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Harness Psychology & Neuroscience To Improve Your Learning Programmes

By Florenz Geraghty, Senior Learning and Development Consultant for Think People Consulting

In the last 20 years there have been staggering advances in the field of neuroscience (the scientific study of the brain). The surge in knowledge has been enabled by technological developments such as functional magnetic resonance imagining (fMRI), which enables scientists to accurately measure brain activity.

Scientists have now started to explore how these findings, from cognitive and behavioural research, translate to individual behaviour and learning within the workplace.

What did they find? That our brains are adaptable like plastic! A phenomenon which neuroscientists describe as neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity

These studies have shown that every time we think, feel or do something, we strengthen the particular path our brain signals have taken to complete that action. This makes it easier to think, feel or do the same thing next time; as the neurological path that needs to be taken is well established. For this reason, 70 per cent of what we think, feel or do is habit!

So, while it is difficult to begin new habits or break old ones, Neuroplasticity states that our brains are not hard-wired and unchanging. We now know that we all have the ability to learn, adapt and change, but to do so we need to form new connections in the brain and weaken the old ones that don’t serve us as well as we would like.

By re-wiring our brains, with repeated and directed attention towards your desired change, we can adopt new habits. That is neuroplasticity in action. You will not create new habits by thinking about something once or twice. It takes repetition over a longer period to establish new pathways in the brain and therefore embed new behaviour; but once they are formed they stick.

Self-Awareness & Motivation

Many learning programmes simply tell people what we want them to know. These info-dump style workshops are unlikely to create the motivation for conscious repetition of a behaviour until it becomes habit.

People are much more motivated to adopt new ways of working when they understand the benefit to themselves and have bought into the need for change. This can be difficult for learning facilitators to achieve because our education to date has been based on being “right”. Since our first day in school, very little emphasis has been placed on building self-awareness of what we don’t know.

Thanks to the impact of neuroscientific research, society has recognised the impact of an “always right” culture on wellbeing, mental health and burnout. Emphasis is now being placed on slowing down, asking for help and sharing our faults and difficulties as a form of encouragement to others.

The effect of these findings on the design of learning programmes is that we now see learning as a process:

  1. Reflection – What is required? People need support putting the learning into context, and guidance to understand how to apply new skills in practise. 
  2. Self-Awareness – As an individual, what do I need to meet this requirement? What needs to stay the same and what needs to change?
  3. Learning – Provide an opportunity for the brain to think about learning topics in different ways; to test different neuro-pathways.
  4. Forming Habits – Provide an opportunity to apply learning on a regular basis, practise a new skill or way of working, consistently choose a different emotion and carve out a new path of thinking, feeling or doing.
  5. Review and Feedback – The new ways of thinking, feeling or doing can begin to alter slightly during the repetition process. Our brain signals begin to slip slowly back into our old established ways of thinking, before we get a chance to really establish the new ways. Regular review and feedback, either as an individual or a team, is essential to keeping our brain on track.

Shaking Up Your Brain Signals

The theory of neuroplasticity contradicts the previous belief that the brain limits what you can achieve. Instead, neuroscience indicates that each of us has an important role to play in how our brain (and therefore our thoughts, feelings and actions) develops through our life.

There are a number of tools and tricks you can use to encourage your brain to take new paths:

  1. Your Creative Brain – When we use new pathways in our brain, we are by definition reducing activity along the old, established pathways. Therefore, forcing creative thinking once in a while can help us take more creative approaches consistently. This decreases the chances of our brain signals shooting along an established pathway and coming to the same old conclusion automatically. You can force your brain to be creative by working with others, working on new tasks and problems, and recreational creativity such as painting or writing.
  2. Your Learning Brain – Brain imaging taken between learning sessions has shown an increase in activity in the part of the brain responsible for verbal rehearsal. This proves that not only is repetition required to create and maintain new neurological pathways, but spacing out learning sessions improves retention as it allows our brain time to subconsciously practise what we are learning.
  3. Your Dreaming Brain – A good night’s sleep helps us start the next day fresh, but it also helps us remember what happened the day before. Our sleeping brain reproduces activities at night, helping us to lay down these experiences in memory.
  4. Your Wired Brain – Technology can enhance or diminish brain function, depending on how it is used. Mobile devices make repetition of information much easier as we can access bite-sized learning topics from anywhere, at any time. Devices also allow a greater range of information formats (e.g. infographics or videos) and more creative methods of repetition (e.g. quizzes, scenarios, group discussion etc.).

On the other hand, device screens produce predominantly blue-light which can inhibit the brain’s production of the sleep hormone melatonin, increase alertness, and reset the body’s internal clock to a later schedule. As mentioned in point three, a consistent sleep pattern is essential for optimal learning.

  • Your Aerobic Brain – Aerobic exercise increases blood flow around the body, including the brain. This improves the efficiency of the neurological networks within the brain, and makes it easier to establish new pathways and connections.

These insights about how the brain learns new information, attitudes and ways of thinking, is powerful when considering how to structure the design and delivery of learning. Neuroscience encourages greater learner engagement, more creative ideas, and ensuring space for reflection and discussion.

Put It In Practise: Designing Management Development

This workshop by Think People Consulting will look at management development through the lenses of neuroscience and psychology. Attendees will learn:

  • How to increase management commitment to new behaviours, attitudes and ways of working.
  • How to motivate and inspire managers to recognise their areas for improvement and develop themselves
  • How to increase learning retention using several brain-friendly learning models

When:                  2nd April 2020; 12.00pm to 1.30pm

Where:                 Think People Consulting, Belfast.

Cost:                      £84.00 plus VAT

Register Here:   https://www.thinkpeople.co.uk/events-registration/?ee=42

If you are unable to attend our seminar, I am happy to answer any questions you have about designing management development on:

florenz.geraghty@thinkpeople.co.uk

+4428 9031 0450

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Cora Degan