What is the best way to learn?

According to neuroscience, the brain learns in two ways:

By creating new networks – Neurons pass electrical impulses between one another. The more these neurons fire together, the more established links they create. The more links you create to an idea or insight, the better, and the more new information is presented in different ways, the more likely it is to stick.

Through whole-body learning – Mirror neurons allow us to imitate the actions of others, which is how our ancestors learned to use tools. This type of learning isn’t linear and happens pre-consciously. However, new skills need to be reinforced if they are to stick thanks to strong neural pathways.

With this in mind, training should be geared towards divergent teaching methods and feature a framework with which students can take influence from, such as role models or mentors.

Challenges associated with a brain-based learning strategy

“For learning and leadership development to be truly strategic it should of course be explicitly linked to the business strategy and culture of the company,” says Jan Hills, Partner at Head Heart + Brain. “This link is needed when it comes to needs analysis, design and positioning of events.”

In a recent CIPD annual learning survey, a quarter of organisations said learning and development strategy was extremely aligned with the needs of the business. A further two-fifths reported that they were broadly aligned, while just six per cent revealed no alignment.

But while it might be easy for leadership and development to correlate with business strategy and company culture, things are a little more difficult in terms of employees and their understanding of a training programme. You may think that setting goals before hand is enough, but managers do not always fully understand the training programme themselves and struggle to establish definite objectives in the first place.

How to implement the best learning strategy possible

Hills says that Head Heart + Brain has found the following methods most effective when devising a learning and development strategy:

“A campaign of communication about a major programme made up of short, punchy learning descriptions that focus on outcomes rather than inputs.”

“Learners being given much more responsibility for the identification of their own learning needs but in a context that requires them to make a business-centred case for attending learning or for the company providing funding.”

“Conversation guides for managers for the goal-setting discussion and also help from HR business partners or learning consultants with the process of identifying who should attend.”

Hills also recommends that training programmes focus on the future rather than the past and are rolled-out to the most senior employees first before moving down the corporate structure. However, participants may still struggle to get their head around why they are being asked to learn something new and what the benefits will be to them.

Encouraging employees to take part

In addition to changing their work habits, you are also asking employees to realign their group identity when formulating a training program.

Humans are social by their very nature and we tend to categorise people into those who are similar (in-group) or different (out-group) to us. So, if employees think they are taking part in a training programme consisting of their out-group, a reluctance to participate is a distinct possibility. Conversely, they will feel much more positive about training alongside in-group individuals.

For organisations that want to mix up people from different departments, you will need to present evidence that challenges any preconceptions, as this can blur the boundaries between in- and out-groups.

“Front office people can learn something from service functions, and sales people can learn from accountants, for example,” notes Hills. “In order to overcome resistance to in-group change you need to create an awareness of the benefits of introducing participants to a valuable new network.”

The dangers of being asked to change

Asking employees to participate in training can be perceived as a request to change, which is inherently threatening to people’s CORE elements. However, you can reassure staff by reaffirming the rewards.

As Hill explains: “Pre-programme communications that describe what’s in it for learners, the rewards of attending the learning and the social status which the new skills will give all mitigate threat and increase a sense of reward so that learners will be receptive to new skills, ideas and change.”

Try to make sure that participants don’t feel as though training is implied criticism or a negative reflection of their current standard of work. Instead, promote it as a programme of self-improvement, an opportunity to master something new or acquire knowledge that will benefit them personally, not just the organisation’s strategic objectives.

You can also connect the content of a training programme with the learners’ role and beliefs about their own success.

Research by Kim and Johnson asked participants to rate how much they liked certain images. Later, the images were randomly assigned to each participant or another person. The images assigned to the participant were more likely to be remembered.

“Suppose there’s content about a new way of carrying out performance reviews,” suggests Hill. “If a learner asks him or herself, ‘How will knowing this content relate to my role and my success?’ it creates links between the new content and an existing neural network.”

The best way to learn

“Within and across programmes, it’s a good idea to make the links to why it’s important to learn new skills, change behaviour or think differently as explicit as possible,” asserts Hill.

So, along with linking the goals of a training programme to business strategy, they should also be personalised to the individual learner. This can be achieved through one-on-one discussions, self-assessment tools, or pre-event reflection questions. Employees will know why they should attend training and change their ways but can also reduce uncertainty.

“Learning is easier when people intuitively understand the themes and when, where possible, the new knowledge or behaviours are demonstrated through role models,” Hill concludes.

Written by: Persia Shahkarami

Persia is passionate about helping organizations improve employee engagement across their professional development initiatives.
Published: 19 Apr, 2016