Using neuroscience in L&D design

At last week’s CIPD L&D Show, there was an interesting talk from think.change about using neuroscience to design effective L&D programmes. Ian Pettigrew did a great job of live blogging the talk which you should take the time to read for context to this post.

As an L&D practitioner it has always been important to me to know that the learning I am designing meets a number of criteria. One is that it has to be relevant. That kind of goes without saying but it’s easily overlooked. Next is that the content I am using is current. We don’t need to peddle old theories just because they exist. Another is that the content itself has to be validated or researched in some way.

I add those together and I have a recipe for a good set of outcomes. Theories like neuroscience help us to understand how to apply better design principles to the learning design process.

Here are my key takeaway points:

Always ensure the learning environment is the best it can be.

It’s easy to just sit in a room and have nothing stimulating the brain visually or via other senses. Bring flowers into the classroom, use colours on slide decks, have nuts and fruits available, if possible have natural sunlight.

If it’s online based learning just adapt the thinking. Use images instead of text-heavy slides, prompt people with questions instead of prescribing methodologies, make use of on-screen tools like highlighter pens and laser pointers.

Help create new habits

The brain is geared up for habit making. Once it learns something it keeps it. If you’re introducing new thinking the brain needs time to get there. You can have lots of fun with this. Give content prior to the session, build in lots of practise moments, provide targeted feedback to improve, create learning forums. All these things, and many besides, help the brain make those new neural connections to create new habits.

Breaks are important

We can’t focus and maintain performance for long periods of time. Our pre-frontal cortex is our executive functioning area which means it is that part of the brain where we use our intelligence and smarts to get things done. But it’s got a limited period of efficiency. That’s why it’s important to take breaks and also to break up the format of the learning session. We can chop and change activities to good effect. Just be mindful this is not the same as multi-tasking. This is about focused activity at different times and for varying lengths of time.

It’s also why sleep and rest are so inportant. Those are vital times when the brain digests the learning from the day and decides how to create new networks for the next time. When we experience tiredness and burnout is when we’ve exercised the pre-frontal cortex beyond its capability and capacity.

Reward is important too

When we do a task or activity and we’re given encouragement for it the brain releases the chemical dopamine. Dopamine helps us to feel good and the brain wants more of that. In a learning environment it’s important to be mindful of how we encourage and reward the behaviour we’re seeking to improve or change.

There is a danger that people may just fake a behaviour in order to receive praise or encouragement in front of others. I have no easy answer to that.

There’s also a danger some people seek that dopamine hit via other methods. In the learning environment we can be fairly certain it’s a safe environment for reward to be genuine. Outside of that environment and it’s up to the individual what they do.

One of the things this helped me reflect on is that if you’ve been designing learning well, then you have in all likelihood been doing the above anyway. What we know now, though, is that there are more purposeful ways to ensure good learning design happens so that we are helping learners to engage in brain friendly techniques.

Organisational rhetoric and mood

While I was spending time thinking about what I could get out of last week’s CIPD L&D Show, (aka being up my own arse) I forgot something about myself, and about what I was there to do.

Echo chambers are an interesting phenomenon. They exist because we allow them too. Someone says something and it disproportionately affects the way things happen. Conversations are had where there is violent agreement taking place. I’m preaching to the party who are all my buddies and I think I’m being clever and my insights are on the mark.

But it’s what happens outside of those echo chambers that worry me. Sometimes, people decide to share those comments to a broader audience. And suddenly they gain an audience, either pro or against their message, and it becomes part of a bigger conversation. Incidentally this is exactly how UK politics works, and most organised religion.

What I’m interested in, is how emotion plays a part in all of that. More specifically, how does the emotion of a few affect the emotion of the many. And I saw this exactly happen at CIPD L&D Show last week. A few of us, either unwittingly or purposefully, were voicing thoughts and frustrations about the content we were listening to. These started to become echoed by others. By the end of day one, a general mood of “meh” had beset most people.

How incredibly rude and arrogant of us all. I then read this piece by Phil Willcox and was reminded that I control the experience I have and that I share. Well of course I bloody do. I just forgot. And got caught up in my own emotions. So I purposefully set out to appreciate and share better the content for all those not privy to be in the position I was. I wasn’t falsely positive. I just remembered that there’s far more meaning for me in sharing content that others may find useful.

No organisation is immune to these effects. The echo chamber can be a difficult thing to perceive and become aware of. Want to know how dangerous it can be? Look at the likes of Kodak and HMV. Once at the top of their respective games. They got told about change and they refused to listen. The echo chamber was too strong and it couldn’t be penetrated. There may have been people trying to stand up and be heard inside, but their voice wasn’t one of the influential ones.