“If I Only Had a Brain”

Lessons we can learn from studies of our amazing brain.

As Dorothy replied to Scarecrow in the classic Wizard of Oz movie:

“With the thoughts you’d be thinkin’ You could be another Lincoln If you only had a brain.”

Many of us feel like we are on the yellow brick road wanting to get a brain from the Wizard. We may get locked into thinking “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Well, it seems that old adage is not as scientifically true as we might believe it to be.

Take a study by Dr. Veronica Kwok from the Beijing Institute of Technology and her colleagues from a variety of academic institutions (see Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 2011, Vol. 108, No. 16). Their experiment required 19 adults to learn and match four similar shades of green and blue with made-up names consisting of meaningless Mandarin monosyllables. They had to learn these color name associations in five sessions, over three days, for a total of an hour and 48 minutes.

Each subject had a magnetic resonance imagery (MRI) scan conducted before and after the experiment to compare the brain cells of each individual. The results revealed a noticeable increase in all of the subjects’ brain gray matter volume for those regions (left visual cortex) associated with color vision and perception.

Similar brain cell increases have been reported from adult learners of second languages through immersion from research conducted at the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy (Science Daily, October 8, 2012).

Adult learners have an incredible repertoire of life experiences that help provide a hidden source of motivation for learning. In fact, imaging studies show parts of the brain’s emotional and cognitive areas actually become activated whenever a person is motivated toward learning.

We no longer have to be motivated through flight or fight anymore. Most adults are motivated today by a desire to learn skills and knowledge that naturally will enhance their careers and current job position. The intrinsic motivation to learn something well also is affected by extrinsic motivation, such as more positional authority; autonomy; and potentially, increased salary.

Findings from research studies identify four key factors affecting a learner’s intrinsic motivation, namely:

  • Emotions
  • Feedback
  • Past experiences
  • Meaning

Notice how the experiences you remember most at work, home, or play tend to fall into the polar memories of the best of times or the worst of times. We just don’t remember the mundane, middle-of-the-road, neutral events in our lives.

This means we must bring more feelings and emotions into our corporate learning experiences. As Learning & Development (L&D) professionals, we have to orchestrate the learning environment and methodology so we trigger more positive emotions than negative ones about what is being learned.

To remember what we learn, we need to make the learning experience a “best of times” one. What can you do to build in some form of challenge into the learning? And what about making the content and application of the material exciting and creative? Allow learners to come up with ways to put what they learn into practice in the real world so it’s more meaningful.

Bringing more feelings into the learning also requires learners’ commitment and investment into what is being taught. This no longer can be purely instructor led and must include collaboration and addressing learners’ needs versus a top-down, done-deal approach.

A two-way feedback process is required on all learning that goes beyond the one-way, reaction sheet evaluation. Leaders of learning programs should know how much knowledge and skills were clearly understood and easily replicated. Are we really measuring the impact we have made on the business through our training?

Participants of all learning programs should be able to tell leaders how they really performed as an instructor or facilitator. If an old-school teaching strategy doesn’t work, the leader needs to hear about it. At the same time, learners need to demonstrate application of the learning material in their everyday job roles to validate the effectiveness of the content and instruction methodology. As we receive specific and ongoing feedback, we are more likely to explore alternative approaches if we were not successful, and be more open to implementing ways of doing things not previously tried when we are.

We are not always willing to shift from old practices and previous ways of doing things. As adult learners, we compare new things we are learning with experiences and knowledge from our past. Our long-term memory truly is long and holds onto things as if they are complete and final.

That is why it is critical to connect the dots of any new skills and knowledge to be learned with what the learners’ current world looks like. If learners cannot see the relevancy or application of the new learning, nothing will ever change. So while a variety of learning and development methods is essential, what is most important is showing learners you understand their needs and will do all you can to help them use what you will be teaching them.

Real learning should always be a Eureka! moment for learners. The light goes on and the brain clicks in with excitement about the implications for how to use the new skills and knowledge back in the workplace.

That’s why time for practice and implementation is a powerful way to create motivation and a love of learning. Learners should be able to give a feedback report to the leader on how learning was applied and the successes and learning points gained.

In addition, learning should never occur in isolation. Other employees are going through the same work experiences and can share in the learning outcome. This is where groups of learners should be organized to add greater depth.

Brain-learning research will continue to show us the links for what it takes to deliver effective learning. It also will require us to have an open mind and heart in making the changes needed for instructing the way our brains want to learn.

Roy Saunderson is author of “GIVING the Real Recognition Way” and Chief Learning Officer of Rideau’s Recognition Management Institute, a consulting and training firm specializing in helping companies “get recognition right.” Its focus is on showing leaders how to give real recognition to create positive relationships, better workplaces, and real results. For more information, contact RoySaunderson@ Rideau.com or visit http://www.Rideau.com.

Roy Saunderson, MA, CRP
Roy Saunderson, MA, CRP, is author of “Practicing Recognition” and Chief Learning Officer at Rideau Recognition Solutions. His consulting and learning skills focus on helping companies “give real recognition the right way wherever they are.” For recognition insights, visit: http://AuthenticRecognition.com. For more information, e-mail him at: RoySaunderson@Rideau.com or visit: www.Rideau.com