Building the learner’s capacity for learning.

As learning professionals, our focus is often on the learner and their learning experience, understanding and building a program to achieve the desired learning outcomes, be they new skills or a change to underlying behaviours and beliefs.  Therefore, our goal is to create a positive environment conducive for learning.

This got some of our team wondering.

When designing programs, the emphasis during the design is often on the external aspects (environment) of the program. We consider the content, the delivery, the length and context of the program in relation to the learning outcomes and stakeholder needs.

How often do we consider the learner’s capacity to learn; that is, their internal environment?

From a neuroscience lens, learning involves changing the brain. So it would follow, the more we design for our learners’ brains, the more effective our learning programs will be.

When an individual’s cognitive functions are weak, they are likely to have trouble focusing attention, become distracted, take a long time to complete a task, have difficulty remembering information and prioritising tasks.  Applying the principles of neuroplasticity to our learning design, we can develop and design programs that help build a learners capacity to learn (as demonstrated by their cognitive skills such as memory, processing speed, and attention), while also building capability.

According to Daniela Kaufer, associate professor in the Integrative Biology Department of Berkeley Graduate Division, “The most effective learning engages multiple regions of the brain for the learning process. These regions are associated with such functions as memory, the various senses, volitional control, and higher levels of cognitive functioning.”

Their research has shown “for optimal learning to occur, the brain needs conditions under which it is able to change in response to stimuli (neuroplasticity) and able to produce new neurons (neurogenesis).”

“Taking this more holistic approach to learning recognises that the brain not only interacts with incoming information but with the entire context in which it is presented.… [The] learning environment must address the physical, cognitive and emotional elements,” says Sylvia Vorhauser-Smith CEO BrainBiz and former Senior Vice President of Global Research at PageUp People

So, what can we do to influence and support our learners to learn?

When diving in down the rabbit hole of neuroscience and learning, a range of elements were identified to positively impact the learners capacity to learn; and not surprisingly, some contradictory.

While the Kaufer noted moderate stress, adequate sleep, nutrition and exercise, and active learning contribute to creating an optimal learning environment, Vorhauser-Smith in the 2011 Page-Up People White Paper, The Neuroscience Of Learning & Development noted ‘stress and learning do not mix’.

Let’s consider stress first. Stress can be good and it can be bad.

While we do not dispute Vorhauser-Smith’s assertion, research has shown that a moderate amount of stress correlates with high performance and is beneficial for learning. Playing music, creating uncertainty such as changing the class format, or introducing activities that require movement are simple examples that disrupt the learner and from a neuroscience-lens can help prime the brain.

What is important to consider in a learning scenario, is what constitutes ‘moderate’ may differ for each learner; so how the activities are introduced need to be taken into consideration.

As a learning designer, our control over our learner’s sleep, nutrition and exercise are limited (unless the learning environment can be managed, such as a retreat), so let’s jump to active learning.

With active learning, learners are invited to engage directly in their learning process, rather than being a vessel the facilitator or trainer is seeking to fill. Brainstorming, journaling, group work, focused listening, roleplaying, and facilitated discussions are often incorporated as a way of building learner engagement and learning transfer.  From the lens of building brain capacity, the most effective learning involves recruiting multiple regions of the brain for the learning task, stimulating a variety of areas of the brain and promoting memory.  The introduction of these types of “complex thought processes” are beneficial for learning as they involve and activate a greater number of neural connections – increasing the learner’s capacity for learning.

Many of the learning design techniques used currently consider the learner and the physical learning environment. What neuroscience shows us are the benefits of designing for a learner’s internal environment and the long term impact this has on not only their capability but their capacity for learning.

What is exciting about neuroscience (and neuroscience-based assessments such as those offered by Executive Brains) is the ability to measure the effectiveness of our learning programs from both an external and internal perspective.

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