5 easy brain tips #3 for engaging learners

  This is the 3rd in my series of 5 easy brain tips for engaging learners from my session at the CIPD NAP conference in June 2015. In the next few blogs I will be revealing this fab graphic by Karen Foundling on the whole series

IMG_1212IMG_1279UM is for “Use Metaphor“. Emotions can run high during any change programme and a workshop can easily turn it into a whinge-fest. Allow people time to express their emotions using metaphors and limit the time for the whingeing.
Recent research from the CIPD*, shows that using uncertain rewards in learning can help increase adults emotional response to the learning and can be used to enhance the learning experience. Games with random prizes can play a significant part in retaining the attention of your learners

In his book, David Rock1 talks about the limbic brain (in charge of emotions) and how emotions can effectively overrun if you let them. Also suppressing them can actually increase the intensity of the emotions, as can talking about them freely. The surprising thing is, that if you talk about your emotions symbolically, with very few words it can help to keep them under control. What he alludes to is using metaphors can be a good way of expressing strong emotions, without getting overly emotional about the situation again.

For example if someone upsets me today, I could describe the feeling as a real “kick in the stomach” rather than going on endlessly about how it made me feel.

Thoughts for line managers:

Look at clean language for coaching your team members. It is a way of eliciting responses, without imparting your own judgments on an already emotive situation.

Examples of clean questions are:

Team member: “Today has been absolute hell for me!”

Clean response: “So this hell, what is that like for you?”

This way you carry on with the metaphor the individual has begun with.

Team member: “Today is going to be a complete waste of time now!”

Clean response: “In order for this day to be of use, it has to be like what?”

*CIPD Fresh Thinking in L&D Part 1 of 3 Neuroscience and Learning Feb 2014

Some great stuff about the brain for trainers from the CIPD – part 2

IMG_1054Well the plot thickens…….. this gaming lark I mentioned in my last blog….. why it works…….it is all about synaptic plasticity …..so the researchers think!

The brain can keep growing… I knew that snippet from some research done on London cabbies (1) and linguistic experts. The research shows that for London cabbies the posterior hippocampus grows as the cabbies learn more routes. This is a part of the brain associated with visual-spatial memory apparently. As new neural connections are made, the brain grows and changes, hence the term “neuroplasticity”. Previously it was not thought possible that the brain could develop in later life.

Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity, is an umbrella term that encompasses both synaptic plasticity and non-synaptic plasticity—it refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behaviour, environment, neural processes, thinking, emotions, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury.

Researchers have particularly been looking at the use of video gaming and the effects on the brain. They seem to think that it could be “a promising method to ‘take the brakes off adult plasticity’ (Bavelier et al 2010)” (2) They are not sure how it works but it has something to do with the uptake of dopamine to the midbrain.

For those of you who do not know, dopamine is the happy hormone that is released when we think we are going to get a reward (or when we are eating chocolate!!!) (3) With the right amount of dopamine, learners are engaged and wanting to participate. Too much dopamine and the learners get a bit giddy and do not really remember much about what they have learned, but love the experience.

So back to what we were talking about …synaptic plasticity….this is the process of changing connection strengths between neutrons, which is also considered the basis of learning (Shohamy and Adcock 2010) (2). Video games are thought to be such an immersive activity and hence they heighten learning by stimulating the reward centres of the brain.

So my question, as always is “So what?”. Let me put into a nutshell, what I think we need to do, to incorporate some of this brain stuff into the learning experiences we design and deliver:

  • Find out what the learners want to get out of it – their reward for attending!
  • Make the experience immersive and involve the learners, but make sure they are not over stimulated!
  • Add a competitive element to the learning, with the rewards being uncertain
  • Add some games – be child-like but not childish
  • Make your learners aware that learning does not need to diminish with age


  1. From steady state to ready state CIPD Sept 2012
  2. Fresh thinking in L&D Part 1 of 3 Neuroscience and learning
  3. “Your Brain at Work” David Rock

Some great stuff about the brain for trainers from the CIPD – part 1

IMG_1051Everyone is talking about it…. neuroscience….and if you are not why not? Does it seem like the latest in a long line of fads? Or just a bit too geeky? I am never afraid of being labelled an “anorak”and so will admit that I have been reading the CIPD’s papers on Neuroscience (references at the end) to see what useful stuff I can use …. and share….

One comment that stood out for me and this may seem like I am about to contradict myself here… is from Stella Collins (my colleague in all things brain friendly):

“If you’ve done something and it really works, you’ve implemented some kind of piece of learning, piece of training, you’ve helped people in some way and it works and you can’t find the piece of neuroscience that backs it up, that might not matter. I don’t think everything has to be backed up by neuroscience because they just may not have discovered it yet.”(1)

As a pragmatist, I love stuff that works and science that backs up stuff that works for me, so I can tell others why they should do it!

My most recent venture has been the Learning Loop, a game for training trainers, whatever their experience. It has been going down a storm and participants have been really engaged with the whole format. It takes the focus away from me as a facilitator and focusses on what the learners already know, building upon it and sharing with others. So why does this work so well?

“Research at Bristol University confirmed children’s preference for uncertain reward in a learning task and, in a study with adults, demonstrated how it increased the emotional response to learning (Howard-Jones and Demetriou 2009).” (2)

During the game, the participants seem sooooo excited about winning up to 5 wooden beads for answering a question….. it is down to me how many beads they are awarded, depending on how full (in my opinion) an answer they give. Other teams are allowed to “steal” extra points and they do so with much enthusiasm. I thought it would work, but now there is research, that shows the use of uncertain rewards can increase the emotional response it helps me to understand why.

I have known (and observed) for a long time that competition in training works well and adds an element of fun as well as focus, but it is great to hear that there is research that backs up what for a long tine has been for me “just a feeling”. Which brings me back to Stella’s point …. if it works… keep using it……

  1. Neuroscience in Action CIPD Nov 2014
  2. Fresh Thinking in L&D Part 1 of 3 Neuroscience and Learning Feb 2014

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