A number of models emerging from neuroscience can be applied to learning design and delivery.
In The neuroscience of joyful education, Willis highlights the importance of learning being a stress-free and enjoyable experience for effective outcomes. She uses the acronym RAD, which relates to specific brain areas and functions, to encourage learning professionals to integrate neuroscience into their practice.
- R (Reticular activating system [RAS]): All information enters the brain through sensory inputs but only a fraction makes it through the unconscious RAS filter. Effective learning content should therefore be non-threatening, novel and engaging.
- A (Amygdala): The part of the brain's limbic system which acts as a filter to send information to the reactive or reflective areas of the brain. Learning requires reflection, which is supported by stress-free environments in which positive past experiences and strengths are highlighted. Stressful environments should be avoided, which lead to a fight, flight or freeze response.
- D (Dopamine): This chemical neurotransmitter, linked to our sense of pleasure, is released during pleasurable experiences. Effective learning is supported by creating positive associations with existing knowledge and past success, and through engaging and creative activities.
Dr Itiel Dror provides further insights about minimising cognitive overload.
Rock based the SCARF model on human behaviour, focusing on how the brain responds to threat and reward. These five factors - Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness - have a strong bearing on how we engage in social, interactive and collaborative settings. The model proposes that learning increases as threats are minimised and rewards maximised. Learners display increased engagement when they perceive reward, and less when they sense threat.
- S (Status): Learning that’s perceived to enhance status (leading to a promotion, for example), will be motivational.
- C (Certainty): If we lack certainty about a situation our impulse may be to disengage, whereas clear steps and a sense of order can increase learning transfer.
- A (Autonomy): A degree of autonomy in learning is a key factor in reducing stress, as it means we have some influence over what is taking place. There’s a contrary impact if we are denied autonomy; effective learning involves some choice and control.
- R (Relatedness): If we feel trust, empathy and social connection during learning, oxytocin is released in the brain, which increases engagement.
- F (Fairness): A sense of unfairness stirs hostility and threat, but learning which is perceived as fair and justified is motivational.
AGES (Attention, Generation, Emotion and Spacing), promoted by Davachi et al, is a model to support effective learning, which we explore in the infographic below. It draws on established psychological principles and proposes that learning is more effective when these four factors are considered in the learning design and delivery:
- A (Attention): We need to ensure minimal distractions and avoid cognitive overload; undivided attention is essential for effective learning. Novelty and varied techniques and approaches enhance attention.
- G (Generation): We maximise the likelihood of positive engagement and formation of long-term memories when learning has personal meaning and significance. L&D practitioners should relate learning to existing knowledge and support personal, meaningful associations and applications.
- E (Emotion): This is a key factor in fostering attention and enhancing memory function. Generating positive emotional experiences and social activities is key to effective learning transfer. Conversely, if learners have a negative emotion associated with learning, such as a fear of failure, they are less likely to engage.
- S (Spacing): It’s better to distribute learning in discrete blocks delivered over short time periods than cram lots of content into a prolonged session. ‘Chunked’ learning results in more effective transfer and aids long-term memory.
The infographic below explores the AGES model in more detail.
Neuroplasticity in learning
The concept of neuroplasticity, which is emerging from neuroscience research, suggests that the brain has plasticity and is able to keep developing and changing. There are many examples that show how areas of the brain increase their capacity for processing when regular activity stimulating that function occurs.
This is a direct challenge to the belief that learners can become permanently entrenched in certain thought processes and skills; it defies the thinking that ‘you cannot teach an old dog new tricks’.
One of the most quoted studies highlighting the potential and impact of neuroplasticity involved London taxi drivers, whose intense learning of London routes (‘the knowledge’) caused measurable development in their brains which changed their brain structure. Our podcast on behavioural science provides insights on this study, and how behavioural science can be applied in today’s businesses.
For learning practitioners, the concept of neuroplasticity provides an empowering message that learning and progression can take place for those who are willing to engage and work at it, regardless of age, background or culture.