What Every Learning Professional Should Know About Neuroscience


Part of the series: Four Greatest Challenges Facing Learning Leaders in this Decade:

In medicine, the 20th century was the century of the body. Such were the discoveries in conventional medicine that life expectancy increased by several years every decade the last century. This was a remarkable achievement by anyone’s standards. The 21st-century, however, will be century of the mind.

The vast majority of what we know about how the brain works, was acquired in the last 20 or 30 years. The key to this explosion of knowledge has been our increasing understanding of the chemical processes that occur within the brain, and our use of MRI and PET scans which can probe deep into the living brain and watch it react to stimuli in a way that was previously impossible. So guesswork, and surmise has been replaced with actual data.

One of the most fertile areas of investigation into brain processes and properties is in the area of learning. Most of what we now know became current after most of our professional educators were trained. Indeed, you could argue that the whole of our education and training systems have been built around false notions and outdated paradigms how the brain functions.

Out of all these discoveries that have occurred, the biggest has been the proof of the continuing plasticity of the brain. We now know that it can develop throughout life, and it can modify itself to the point with some functions that were apparently no longer available (after an accident or a stroke for example) can be recovered by undertaking the right exercises and practicing them consistently. If you want proof of this there is no better indication than that provided by the book written by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young called “The Woman who Changed her Brain”.

Arrowsmith-Young was born with severe learning disabilities. Astonishingly, she overcame all of them by developing a number of brain training exercises that allowed her to systematically, over time, defeat her neurological deficits. What she did for herself she is now doing for others. The Arrowsmith cognitive training programme is now taught in special schools across the whole of North America. Her disabilities were severe. She could not process concepts, and wrote everything backwards, got lost all the time, and was completely physically uncoordinated. If you met her today, would be very hard pressed to detect any of these weaknesses. This is what she says:

“1977, when I began exploring neuro-plasticity, it was terra incognito – certainly in education. Now it is undisputed that the brain is plastic, malleable, capable of change. This biggest discovery about the brain in the past 400 years lifting it out of what Norman Doige calls “the dark ages of neuroplasticity” and overturning centuries of conventional wisdom that the structure of the brain could not be modified”.

Arrowsmith-Young’s work focused on building neural networks, or repairing neural networks. she followed up the work started by Donald Hebb (1904-1985) who coined Hebb’s rule: “Cells that fire together, wire together.” The theory was per first postulated in Hebbs 1949 book “The Organisation of Behaviour: a Neuropsychological Theory”. But it took decades for his work to be appreciated and for his ideas to be accepted as mainstream. Now Hebb’s theories can be proved. Hebb influenced “those interested in mind (cognitive science), brain (neuroscience), and how brains implement mind (cognitive neuroscience).”

The work of Hebb has been solidly built on in the last few decades. Michael Merzenich, for example, the professor of neuroscience at the University of California San Francisco is a world authority on neuroplasticity. In a recent TED talk, he told us:

“Now that science is telling us that you are in charge, that it’s under your control, that your happiness, your well-being, your abilities, your capacities, are capable of continuous modification, continuous improvement, and you all are the responsible agent and party.”

This is a revolutionary statement. It challenges theories about the inevitability of ageing, and put real pressure on institutions that have any power and influence to continue to work with adults to stimulate their brains long into old age in order to maintain cognitive capability and perhaps delay or prevent dementia. Nearer to home, the Royal Society published a report on Neuroscience and Education in 2011 which was the work of an illustrious group of British neuroscientists including Dr Howard-Jones, Dr Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Dr Uta Frith.

One of the firm conclusions from their studies is that the brain’s plasticity means that it is well-suited for lifelong learning and has an uncanny ability to adapt to new situations and experiences throughout life. Parts of the brain more active in young people become less active in older people. But the reverse is also true the ageing brain can command access to parts of the brain that play a very small role in the neural development of young people.

The report concludes:

“Neuroscience studies have begun to shed light on the mental processes involved in learning… We explore the extent to which these new scientific insights can inform our approach to education… The new field of “educational neuroscience” sometimes called “neuroeducation” investigates some of the basic processes involved in learning to become literate numerate but beyond this it also explores “learning to learn”, cognitive control and flexibility, motivation as well as social and emotional experience. With the effective engagement of all learners as well as teachers, parents and policymakers, the impact of this emerging discipline could be highly beneficial.”

One of their significant claims is that learning “seems the most broadly and consistently successful cognitive enhancer of all.” What this means, in effect, is that education can build an individual’s cognitive reserve and resilience and that will help that person adapt to stressful and traumatic events as well as normal ageing. This reserve and resilience can be built up at any point during life.

Indeed the Kolb learning cycle: virtually mimics the brain’s own process. His four stages of learning are reflected in the basic structure of the brain: gathering sensory experiences through the sensory cortices; engaging in reflective observation (drawing on the temporal lobe); creating new concepts in the prefrontal cortex and then actively testing through our motor cortices. This was first pointed out by the neuroscientist’s Zull who suggested that the most effective learning is that which engages the most regions of the brain. Rather like Kolb’s cycle, you have to engage the whole brain, and go around the whole cycle in order to make significant changes in behaviour and performance.

From this information is possible to adduce seven design principles for corporate learning based around well researched and proven data emerging from neuroscience.

Engage the entire learning cycle. Make time for reflection, creation and active testing as well as absorbing new information.
2. Make connections with the learners’ prior knowledge and experience.

3. Create opportunities for social engagement and interaction part of the learning process.

4. Engage both feeling and thinking. Learning needs in motion as well as intellect.

5. Actively attend to attention. It is important to gain, hold and focus the learners’ attention for effective learning to take place. We simply do not pay attention to boring things.

6. Engage the maximum number of senses possible, especially visual, when designing learning.

7. Exercise boosts brainpower as increases oxygen flow to the brain. Keep people active at least part of their learning day and encourage people to remain active throughout their lives.

John Medina in his book “Brain Rules” is impatient with how slowly the lessons of neuroscience percolated into learning.

“If you wanted to create an educational environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, probably you would design something like a classroom. If you wanted to create a business environment that was directly opposed what the brain was good at doing, you would probably design something like the cubicle.”

If you want the brain to learn, if you want to create new neurons and build new connections this has to be done in a stimulating and exciting environment where there is fundamental emotional engagement, and a wish to learn.

This leads to a number of simple conclusions for the learning leader. The first is that you don’t need to be a neuroscientist. You do, however, need to stay in touch with the growing research evidence about learning if you want to make an impact in your role in your organisation.

Discussion and debate are fundamental to good learning. Multimedia works better than single media. Learning which focuses on building motivation excitement works better than dumping information on people. And, the best way to develop learning is to build a culture in the organisation where learning is valued.

This will tend to mean that organisations which stimulate curiosity, promoting engagement, and champion innovation will create people inherently willing to learn. Organisations that stimulate learning and engage in debate will be inherently more innovative. Nothing much in the way of ideas will be generated in a miserable working environment. Learning leaders can help build much better work environments as eel as better learning environments.

The more we know, the more we realise the significance and centrality of building 21st-century organisations full of engaged and happy employees who are33 productive and successful. The learning leader has a critical role in helping deliver this.

This article is based on a forthcoming book entitled The Learning Challenge which will be published in April 2014.


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4 Responses to “What Every Learning Professional Should Know About Neuroscience” - Leave a Comment

  1. Nigel,
    I have a voracious appetite for this topic and loved your article! Thank you for sharing it with our BP Faculty circle.
    Susan Mannlein

  2. Well that is great motivation for a 76 year old who has been invited back to a company that I was one of the founders of 20 years ago and retired from 9 years ago. They, mysteriously, still see me as I was. Well, I will have to reinvent myself as I love these friends.
    What the article did not tell me is how I was going to relearn all the ‘stuff’ I lost over the past 9 years, as I focused on writing fiction, and, perhaps, more importantly, how I am going to catch upon the neuroscience advances in recent years.
    If Arrowsmith-Young could reinvent her brain I need to do the same with this lump of dough in my skull.

    • Go for it. I think that the journey will be fun and engaging.

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