We forget the brain is the basis of learning

17 May 2017 By Barry Johnson

L&D professionals need to pay more attention to how the brain functions to help their learners learn best

Brain-based learning refers to learning facilitation methods and learning design. It is based on an understanding of how the brain learns and therefore how to facilitate learning.

The concept of brain-based learning is motivated by the belief that understanding can be improved if facilitators base facilitation on the science of learning, rather than on past practices, conventions or assumptions about the learning process. It means matching the learning facilitation to the target population and their entry-level performance. It is learner-centred, not trainer-centred, and learners are not assumed to be blank sheets. Each is an individual with different knowledge, skills and attitudes.

Recent discoveries in neuroscience have shown that the brain physically changes when learning, and that, after practising skills, it becomes easier to continue learning and improving those skills. Learning boosts brain functioning, resilience and working intelligence, and this informs the way we design our learning facilitation and how we structure learning experiences.

Much neuroscientific research focuses on neuroplasticity – the theory that neural connections in the brain change and reorganise when people learn new concepts, have new experiences or repeatedly practise skills. Neuroscientists have also determined, for example, that the brain can perform various operations at once; that the same information can be saved in multiple areas of the brain and that learning functions can be affected by diet, exercise, stress and sleep; that meaning is more important than information when the brain is learning something new; and that emotional states can assist or hamper learning.

Given the breadth and diversity of scientific findings, brain-based learning may take a wide variety of forms, from learning group-to-group or facilitator-to-facilitator. Learning facilitators may design learning or structure environments to reflect the facilitation of learning – for example, they may play music to decrease stress, use interactive pull skills and spend less time telling, engage learners in in-group social interactions, or create quiet, comfortable reflective situations as an alternative to traditional desks and chairs. They may also encourage learners to eat more healthy foods or exercise more – two physical factors that have been shown to affect brain health.

Neuroscience is still a relatively young field, and the methods and technologies are still developing and being tested, so it’s possible that some may misinterpret scientific evidence and act upon findings in ways that would not be recommended by the research. Also, ‘neuroscientific myths’– misinterpretations of scientific evidence – can give rise to practices of dubious value.

For example, some neuroscientists might argue that learning facilitators should do less telling and more asking, but this may depend on the targeted learners and their entry-level performance – two factors that are crucial to learning design. That may mean having different learning groups with differing entry-level performances and using different learning facilitation.

How might you balance the findings of neuroscience with the practicalities of learning facilitation for your target populations?

Barry Johnson is a non-executive director at Learning Partners

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