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Jan Hills

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What does neuroscience say about how and why people learn?


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.

A few questions to mull over as you read this article in the series:

  1. Do people need to learn new skills and ways of working for your strategy to succeed?
  2. What are the benefits for programme participants of learning the new skills or ways of working and thinking?
  3. Will attending the programme reward participants’ CORE elements?

How the brain learns

Put simply, the brain learns in two ways:

By creating new networks

Neurons pass electrical impulses between one another, and the more the neurons fire together repeatedly the more they create stronger, more established links.

The more new connections you create to an idea or insight, the better; the more new information is presented in different ways or is used, the more likely it is to stick. [Read How the Brain Learns for more information]

Whole-body learning

Mirror neurons are thought to allow us to imitate the actions of others.

It’s the way children learn and it’s believed that this is how our ancestors learned to use tools. There are two brilliant videos illustrating this. One of children imitating and the other of someone learning tennis. Look at the last few minutes learning the serve, its amazing.

This learning happens pre-consciously, which speaks to the importance of on-the-job learning from good role models.

This type of learning isn’t linear, building from one point to another but the new skills still need to be reinforced to make them stick and to make the new neural pathways as strong as possible.

Whether the brain is creating new networks or you’re engaging in some whole-body learning, it’ll be easier if you ensure consistency, reinforcement, linkages, application and use role models to demonstrate examples of the learning in action.

A brain-savvy learning strategy

For learning and leadership development to be truly strategic it should of course be explicitly linked to the business strategy and culture of the company. This link is needed when it comes to needs analysis, design and positioning of events.

This may seem blindingly obvious and I am sure many of you are reading this thinking something along the lines of ‘Why is this woman stating the obvious?’

But actually is alignment happening? In the recent CIPD annual learning survey respondents said learning and development strategy is extremely aligned with the needs of the business in a quarter of organisations and a further two-fifths report that they are broadly aligned, with some discrepancies. Just 6% report no alignment.

Much more explanation is typically needed in terms of people understanding the need for the programme and also what’s in it for them.

Setting goals with managers before the programme or at the beginning is rarely enough; managers may not fully understand the programme themselves and are generally poor at carrying out the goal-setting discussion.

We have found the most effective methods include:

  • A campaign of communication about a major programme made up of short, punchy learning descriptions that focus on outcomes rather than inputs.
  • Learners being given much more responsibility for the identification of their own learning needs but in a context that requires them to make a business-centred case for attending learning or for the company providing funding.
  • Conversation guides for managers for the goal-setting discussion and also help from HR business partners or learning consultants with the process of identifying who should attend.

Where a programme is in support of the business strategy and groups of learners across sections of the company are to attend, it’s also important to supply some clear branding, a name, logo and colours, and a cascade of the programme. Starting the roll-out with the most senior people and progressing to the more junior. Another tactic that works well is attendance in work groups. 

Linking learning to the realities of the job is typically less of an issue, although the need to ensure learning is focused on the future rather than what was useful in the past can still be a struggle. 

One of the important but often glossed over needs of a learning strategy is for participants to understand why they are being asked to learn something new and what the benefits will be to them personally.

“What‘s in it for me?”

This is one of the first questions running through the brain of anyone you’re targeting, whether it’s informal, on-the-job learning or a formal programme or workshop.

This question of motivation kicks in before anyone is even invited. Essentially, when you ask someone to learn something new, you’re asking them to do two things. One is to realign their group identity. And the other is to change their work habits.

'Social beings'

Humans are essentially social beings and one of the first things we do is categorise people into in-group (people similar to us) and out-group (people who are different).

Learning interventions and especially high-profile programmes where there’s competition to get a place will automatically create new in-groups in the form of programme participants and alumni. If people think that by taking part in the programme they're separating themselves from a valued in-group then they'll be reluctant to participate.

But they’ll feel good about the prospect of attending a programme with high-potential colleagues or being offered a place on a course where numbers are limited, these can be powerful motivators.

One of the aims of the programme may be to mix up people from different functions across the organisation. Evidence shows that the boundaries of people's in-groups can change if you present evidence that challenges their preconceptions.

Front office people can learn something from service functions, and sales people can learn from accountants, for example. In order to overcome resistance to in-group change you need to create an awareness of the benefits of introducing participants to a valuable new network.

Being asked to learn can signal threat

Also bear in mind that change is usually inherently threatening to people’s CORE elements (see our video for more on CORE).

There are ways to create feelings of reward that mitigate the threat, however, like learning in a community or the reputational boost that comes from being more skilled. Pre-programme communications that describe what’s in it for learners, the rewards of attending the learning and the social status which the new skills will give all mitigate threat and increase a sense of reward so that learners will be receptive to new skills, ideas and change.

It’s important that participants understand that being invited onto a particular course or learning event isn't implied criticism of how they're currently working.

So present the learning as an opportunity to get better, to master something new or to learn something which will benefit them personally and enhance their success.

In other words, learning needs to be framed in terms of a growth mindset and the associated benefits.

Signal success

A second way of answering that ‘What’s in it for me?’ question that helps with the application of new learning is to connect the content with the learners’ role and beliefs about their own success.

For example, suppose there’s content about a new way of carrying out performance reviews. If a learner asks him or herself, “How will knowing this content relate to my role and my success?” it creates links between the new content and an existing neural network.

Researchers Kim and Johnson used fMRI to explore activation in a brain region called the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), which is active when we’re thinking about ourselves or reflecting.

The researchers asked participants to rate how much they liked images they were shown. Later, the images were randomly assigned as belonging to the participant or to another person. People were more likely to remember the images assigned as ‘theirs’ and there was activity in the MPFC associated with the memory.

It’s also worth letting people know ‘what’s in it for them’ on a personal level. A clear vision of the future helps people maintain new behaviours and strive harder to achieve the change.

Practical implications

Within and across programmes, it’s a good idea to make the links to why it’s important to learn new skills, change behaviour or think differently as explicit as possible.

The goals of the programme or event should clearly link to the business strategy, as we’ve said, but they should also be personalised to the individual learner either through mechanisms like a discussion with the boss, through using 360 feedback, self-assessment tools or pre-event reflection questions that help potential participants think about the relevance of the learning to their success.

This helps to answer the question ‘Why should I attend this programme, learn this new behaviour or adopt this new way of thinking?’ It also reduces uncertainty and enhances the reputation of those who adopt the proposed changed behaviours or knowledge.

Learning is easier when people intuitively understand the themes and when, where possible, the new knowledge or behaviours are demonstrated through role models.

So see if you can build in education and training for role models and ensure they speak the same language, use the same models and purposefully demonstrate behaviours to their colleagues.

And when we talk about role models, they don’t have to be there in person, or even be actual people – they can be case studies, videos, examples, stories or people identified by the learners in or outside the company.

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 the series will be posted on Friday 29th April. The full article series can be seen here.

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Jan Hills


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