Brain Science and Learning Design - notes on the TFLN session
Wow, for me the Brain Science and Learning Design session by Tasmania Flexible Learning Network (TFLN) was great.. It nice to spark idea’s for people, and this blog post is write up of what I talked about, with a few added bit and pieces and a summary of the discussion.
Why Brain Science?
One of my heroes is Kathy Serria, the founder of, and thinker behind, the Head First series of books. Back when she was writing the Create Passionate Users blog, I become interested in how her books were working, and why a simple textbook was so engaging as a learning experience. I love that my hero of learning design is actually a book designer and writer and not an e-learning developer. One of Kathy’s main interests is Brain Science.When I started to look into the area of Brain Science, what I found is a more concrete understanding of how we learn than what a lot learning theories give us. In my consulting work it’s easier to say, “we need to be this way because that is the way the brain works”, than saying, “Constructivism learning theory says we need to offer experience-based learning.”I’m not an expert in the area Brain Science but I find it’s a useful way to think about learning and learning design practice. One of the reasons I was interested in doing the session is that I saw it as a chance to explore and think about some of issues. The session had a lot of great ideas, and some of them may even be wrong! Hopefully, I’ve written them all up here.
Learning design is a process, it’s not a set of rules. What might work for one group of learners might not work in another context or with another group of learners. One of the worst examples I’ve seen of the use of learning design guidelines is in the Toolbox development process, where the quality assurance process basically says, “The course should focus on learner tasks” . In reality, what this often means is drag and drop style “busy” interactions that are a waste of time. Please don’t think of these ideas and thoughts as guidelines that should be ticked off. Please use them to help inform the design phase of the learning design process.
The sessions focus on four areas.
1) The brain is a map of connections
It’s almost bland to talk about the fact that the brain is series of connected neurons. Each thought we have is a chain of electrical pulses firing in brain. Leaning is literally the building of new connections. For learning to take place, the brain need spots to start building these connections from. It builds on what we already know. The best way to think about this is to consider the brain as a series of maps.There are a couple of other things that are useful to know as well.
- We try to hardwire these maps. This hardwiring is actually the forming of a new habits and behaviour.
- Once a map is hardwired, it’s almost impossible to change that map. It’s easier to build a new map than change an existing map in our brain.
- What I didn’t talk about during session was that building new maps take quite bit of energy.
We then started to discuss and explore example
- Ask learners what they already know at the start of a course.
- This could be a forum post, that is, “What do you know about …”
- It could be task where learners do mind maps about what they know..
- Give the learner an experience
- Instead of the classic “Tell/show and then practise”, get the students to try and practise and experience first, and then to discuss and explore afterwards.
- If it’s an experience that involves a risk, and just starting to practise and explore is impossible, some of the solutions could be:
- Tell a story about the experience.
- Give the learner a case study to work with. Making the case study come “alive” will engage the learner more. Some ways to make the case study more alive include interviews, video and other rich media.
- Use scenarios. This is partly related to the case study. I think what was meant by this in the session was more an interactive experience where the learner is given a problem and then can make a series of choices. Which is more like our branching interaction system STEM.
- Then at the end, ask the learner to ‘map’ the experience. This is a classic reflection activity
- Some of things we talked about included:
- Visualising the experience, by drawing diagrams.Telling a story about the experience; this could be a journal or a photo journal. These could be use technologies like blogs and Flickr.
- One nice example that I think came up at this stage, was the idea of giving everyone an image of river, and then people ‘telling the story of where they are on their journey down a river’. I quite liked this idea of combining a visual with a story. It’s maybe a bit too poetic for a lot training sessions. It’s an idea I’ve used in community arts projects in the past.
- I’m going add a few other things here that could work face to face or online:
- Preparing a report that talks about what happened and what they learnt.
- Giving a presentation about the experience.
- If it’s step by step content, getting the student to develop a Standard Operation Procedure.
What is interesting about all these idea’s is most of them are not content heavy. They don’t involved developing complex media, and we didn’t talk about quizes or drag and drop interactions.
2) Everyone’s maps are different.
In our brains, these maps are organised differently for everyone. During the session, I talked about how, during a face to face session, a student might not ‘get something’ and then another student might explain it in a different way. The teacher’s map wasn’t anything like the student’s, and the other student’s map was useful for that student.I talked about how hard this is to do online. Someone pointed out that it’s not really that hard in an online course that has a strong facilitation model and that uses technologies like discussions and other social media.In the Head First books, they do this by presenting the same information in multiple ways, often in multiple contexts. This means a concept might be woven into a diagram and also used in a story. When you are reading the books, this can be really useful if you having trouble with a concept, at other times it can drive you crazy.
- An nice example that came up during the discussion was using a document viewer during video conferences.
- One of the important points from the discussion was that using multiple media can be overdone. It’s always best to choose the right media for the content and context.
3) What we call thinking is activity in activity in the prefrontal cortex.
This part of the session was inspired by the first part of David Rock’s new book “Your Brain At Work”, which focuses on the limitations and strengths of the prefrontal cortex. He uses a great metaphor of it being like a stage, where actors come and go. I personally understand this type of brain activity as the ‘voice in the head’ .The important points for learning design are:
- The stage is quite small, and actors (thoughts) can come and go quite quickly if we are not careful.
- While this part of brain is responsible for decision-making, it doesn’t handle complexity well.
Research has repeatedly shown that we can only remember between four to seven things at one time. The way I’ve working with this is by trying to cut down the number of sections in a course and reducing the options learners have at each stage.Philip E. Rose, in his research, found that expert chess players remember moves and chunk information together, and it’s been found by chunking and grouping information together in a visual way can allow us to deal with more complexity.
- Breaking experiences and information down into discrete parts aids learning.
- Putting related information together and grouping the information to what we already know assists learning.
4) The default state for our brain is the “Narrative Circuit”
Norman Farbin, while research mindfullness and mediation, divided our brain activity into two types. One is the “experience circuit”. This is the moment when the chatter in our heads has become quiet, and our focus is on our direct, sensory experience. Most of the time, our minds are actually in a default state, where they are chattering - Farbin called this the “narrative circuit”. When we are involved in narrative thinking, the pre-frontal part of the brain is being used and the hippocampus The hippocampus is where we store memories.During the day, as we have new experiences and new thoughts, how does the brain decide what to store? It stores what is emotionally important.It wasn’t that long ago that we were hunters and gatherers and lived in caves. Our brains are really still wired for that life. For the moment, imagine one day you go out of the cave and head towards the sun. After a while you come across a lion pack that you have never seen before. Your heart starts beating, and you know this is a life or death moment. Luckily for you, the lions don’t see you. You will remember where those lions are because it’s important to you. When you get back the cave, you tell the story of how you found the new lion pack. Because it’s important for everyone in tribe, they will also remember your story.The key ideas to this are:
- We remember what is important to us and what has an emotional impact.
- Your memories are stored as stories.
Some of the approaches to the ideas we talked about:
- Start a course with a story that grabs the attention of the learners. Things like % of people that get things wrong, what are the nightmare that can go wrong if you get this wrong.
- Make sure the stories have an emotional impact.
- Get the learners to develop their own stories and story maps.
- What is interesting is these ideas start to loop back to many of the ideas in the first part of the discussion.
What we talked about in the session, and in this blog post, are just four things from Brain Science that help can inform learning and instructional design. There’s a lot more we can learn from Brain Science, and I hope to think and write about more in this bog in the future.
Some useful links
This is a guess post by Robin Peterd from Sprout Labs. He normally blogs at http://www.sproutlabs.com.au/blog