Here is the science of what to do differently.

Positive mood

Work by Jessica Payne at the University of Notre Dame shows the brain learns best when it’s in a good mood, when it’s mildly stressed, and when it has had a good sleep.

There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that being in a good mood helps problem-solving, and it's well-supported by the science.

Participants who were happy when they arrived for an experiment or who were put into a positive mood in the lab solved 10% more problems overall, and solved 20% more of them by insight, a result that supports Beeman’s research showing that a positive mood helps people have more Aha moments.

Barbara Fredrickson’s research on positive emotions has shown that a positive mood induces a broader focus of attention, allowing more creative and flexible responses that are good for tackling complex issues and learning.

The emphasis when it comes to stress is on the word 'mild'

Negative emotions tend to increase physiological arousal, narrow focus and restrict behaviour.

Mild stress

Too much stress reduces memory for neutral facts, such as the background details, but enhances negative memory and, in the long-term, reduces hippocampus functioning.

There is also the possibility that learning in an environment that is highly stressful may increase the retention of information but with an accompanying avoidance state; people remember things but don’t want to recall them because that would entail revisiting the negative memory.

So the emphasis here in on the word ‘mild’

Research into the optimal Flow state has shown that the ideal conditions for work and learning are a balance between the level of challenge in a situation and the participant's perceived ability to carry it out.

If stress is too low, people coast. If it's too high, people panic.

If it’s too low, people coast. If it’s too high, they panic. In any development or training programme, stress needs to be reduced, but only to the point of Flow. So, no jumping off cliffs – either physical or mental. Instead, design exercises that stretch participants just beyond their comfort zone.

This doesn’t mean redesigning an existing course from scratch, of course, but it’s important to anticipate the capabilities of the participants so that the intensity can be dialed up or down by the facilitators, depending on the individuals in the group.

The social element

Humans are social animals – we’re wired to thrive in communities and to help each other.

Using the reward response triggered by social connection by creating communities of learners is one way to enhance learning and its application. An additional benefit is that the brain networks activated in social interaction will then be more likely to be linked to the new content.

These networks include the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), a region important for processing identity, self-evaluation, and self-relevance.

In his research, Matt Lieberman set out to see what happens in the brain when an idea is assimilated in such a way that it will be passed on or shared with others. [PDF]

Lieberman and his colleagues thought they would find brain areas associated with memory and deep encoding activated – areas that are used to try to hold on to critical information. In fact, those parts of the brain did not stand out in the study.

The nature of our social abilities

What they found instead was strong activity in the brain’s medial prefrontal cortex, a network of brain regions central to thinking about other people’s goals, feelings, and interests.

It seems we employ our social abilities when we take in new information, testing whether the information would be of value to others who are important to us and not simply assessing its direct personal value.

Humans are social animals – we’re wired to thrive in communities and to help each other.

Lieberman described this phenomenon as ‘being an information DJ’.

He suggests that this process of filtering information according to its importance to others activates the reward systems in the brain, increasing the person’s sense of reputation in the group.

The medial prefrontal cortex is active when new memories are formed and new material is learned in a social context. This indicates that socially-useful information (or information that will be useful to people who are important to them, like a manager’s team) should enhance opportunities for making new neurological connections which are potentially stronger than those formed by simply committing data to memory.

The medial prefrontal cortex is active when new memories are formed and new material is learned in a social context.

This brain region, the medial prefrontal cortex, would not usually be involved in forming new memories relating to technical skills, processes or technical data. Connecting these kinds of ideas to a social context such as a team or task force provides an opportunity to generate richer, stronger connections to new ideas than might otherwise be possible.

For example, learning safety procedures can be pretty tedious, but the learner might consider a situation in which a colleague, knowingly or not, cuts a corner in terms of safety and how the manager will then support that colleague towards better safety.

In thinking this through, the colleague, the learner will be activating the social circuits in the brain and generating his or her own connections between the new content and that social connection.

Practical implications – get the learners teaching!

We can make the most of all this research by turning learners into teachers and facilitators.

Consider the phrase ‘If you want to learn something, teach it’.

There are many practical ways of doing this, from having learners pass on their insights from pre-work, or dividing them up into small groups and asking them to take turns teaching certain elements of a learning programme. Even simply preparing to teach something without actually doing so is more effective that trying to learn something in isolation.

Are you an 'information DJ?'

The social nature of the human brain means that adding a social angle to learning magnifies the effects of each of the other aspects we have discussed above.

For example, in one programme we ran we asked participants to present back their insights and learning to the rest of their business group. That social interaction in which the teaching or sharing occurs is one that is perfectly suited for focusing attention on the essential material.

No one wants to appear to have had very few insights or ideas about how to apply the workshop content, and so doing this with colleagues who were also on the workshop means there’s a social benefit of hearing others’ insights and revisiting the material (my article on the myth of pace will cover this in more detial, coming soon).

The spacing is built in because simply by teaching or sharing at a different time, spacing has occurred.

A move toward leveraging the power of social learning can be as simple as a subtle shift in the way the facilitator closes a session.

Where we may have ended by asking people to state what they learned, we can instead ask them whom they will share a learning with or how they will use the learning with another person.

Jan is giving away 20 books, one to each reader who contributes a short example of how they will use the ideas in the series or of how they have applied neuroscience to learning. 

The next article in this series will go live on Wednesday May 4th. The full article series can be seen here.

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Jan Hills


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