Our organisations have the potential to be fields of continual learning. Learning that is crucial if they are to thrive and grow. Learning is essential to enable organisations to;
Learning happens within people; we do not make it happen, but we can create a learning-conducive environment.
Recent developments in neuroscience are helping us to understand how the brain really learns. This knowledge calls into question many of the traditional models of learning and development design. At the Performance Collective, we have been studying these new paradigms for some years, and using them to design more “brain-friendly” programmes for leadership and personal development.
In this article we summarise the latest research, using a simple model for thinking about the learning environment.
Neuroscientists have established that the level of activation of the brain region called the hippocampus is significant in maximising retention, replay and recall of learning. They have also been able to identify four specific conditions for optimal hippocampus activity;
The Neuroleadership Institute has developed these into AGES; a practical model outlining these conditions for brain-friendly learning.
If we design learning experiences with the right amount of......
.....we create the conditions for learners to intensely activate their hippocampus.
When attention is divided, the hippocampus is not engaged and the likelihood of sustainable learning is low. Furthermore, when we are dealing with multiple tasks or information sources, our neurons decrease their firing and retention dips to between 55 and 70%.
Attention is maximised when we focus our attention on one thing and when it is new and relevant to us. In this state, the brain produces dopamine generating feelings of reward. Because our brains seek to maximise reward, dopamine is a driver of motivation. It also indices a state of openness, curiosity and goal/ gain focus. Attention is also known to release other neurochemicals that stimulate alertness, mental arousal and focus.
So, to create the conditions for optimum attention:
We used to believe that long-term memory was created by repetition, but this has only very limited effect. The hippocampus is a huge web of inter-related memories rather than a “hard drive” of discrete data. The web is created by associations; the more associations, the easier it is to recall a memory. The hippocampus activates when we create multiple associations.
The neuroscience shows us that the creation of multiple associations is facilitated by the learner’s motivation to understand and apply new information in their own way, to their real world. This happens through metacognition; the process of thinking about our own thinking. We process what we are seeing, thinking, noticing, wondering and feeling about the new information. We make connections between the new information and what we already know.
The deepest and most enduring generation takes place when the learner experiences an insight – or “Aha!” moment. Deep insight creates a new set of connections with the power to change behaviour with immediate effect;
For a learning environment supporting optimum generation consider:
We have our most vivid memories of situations where our emotions were most highly engaged. This is explained in two ways. First, emotional engagement creates high levels of attention. Second, emotional engagement activates the part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is adjacent to, and stimulates the hippocampus with a powerful “you must remember this” message.
The potential downside of this effect is that human brains are hard-wired to assume that new situations will contain threats. Too much negative emotion will interfere with attention and deter learning. On the other-hand we are also pre-disposed to maximise reward and minimise threat. So attention to creating a positive, rewarding environment where people make deep personal connections with others in the group are essential to brain-friendly design.
Learning with optimum positive emotion is mostly down to the coach or facilitator’s style and energy:
Learning is not made, it is grown. Our neurons need time to make connections and this activity continues to take place between the “active” parts of the learning experience. Spacing allows our brains to digest and make sense of new content, even when we are not consciously thinking about it. The cramming of learning leads to short term performance improvement. Spacing, the distribution of learning over time, leads to better retrieval rates and longer term recall.
Provide learners with short and extended spacing in the learning experience:
Our team at The Performance Collective has been using these principles for several years and they have transformed the way support leaders to develop. Our results clients report consistent excellent results and increased application of learning in the field. There is no doubt that brain-friendly learning delivers a higher return on their investment in people development.
If this short article has raised questions for you, if you have ideas and suggestions to share or if you would like to know more about brain-friendly development - do get in touch or use the comments box.
With thanks to the Neuroleadership Institute and their research (Learning That Lasts Through AGES – Dr Lila Davachi, Dr Tobias Kiefer, Dr David Rock and Lisa Rock – Neuroleadership Journal)