The Neuroscience of Learning Design: Britt Andreatta At MoodleMoot US 2016

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Britt Andreatta, CLO (L for Learning) of online education company, shared the company’s decades worth of experience around a talk about neuroscience in higher and corporate education. If you loved the movie Inside Out, you’re gonna love this presentation.

Andreatta, Ph.D, begins with a disclaimer: she has no neuroscience background. Her approach involves reading literature and talking with authors to “translate” findings into learning experiences.

Right away Andreatta frames the science around potential, and what we can do to maximize it in each student. She quotes Carol Dweck from Stanford and her findings correlating success and mindset. A “fixed” and a “growth mindset” in their eyes mark the divide between success and failure. Growth mindsets, naturally, lead to a desire to learn. By first setting fixed mindsets as detractors of effort, challenge and feedback, Andreatta then uses neuroplasticity to declare that the brain is wired for a growth mindset out of the box. Then it becomes the question of how to sell growth mindset to “fixed mindset folk“.

Next she introduces us to the Andreatta “Three-Phase Model“: Learn → Remember → Do. It follows an inverse pyramid of corporate learning borrowing on famed Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Andreatta affirms that “adults need more levels of learning” and that to change mindsets they need to learn these models. This also makes them very good innovators. She also claims to use Kolb’s Learning Cycle in her training.

Now for the brain parts. Learning takes place in the hippocampus, the amygdala and the basal ganglia, Andreatta claims. She would later mention the prefrontal cortex. The hippocampus links both hemispheres. The amygdala hangs from the hippocampus. The hippocampus:

literally works like a data drive.

Some other Andreatta’s quotables will follow this summary. Such as:

People who have Fifty First Dates [kind of amnesia], that’s a hippocampus injury.

Andreatta declares multitasking is impossible, because “the hippocampus can only record one set of information” at a time. “We cannot multitask when we are learning“.

She tells us that a couple of students distracted in a classroom can bring down the focus of the whole.

I call it secondhand distraction and it’s as damaging as secondhand smoke for the learning experience.

She mentions the hippocampus has a 20-minute window after which retention falters. She makes sure her training is divided in 15 to 20 minute chunks. “You have to give the brain something to do to push it into short-term memory so it’s fresh to record“.

Our brain actually grows memories (…) When you are learning something it takes that in and if it can hook it on to something you already know, they are called schemas, we have all these little file folders in our heads. If we can hook on to a schema that already exists, that information is nearly unforgettable.

The connections schemas are made up belong to five possible categories: metacognition (thinking about thinking), wordplay (“this is why acronyms work“), insight (“wooh, aha, are the sound we make when neurons connect“), social (high-fives are good example) and music (“the only thing wired in every lobe of the brain“). She talks about shame and how a positive connection is better than a stressful one.

Carrots do work better than sticks.

So beware when activating stressful schemas. Andreatta usually shows “two or three models” when she is explaining something in case one of them resonates better with a given student’s schema.

There are also emotions. All alerts are processed by the amygdala, our “alert system“. When the amygdala reaches a certain level of excitement, it tells the hippocampus to “start recording now“. There is an upper limit of excitement, though, in which learning is not “great in the long term“. Fear, intimidation and shame (stressful connections) belong here.

Andreatta lists next her “Stars of learning“:

  • Sharing with others
  • Light competition
  • Quizzes
  • Games\Playfulness
  • Humor (with care, not everyone finds humor in the same places)
  • Application\Reflection
  • On demand learning
  • Insight\”Aha” moment
  • Gratitude
  • Mindfulness

Instead of saying hello, she often starts board meetings asking people “what are you grateful for?“.

Andreatta shows Richard Davidson’s MRI scans of people meditating.

Meditate one time for ten minutes. Permanent change in the brain. Permanent.

Now she discusses retrieval:

The studies show that the sweet spot is three [sic]. That you see a significant difference in retention at three. When you go to four, five six it’s negligible. So we want three.

And sleep:

Turns out our sleeping brain is doing all kinds of neurological stuff that is really important. So during the night when we are sleeping our brain takes everything we learned during the day and the hippocampus is making choices around what gets deleted and what gets pushed to long term memory and hook to your schemes.

That movie Inside Out actually depicts it in a really funny way.

Since “the last hour of sleep” is where this magic happens, you are doing yourself a learning disservice if you have an alarm clock.

At this point Andreatta mixes Charles Duhigg The Power of Habit with Jack Phillips’ ROI of Learning Pyramid. ROI would be the “completing stage” of learning, as opposed to “Reaction\Satisfaction” which is the baseline, too rudimentary a benchmark that seems to be good enough in too many learning contexts. Andreatta’s plea reaches for the top, regarding her talk:

Did you walk away with a new understanding of how we can activate the brain to learn. More importantly, can you implement it on the job?

A question that, met with an ROI prerogative, turns to “is this going to make us more money or stop losing money“. The ideal stage is being able to calculate the cost of the “learning intervention” against the quantified prerogative, to see if the learning in fact adding value to the operation.

I love the basal ganglia. I think it’s the coolest brain structure ever (…) You can measure new activity by how much glucose burn is happening. When you do something over and over the basal ganglia kicks in and says “we gotta turn this into a low energy package” so it can run automatically in the background and not take that prefrontal cortex energy.

A habit is made of a Cue, and Action, and a Reward. “Chocolate works, a gold star works…”

…Our brain is not that sophisticated. It’s really happy with something super small.

She shows the illustrative example of the nine year old girl high jump training using a dog clicker:

Arriving, Adreatta links the growth mindset with the fact that corporate training seems to reward change the same way it rewards business as usual. Ends with a rule of thumb regarding Hebb’s law.

My personal summarizing quotable: to improve ROI, the learning intervention must focus on designing habits that activate the basal ganglia schemas as soon and often as possible.

And there’s no way to do that without blending our learning.

And the motivation that makes for the best postscript:

We are all habit designers. I want you to take that on.

See the slides of the talk here:

[slideshare id=47734247&doc=atdneuroforslideshare-150504110956-conversion-gate01]

And if you want to “geek out“, here are her neuroscience references:

As well as the non-neuroscience ones:

Reward time! Keep reading MoodleNews every weekday, share our articles, and there will be no wiggling shortage.

Course Merchant

This Moodle Practice related post is made possible by: Course Merchant, the Moodle shopping cart for selling courses. Click here to learn more.


9 Responses

  1. For the first time in our history, mankind is able to explore the inner workings of our own brain. In my ATD workshop on Brain-Based Learning, we work with many of the principles that Britt is covering here, using hands-on practice with your own design projects. Join us!

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