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5-a-Week: Neuroscience essentials for learning design


This week’s 5-a-Week (well, 7 actually, but the 7±2 rule is relevant here!), comes from an article based on Nigel Paine’s forthcoming book The Learning Challenge, due for release in April 2014. 

With the myriad of learning delivery systems and applications available today, virtually anyone with an i-net connection is able to produce some form of eLearning material, and upload it to the world.  Having a grasp of how the brain actually learns is essential if we are to produce content in ways that can be leveraged (in terms of learning value).  A basic understanding of the neuroscience around how we learn will do just that, and won’t require a degree in neuroscience, either..

Paine explains that the vast majority of what we know about how the brain works has been gleaned in the past 2-3 decades.  The area of most interest has been the processes of learning.  This opens speculation as to the effectiveness of our education and training systems that were built around earlier knowledge.

Donald Hebb (1904-1985) is cited, and his work around brain plasticity and the brains ability to continue to learn, and form new neural connections, regardless of age.  Hebbs Rule: ‘Cells that fire together, wire together’ (which he coined himself) points to these theories, which are now proven and accepted.  This opens-up the notion of life-long learning, which, coupled with the brains ability to adapt to new situations and experiences, provide much scope for learning design, CPD and task flexibility in the organisational context. 

So, how can we use neuroscience to aid learning design?

Paine describes 7 design principles for learning based around well researched and proven data emerging from neuroscience:

1.    Engage the entire learning cycle. Make time for reflection, creativity, and active testing as well as absorbing new information.

2.    Make connections with the learners’ prior knowledge and experience.

3.    Create opportunities for social engagement and interaction part of the learning process.

4.    Engage both feeling and thinking – learning needs in motion as well as intellect.

5.    Actively attend to attention.  It’s important to gain, hold and focus the learners’ attention for effective learning to take place. We simply do not pay attention to boring things.

6.    Engage the maximum number of senses possible, especially visual, when designing learning.

7.    Exercise boosts brainpower and increase the flow of Oxygen to the brain. Keep people active at least for part of their learning day and encourage them to remain active throughout their lives.

Paine goes on to explain that if you want to create new neurons, it requires a stimulating, exciting and emotionally engaging environment.  How many ways do you know you can create that in your next learning session?

This book is going to be well worth a read, and should be added to every L&D practitioners bookshelf or desktop.  I for one am first in the queue come April.

Until next week.



Based on an original article published by Nigel Paine in Inside Learning Technologies and Skills (January 2014)

One Response

  1. Neuroscience of Learning

    I am looking forward to this book. I have recently published The Star Factor (awarded the silver medal by Axiom Business Awards as one of the best leadership books this year) that provides practical guidance on applying all of these concepts and more (e.g. the impact of writing on suppression of resistance to learning).

    While the list here is excellent, the order is incorrect and the order matters to create a great learning program. #5 – attention – when combined with #4 are the driver of everything else. If you don’t have people’s attention, nothing else matters, and the best way to get and maintain people’s attention is to focus on something emotionally meaningful.

    In more than 15 years of work creating high performing organizations, we have developed a methodology for discovering what makes star performers extraordinary and uses the newest neuroscience of learning – everything in this list and more – to develop everyone else to think and act like the stars. Our work indicates that working towards a meaningful “purpose” – creating a greater social good – is the single biggest driver of attention because it creates intense emotional engagement. When people believe they are doing something important they focus more – i.e. allocate attention — and they learn faster.

    Item #2 comes next – because this creates the foundation for attaching new learnings to current learnings – we call this the “path to mastery.” Exercises (#7), social learning (#3) and reflection (#1) all follow, in that order because each creates pre-cursor conditions for the others, significantly boosting impact. The list of items is great progress, but understanding how they combine to create learning takes the discussion to another level.

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