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?
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.
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.Advertisement
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.