“If I Only Had a 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 5 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).

Motivated to Learn

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 towards 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 will naturally enhance their careers and current job position. The intrinsic motivation to learn something well, is also affected by extrinsic motivation, such as more positional authority, autonomy, and potentially, increased salary.

Findings from research studies identify four key factors impacting a learner’s intrinsic motivation, namely: emotions, feedback, past experiences, and meaning.

Getting More Emotional With Learning

Notice how the experiences you remember most at work, home or play, tend to fall at 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 L&D professionals we have to orchestrate the learning environment and methodology so we instantly 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 the learner to come up with ways to put what they learn into practice into the real world so it’s more meaningful.

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

What Do You Really Think?

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 to the busing 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 is still being used which doesn’t work, the leader needs to hear about it. At the same time, the learner needs to demonstrate application of the learning material into their everyday job roles to validate the content and methodology of instruction is effective. We all like to know how we are doing.

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.

Learning From Our Past

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 the learner cannot see the relevancy or application of the new learning nothing will ever change. So while a variety of learning and development methods are essential, what is most important is showing the learner you understand their needs and will do all you can to help them use what you will be teaching them.

The Meaning of Learning

 We are always looking for meaning in our lives and in what we learn. Real learning should always be a Eureka moment for the learner. The light goes on and the brain clicks in with excitement for the implications for how to use the new skills and knowledge back in the learner’s 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 back to the leader on how learning was applied and the successes and learning points gained.

And 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 by experimenting and learning together.

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

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