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How Can we Ensure Learning and Development Has Real Value?


“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn”

Benjamin Franklin

There is that saying, “those who can, do; those that can’t, teach”. But from a learning perspective, neuroscience is throwing up some interesting insights about learning styles and the myths surrounding them as well as how we commit information to memory.

An important question I am often asked is “what is the training is for?” Is it simply to protect the company’s position or is it a gateway for individuals to contribute their best? Being able to facilitate rapid learning is key in this increasingly demanding world. Along with other organisational growth essentials, like building culture, I believe it needs a commitment to long term success as opposed to short term box ticking.

Clive Hyland, in his book ‘The Neuro Edge’ explains that what we really need is a ‘learning and teaching culture’. Why? Because, the brain learns best when it knows it is expected to teach the information.

I have gone through life thinking that I am a visual learner, then I completed a test and came out as a kinaesthetic learner but I also like a bit of auditory learning – how confusing! Chances are I need a bit of all of them. In the end, I generally go for the work hard, repetition option.

But despite my highly graded qualifications, please don’t ask me what the capital of Chile is, to recite my CIPD dissertation on age discrimination or anything about maths. I can’t remember! In fact I am struggling to remember what I did yesterday. Know the feeling? I often catch myself saying I have a terrible long term memory and now I am starting to understand why.

The more modern and conscious part of our brain that holds short term memory is like a desk at work; it holds temporary data. This is not designed for holding mass information and will soon delete the information if it is not used. Whereas long term memory is accessed through what is called the hippocampus, the filing cabinet of our brain.

So how do we get information into our long term memory and then (importantly) out again when we need it? There doesn’t seem to be any doubt that there is no better learning than experience. Our personal, preferred learning style reflects how our brain drives our behaviour.

It is also important to have an emotional connection to the learning as that creates energy which gives our memories power and makes them more accessible to recall. So emotion facilitates memory. This helps explain why stories and metaphors are a useful learning tool as they conjure up emotional connection to the information being shared. Giving people a challenge rather than a subject can often have the same impact. It is critical to take note of how you are making someone feel whilst they are learning from you. If they are bored they will switch off, literally.

So how can we transform learning to make sure that it achieves a balance between ‘data’, emotional experience and understanding of oneself?

For a start, I believe that we need to ask people to commit to personal change objectives and to make a commitment to learn about themselves. Then we must support them on that journey. At the end of the day all we are dealing with is ourselves and our environment. The most important and often neglected responsibility is learning about ourselves.

Secondly, we can create more productive learning environments. Environments that are focused, safe and collaborative. Environments where it is ok not to know the answer, where people are able to test their understanding and beliefs without fear of feeling stupid, where their emotions can feel free to get involved.

There is some interesting research which shows that if you get some learning wrong, have it explained to you and then understand it, this can be more effective than spending the same time trying to learn the right answer in the first place. Great news, getting it wrong works…so long as you then find out why!

Thirdly, we can ask people to teach, to connect with learning with a view to sharing it. Sharing is a collaborative skill that can be forgotten in a competitive and judgmental world.

In practical terms, this may mean de-centralising learning functions so that training is relevant to what people need and want at a particular time. Case studies can be made relevant to the user and be the motivation for discussion and emotional connection. It may mean setting up trusted peer group learning sessions or asking managers to pass on knowledge through their teaching of it, an extension of mentoring in a way.

None of this means that learning will suddenly become easy. I don’t think it will – until we can just implant information into our brains. But even then we have to be able to recall it!

Neither will the need for reinforcement of learning go away. We need to use what we learn in order to ensure that the right connections are made in our brain to embed the information into long term memory. If we don’t do this the information will be lost and so learning needs to be used in day to day activity.

But if we get emotionally connected with what we are doing, this process is easier and quicker.

An insight to leave you with …. I learnt recently that our eyes sparkle when we release oxytocin. This happens when we have a sense of excitement, attachment and commitment to something (or someone!) and so, in the learning space, we want to see eyes sparkling in our audiences and then we know we are doing it right! Maybe a question for the dreaded ‘feedback forms’ we always have to fill out?

So it may not be time to throw out traditional learning but certainly time to have a think about it, especially given the fact that much learning is now via digital platforms.