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The human brain learns in many different ways, a training mode must fit the purpose and desired outcome. Practices from Training From the BACK of the Room! can be used to make training stick. Forcing big changes on people can be perceived as a threat; it’s better to create psychological safety, foster curiosity, and give feedback in ways that continue the dialogue instead of shutting down.
Jenny Tarwater, agile coach, spoke about brain-based training at the Agile Games conference 2018. InfoQ is covering this event with Q&As and articles.
InfoQ spoke with Tarwater about how the human brain learns, applying practices from Training From the BACK of the Room! and what teachers can do to make training stick, and how we can use insights from how the brain works and how people learn to coach people in their daily work.
InfoQ: How does the human brain learn?
Jenny Tarwater: That’s a big question! I’ll leave that one to the neuro-scientists to answer! I can speak to my own experience, both as a learner and a facilitator.
I focus on the desired outcome, as the mode for training should be deliberate. If I want to understand something conceptual, I may listen to an Audible book, podcast, or conference video. If it is something I’m interested in applying, I immerse myself in the learning more, usually through a classroom setting with others learners. If it is something I feel is a skill I will want to really embody, I try to teach it to others either informally via a conversation or formally via a Meetup, conference talk, or classroom.
I use the same thinking when designing a learning experience. I think about what the desired learning outcome is, and then the best way to create the space for that to occur. For example, if the learning outcome is “Recognize the twelve Agile Manifesto principles”, I’ll expose the learner to the concept and have them reword the principles. If the desired outcome is to “Determine if one of the Agile Manifesto principles is being applied”, I would include a more experiential element.
So how does the human brain learn? I think in many different ways. Having a fit for purpose experience is of critical importance.
InfoQ: At the agile games conference you practiced the 4Cs Map from Sharon Bowman’s Training From the BACK of the Room! Can you elaborate how this works?
Jenny Tarwater: The 4Cs Map is one of the two fundamental practices I learned from Sharon Bowman’s Training From the BACK of the Room! (TBR). It is an instructional design and delivery model that is easy to learn, remember and use. The 4Cs Map allows you to effectively arrange your material so that the learner isn’t just exposed to new information, but actually learns it. In my experience, a lot of trainers focus just on C2 – providing a lot of information to the learner. Weaving in the other three “Cs” is more effective. The 4Cs are:
C1 – Connection – What does the learner already know?
C2 – Concept – What does the learner need to know?
C3 – Concrete Practice – How can they demonstrate they know it?
C4 – Conclusion – How will they use it?
C1 ensures that there is something for the concept to connect to in the learner’s brain – existing neural routes that can be alerted for the new learning, and then strengthened. C3 gives the learner the opportunity to apply the concept right away. This may be as easy as a “Teach Back” – where the learners pair up and explain the concept to each other (because the person speaking is doing the most learning!). If possible though, C3 should be an actual demonstration of the new skill.
At Agile Games, for instance, I presented the concepts of 4C Map, Six Trumps, and a Game Design Canvas. I had the room break into groups and design a game that taught either the 4C Map or the Six Trumps. Boom – in just a short time, I knew the attendees had learned the concepts – because they actually demonstrated using them! Win!
Finally, 4C is conclusion – making the learning real. You give the learner the space to consider “How will they use it?” I especially like to focus on one very specific actionable item that I know they can complete and suggest they make an authentic commitment to doing so.
InfoQ: What can teachers do to make training “stick”?
Tarwater: The entire TBR approach, including the Six Trumps (brain-based principles), the 4Cs Map (Instructional Design Canvas), and the hundreds of sample activities are all meant to help make the learning stick. We talked about the 4Cs Map as a way to arrange material; let’s talk about six brain-based principles that should be incorporated into all steps of learning. The principles are:
- Movement over sitting
- Talking over listening
- Images over words
- Writing over reading
- Shorter over longer
- Different over same
My favorite is shorter over longer. You should keep segments to ten minutes or less. Our brains start tuning out very quickly, and so you must introduce change frequently. To avoid our brains habituating, we need to awaken the Reticular Activating System (RAS) via the principle different over same. But you don’t want to “startle” the learners, just change it up a bit. I like to think of these six principles as “spices” that you sprinkle on the 4Cs Map. You want enough that you have a lot of character, but not overwhelming!
I’m very appreciative of Sharon Bowman taking some very complex ideas from multiple neuroscience sources (and her own experience) and making those principles stick for me.
In the article The Neuroscience of Agile Leadership, Jenni Jepsen described how the way our brain works makes it difficult to adopt agile:
Change of any kind, including a change to working Agile, is perceived by the brain as extreme novelty. And we are hard-wired to resist change. The error detection systems in the brain light up when there is something new or unusual in your environment making us extremely resistant to change. And, if this error detection system fires too often, it brings on a constant state of anxiety or fear.
InfoQ: What’s your view on this, are people hardwired to resist change?
Tarwater: Evolutionarily, it was advantageous for us to follow patterns, and make predictions. This is a very good thing, as it helps us to identify and avoid danger and conserve brain energy! Conversely, uncertainty arouses the limbic system. Our freeze, fight or flight response comes from here – we experience an amygdala hijack.
I try to be respectful of this deep response to uncertainty, and try to avoid learners “downshifting” to that part of the brain. I try to honor the learner’s past instead of dismissing it. We go back and examine the assumptions that lead them to those pattern-based conclusions and work from there. Often, this incorporates double loop learning – where learners are not just learning new information, but questioning their own assumptions and beliefs.
InfoQ: How can we use insights from how the brain works and how people learn to coach people in their daily work?
Tarwater: We want to avoid “downshifting” into a state of hyperarousal. When we attempt big changes and force those on people, it can be perceived as a threat. So smaller changes, by invitation, with safe to fail experiments can help to create an environment that avoids an amygdala hijack! Here are some of my favorite techniques:
- Creating psychological safety for the learners. Some ways to do that? Have the learners connect with each other, and with me. I model being wrong – I love doing a “facilitation failure bow” with a group to demonstrate it is ok not to be perfect! I encourage respectful dissent and naming the elephants in the room. And I always spend time creating a “Working Agreement” with the group – having an explicit agreement on how to be together.
- Coming from a place of curiosity rather than judgement. You can never know the path someone else has taken – so knowing how they arrived at a conclusion can be very enlightening to their current thinking, and how a shift in thinking may be better received.
- Providing feedback in a very specific way. I try not to say “oh that’s wrong” or “that’s not the way it works”. I say things like “In my experience, I find….” or “Conventional wisdom might say…” This gives the learner the opportunity to continue the dialogue instead of shutting down.