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Debate: Is Neuroscience an L&D Foundation?
CTDO Magazine

Debate: Is Neuroscience an L&D Foundation?

Friday, June 15, 2018

The argument: Neuroscience is significantly contributing to workplace learning.

The debate about neuroscience and its value to training design and delivery is intriguing. No one can definitively say that neuroscience is a true fad when it comes to the talent development field. But some argue that if we are not using neuroscience to help us develop learning, then we are doing ourselves a disservice. What do you think?



Margie Meacham

Consultant and Thought Leader

About a decade ago at a small conference, I first became aware of the potential for the neurosciences to disrupt the way we design and deliver training. A neuroscientist presented about neuroplasticity, or how the brain constantly rewires itself in response to the constant stream of data coming in through the senses. I asked her what this had to do with learning. Her response: "That's not for me to decide; it's up to you to decide what to do with it."

If we think the neurosciences have nothing to offer us, we haven't been paying attention. As this multidisciplinary field of study evolves, we can—and should—use insights about neural processes to help us:

  • validate or discard prior assumptions that could not be proved with previously available technology
  • identify possible best practices that will accelerate knowledge acquisition and skills development
  • test fresh ideas using the new tools available in brain imaging.
    The neurosciences are already contributing to the field of learning and development.

    For instance, a recent study detailed in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explored how longer-term "reinforcement learning" and shorter-term "working memory" are not separate processes, as previously believed. Rather, these are two steps in the same process. For decades, educational psychology has been treating short- and long-term memory differently, so we are going to need to make some changes to our approach to take advantage of this new insight.

    In another example, the U.S. military is using a small electrical signal to the neocortex to improve decision making and focus. This example alone provides definitive proof that neuroscience is already adding to the practice of learning and development.

    Further, researchers at Stanford University found that children taught to focus on individual letters, rather than learning whole words, make better progress learning to read than children taught in a more traditional way of learning whole words first. What makes this study exciting is that they found increased activity in the students' brains where the written words are processed, correlating with their increased learning success, when compared with a group of children taught in the traditional manner. This study demonstrates that it is possible to test teaching methods, watch the brain in action, and determine which strategy is more effective.

    Multiple studies have demonstrated the physical changes that take place in the brain while listening to a story, pointing to a teaching technique that is being widely adopted at all levels of education and public speaking. Susan Weinschenk watched the real-time brain activity of people listening to stories to make this case. This example is particularly interesting since her results appear in Psychology Today, a well-recognized journal for psychology, a science that is increasingly merging with other disciplines that study the brain, including neuroscience.

    There is a lot of hype around neuroscience and learning. We especially can't rely on popular press or news outlets, which can often overemphasize tantalizing conclusions or oversimplify complex scientific studies. But that doesn't mean the evidence isn't there, such as in peer-reviewed, credible sources. We just have to look for it.


    Will Thalheimer

    Consultant, Research Translator, and Author

    Neuroscience (or brain-based learning) is one of the hottest topics of our time. Unfortunately, it has nothing unique to say about learning—at least not yet.

    Neuroscience is still in its infancy. This doesn't mean that well-meaning people and commercial interests won't try to use "neuroscience" to swindle us. Like many learning fads, people are using neuroscience to sell products and services and make consultants appear insightful.


    I'm not arguing that neuroscience will never have a role. As we learn more about how the brain works and link brain function with practical learning situations, we may uncover unique insights. But today, neuroscience has nothing to tell us about learning design and delivery.

    Neuroscience is a multidisciplinary branch of biology that scientifically studies the nervous system—not instruction, learning, or memory. It explores brain functioning through special imaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, to measure aspects like blood flow, blood flow in the capillaries, cellular glucose uptake, and electrical changes.

    To show that neuroscience can provide unique insights to guide practical learning designs, we would have to show that neuroscience has uncovered a learning methodology that wasn't previously discovered through other scientific methods.

    Here's what some researchers have said about neuroscience:

  • "The state of our knowledge [of the brain] is childlike." —neuroscientist John Medina
  • "For the time being, we do not really understand all that much about the brain. ... More importantly, it is difficult to generalize what we do know into a set of concrete precepts of behavior, never mind devise methods of influencing that behavior." —learning researchers Pedro De Bruyckere, Paul A. Kirschner, and Casper D. Hulshof
  • "There are no examples of novel and useful suggestions for teaching based on neuroscience thus far." —neuroscientist and cognitive psychologist Jeffrey Bowers
  • "Educational neuroscience may be especially pertinent for the many children with brain differences. ... It is less clear at present how educational neuroscience would translate for more typical students." —neuroscientist John Gabrieli.
    We want to believe in neuroscience, and many scientific studies confirm the allure of it. When irrelevant neuroscience verbiage is added to learning materials, learners find the content more credible. Unscrupulous people have also started using the terms neuroscience or brain-based learning to grab our attention—even when the phenomenon they are talking about is not based on neuroscience.

    One of the most common examples of this is the spacing effect, the finding that repetitions spaced over time are helpful in supporting long-term remembering. The spacing effect was discovered through traditional learning research. In fact, two researchers in 1992 counted the scientific studies on the spacing effect and found 321—before neuroscience was a scientific field. Recent neuroscience studies have examined the spacing effect but have not uncovered new learning recommendations.

    The danger of learning myths is that they distract us from using learning methods that work, waste time, and cost organizations millions of dollars. The bottom line: Neuroscience may hold promise for learning design in the future, but only in rare cases has it contributed already.

    Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Margie Meacham, “The Brain Lady,” is a scholar-practitioner in the field of education and learning and president of LearningToGo. She specializes in practical applications for neuroscience to enhance learning and performance. Meacham’s clients include businesses, schools, and universities. She writes a popular blog for the Association of Talent Development and has published two books, Brain Matters: How to Help Anyone Learn Anything Using Neuroscience and The Genius Button: Using Neuroscience to Bring Out Your Inner Genius.

She first became interested in the brain when she went with undiagnosed dyslexia as a child. Although she struggled in the early grades, she eventually taught herself how to overcome the challenge of a slight learning disability and became her high school valedictorian, graduated magna cum laude from Centenary University, and earned her master’s degree in education from Capella University with a 4.0.

Meacham started her professional career in high-tech sales, and when she was promoted to director of training, she discovered her passion for teaching and helping people learn. She became one of the first corporate trainers to use video conferencing and e-learning and started her own consulting company from there. Today she consults for many organizations, helping them design learning experiences that will form new neural connections and marry neuroscience theory with practice.

“I believe we are on the verge of so many wonderful discoveries about how we learn. Understanding what happens in the brain is making us better leaders, teachers, parents, and employees. We have no limits to what we can accomplish with our wonderful brains— the best survival machines ever built.”
—Margie Meacham

About the Author

Will Thalheimer, PhD, is a consultant and research translator, providing organizations with learning audits, research benchmarking, workshops, and strategic guidance. Will shares his wisdom through keynotes, research reports, job aids, and blog posts. Compiler of the Decisive Dozen and one of the authors of the Serious eLearning Manifesto, Will blogs, tweets as @WillWorkLearn, and consults through Work-Learning Research. Will regularly publishes extensive research-to-practice reports—and generously gives them away for free. He is often invited to give keynote presentations at conferences in our field. He is author of Performance-Focused Smile Sheets: A Radical Rethinking of a Dangerous Art Form.

1 Comment
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I always enjoy sharing ideas with Will. He's a true leader in the field and one of my personal heroes. In this debate, he refers to several well-known books on the subject to make his case. I like to keep in mind that since the turnaround for researching, writing, editing, and publishing a book can take several years, there is often a lag between the content in the book and current research.
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