Brains: Our Learning Tool in Action

July 8, 2011

Trainer-teacher-learners seem to explore almost every aspect of the learning process imaginable. And yet there’s a basic tool we all too often overlook: the brain itself. Which is a terribly embarrassing oversight since we are, without it, literally nothing.

Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself offers a great starting place for those of us interested in plugging that gap in our knowledge. It is firmly rooted in the physiological basics of how brains learn and adapt—literally changing, as our experiences change, through the process known as neuroplasticity.

Those willing to take the time to read the entire book will follow Doidge’s explorations documenting how a variety of terribly challenged people have overcome tremendous physical and psychological disabilities far beyond the day-to-day issues confronted in our training-teaching-learning efforts. There are, for example, case studies showing nearly miraculous recoveries by a woman who felt as if she were perpetually falling, a man with severe stroke-induced impediments, a woman who had been written off as “retarded,” and a woman who literally grew up with half a brain.

Trainer-teacher-learners with less time to spare can move right to the heart of Doidge’s writings on the physiology of learning by diving into the third chapter, “Redesigning the Brain”—a fascinating and game-changing exploration of the work on neuroplasticity completed by University of California, San Francisco professor emeritus Michael Merzenich.

In one particularly dense yet well-synthesized passage, Doidge helps us understand how neuroplasticity and learning come together in the work that trainer-teacher-learners facilitate: “…Merzenich invoked the ideas of Donald O. Hebb, a Canadian behavioral psychologist who had worked with [Wilder] Penfield. In 1949 Hebb proposed that learning linked neurons in new ways. He proposed that when two neurons fire at the same time repeatedly (or when one fires, causing another to fire), chemical changes occur in both, so that the two tend to connect more strongly. Hebb’s concept—actually proposed by Freud sixty years before—was neatly summarized by neuroscientist Carla Shatz: Neurons that fire together wire together” (p. 63)—which, to bring this all home, simply means that when neurons fire together during the learning process, our brain creates connections that turn ephemeral potential learning experiences into the long-term behavioral changes that effective learning is meant to produce.

The converse, Doidge notes, is also true: “…Neurons that fire apart wire apart—or neurons out of sync fail to link” (p. 64).

Understanding the basics of neuroplasticity helps us understand the challenges our learners face. There are, for example, times in our lives—early childhood being one that is easily and commonly recognized—when learning appears to be easier for us: “Language development…has a critical period that begins in infancy and ends between eight years and puberty. After this critical period closes, a person’s ability to learn a second language without an accent is limited. In fact, second languages learned after the critical period are not processed in the same part of the brain as is the native tongue,” Doidge notes (p. 52). But this is far from an excuse for those who believe they simply are too old to learn new tricks—or more substantial lessons; the more we and our learners remain open to new experiences, the easier it is for us, physiologically, to maintain our brain’s plasticity—which translates into an ability to continue learning.

“Merzenich thinks our neglect of intensive learning as we age leads the systems in the brain that modulate, regulate, and control plasticity to waste away,” Doidge writes. “In response he has developed brain exercise for age-related cognitive decline—the common decline of memory, thinking and, processing speed” and his efforts are producing noteworthy results (p. 85).

The conclusions for those of us involved in workplace learning and performance or any other educational endeavor are obvious. If we want to help our learners, we have to make them aware of what it takes to expedite learning. And in a wonderfully circular way, we have the documentary proof here that the more we continue to learn, the easier the learning process remains. Which is great news in a world where the need for learning is continual and those who either are unwilling or unable to continue learning are at a distinct and potentially life- and career-threatening disadvantage.

“Just doing the dances you learned years ago won’t help your brain’s motor cortex stay in shape,” Doidge suggests. “To keep the mind alive requires learning something truly new with intense focus. That is what will allow you to both lay down new memories and have a system that can easily access and preserve the older ones” (p. 88).

“Plasticity,” he assures us, “ is a normal phenomenon, and brain maps are constantly changing” (p. 61). It’s clear that one of our many roles as trainer-teacher-learners is to do all we can to make learners aware of this situation so they take advantage of the possibilities it offers.

Char Booth: Reflective Teaching, Effective Learning, and a USER at the Center of the Process

March 30, 2011

Doctors have medical school and residencies. Attorneys have law school. And trainers have…well, those involved in workplace learning and performance often have little more than a nudge from a supervisor or a colleague and the command to go show someone how to do something that they should have known yesterday.

Char Booth—a writer, teacher, trainer, librarian, and colleague whom I very much admire—documented a small piece of this too-familiar picture through a survey she completed: “…only about a third of those who regularly teach and train in libraries completed education-related coursework during their MLS [Master of Library Science] studies, only 16 percent of which was required. Strikingly, over two-thirds of these instruction librarians felt that their LIS education underprepared them to teach…”

“Many library educators,” she continued, “are involved in instruction on a part-time basis and therefore lack the immersive challenge that allows other educators to develop skills quickly and keep current and engaged”—a situation that applies to a far larger group than those providing training for library staff or library users, as a phone call from a non-library colleague who is about to face her own first group of learners without any formal training in how to help others learn reminded me this afternoon.

Booth has done more than simply document a problem affecting trainers, teachers, and learners. By writing Reflective Teaching, Effective Learning: Instructional Literacy for Library Educators, she has created a first-rate resource for those new to training, teaching, and learning. The book is an engaging, concise, and welcome guide to creating engaging learning experiences for learners of all ages, and it’s a tremendous gift not only to those inexperienced trainers and teachers who are about to work with their first groups of learners, but also to anyone wanting a first-rate survey of key instructional design techniques and learning styles.

Furthermore, Booth introduces her own variation on the familiar ADDIE—Analysis, Development Design, Implementation, and Evaluation—model through her four-step USER—Understand, Structure, Engage, and Reflect—model that, through its name, continually reminds us who we are working to reach through formal and informal learning opportunities.

Among the real gems in Booth’s work is the fourth chapter, “A Crash Course in Learning Theory.” An introductory paragraph at the beginning of the chapter helps ground us in our field of play: “The first major modern school of educational thought—behaviorism—investigated animal responses to different kinds of stimuli…which inspired the common practice of providing positive reinforcement for correct answers. A second school of thought—cognitivism—explores the capacities of human memory, which inspires teaching and design techniques that reflect the brain’s information processing abilities. The most recent school—constructivism—explores the effects of individual perception and the social environment, which have led to more collaborative and self-directed learning strategies” (p. 36). And she circles back to the theme at the beginning of the next chapter with a critically important reminder that leaves us grounded rather than confused: “It is not necessarily desirable to choose one theoretical model over another” (p. 50).

She leads us through the “ten transformational trends in educational technology” surveyed by Curtis Bonk, author of The World Is Open: “web searching in the world of e-books, e-learning and blended learning, availability of open-source and free software, leveraged resources and open courseware, learning object repositories and portals, learner participation in open information communities, electronic collaboration, alternate-reality learning, real-time mobility and portability, and networks of personalized learning” (p. 72). And she follows that with an introduction to Robert Gagné’sseries of principles that link all design models”: “Design is more about improving learning than improving teaching…Learning is a process influenced by many factors…The design approach can be tailored to fit different learning scenarios…Design is iterative—it informs itself in an ongoing cycle…Design is a process consisting of steps and substeps…Different learning goals call for different instructional approaches…” (p. 86).

As she moves into an explanation of her newly developed USER model, she leads us to a helpful structure designed to produce effective learning: “In the USER method, goals focus you on your instructional role; objectives organize content into activities and content units; and outcomes describe how participants are substantively different because of the knowledge they have gained,” she writes (p.118).

Booth’s approach never loses sight of the fact that we are well served both by having formal learning models from which we can draw and also by remembering that not every learning opportunity requires that we engage in every step of an instructional design assessment, development, delivery, and evaluation process. “More than anything, it should remind you to teach simply, reflectively, and with the learner at the center,” she reminds us (p. 94).  The overall message she delivers is that “reflective and design-minded teaching leads to effective, learner-centered instruction. Librarians are redefining our value in a changing information paradigm, and it is essential that we perceive the role of education in this process” (p. 151)—a goal that any teacher-trainer-learner is likely to embrace.

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