The brain’s vital impact on learning

by L&D11 Jan 2017
Have you ever wondered about the cognitive science behind learning? While it is undoubtedly complex in nature, an understanding of its basics can provide vast benefits to your organisation and its employees.

Clark Quinn is executive director for Quinnovation, and author of ‘Revolutionise Learning and Development: Performance and Innovation Strategy for the Information Age.’

Quinn told Chief Learning Officer that we can change learning practices for the better and impact outcomes by understanding cognitive science in general, and the learning sciences in particular.
“In most any profession, there is a body of knowledge that drives decisions. Whether it’s medicine-based physiology or flight in physics, practitioners need to understand what’s happening to make appropriate decisions,” Quinn explained.

“It’s the same with learning. To be able to determine whether a planned intervention – training, e-learning or otherwise – is appropriate, one must understand learning.”

However, he cautions that this understanding isn’t simple.

“The claim has been made, fairly, that the most complex thing in the known universe is the human brain. Therefore, to believe that a systematic and persistent change in operation can be done without a fairly deep understanding of the brain is simplistic,” he said.

“Instead, learning should apply the results of learning science research, a veritable learning engineering. As Will Thalheimer, president of Work-Learning Research and author of ‘Performance-focused Smile Sheets,’ said: “The learning-design process is transformed when scientific research is used.”

“Thalheimer cited specific benefits including team direction, innovation and planning.”
The consequences of not understanding the brain’s impact on learning, on the other hand, can be costly, Quinn pointed out.

“Time invested in developing learning that is ineffective is only one aspect. Another is using training or e-learning when other solutions would be more effective. There is a whole suite of solutions currently being sold in the learning industry that have a questionable scientific provenance,” he said.

Quinn goes on to provide us with another important piece of advice from Thalheimer:
“Be sceptical of claims you hear by vendors, bloggers, friends and co-workers. There are innumerable myths and mythologies floating around the learning field.”

The nuances are subtle.

“Well-produced experiences aren’t noticeably different from well-designed and well-produced learning, but the outcomes are. Plus, there are some misunderstandings that interfere, for a variety of reasons,” Quinn explained.

“For instance, there’s quite a lot of hype about neuroscience implications for learning, but researchers are quick to point out that most of the important results come from another level.”
He added that there are levels of analysis; neural is one, but the next level up is the cognitive level.
“That’s where most of the important implications come from, as well as the social level above the cognitive,” he said.
The Cognitive Umbrella
Quinn pointed out that cognitive science is the most accurate description as it was specifically created as an umbrella term to incorporate all levels of human behaviour from neural to social, and it includes contributions from many disciplines including philosophy, anthropology, neuroscience, psychology, sociology and more.

“If leaders aren’t aware of the nuances, they can fall prey to some persistent – and expensive – myths. Learning styles, for instance, have been robustly demonstrated to be of no practical value, yet instruments and arguments for sensitive design are still in play,” he said.

“Also, a variety of opportunities to support learning are focused more on aesthetics than effective outcomes. It takes a real understanding to discern the difference between learning and the folk psychology that many people wrongly follow.”

Julie Dirksen, principal of Usable Learning and author of ‘Design for How People Learn’ said she sees “a lot of wasted efforts” in learning and development that assume that information delivery is going to solve the problem.

“Learning leaders need to know more, to do more,” she said.

Dirksen invites us to consider the following simplified version of the cognitive science of learning to draw some important implications on what should happen in organisational learning.

“One of the encouraging things I’ve seen in more effective organisations is programs that are spread out over time so people can practice, get feedback and space out their learning,” she said.
It’s time to take our profession seriously and avoid learning malpractice. We must not falter – our organisations need us.