How to better engage the whole brain with learning activities

A couple months ago I was lucky enough to attend a learning conference. Learning 2014’s purpose was to educate and train trainers on who to better train. How meta.

On the first day I attended one of the best conference sessions I’ve ever attended. It was from Dr Ann Herrmann Nedhi about how to educate by engaging the whole brain. I took pages of notes and promised myself I’d share what I learned. Finally months later, I’ve tucked aside an hour to share Dr Nedhi’s findings. Also, apparently – as learned from the session – paraphrasing what I’ve learned can help me to learn and understand it as well.


Our brains are instinctively lazy and are constantly looking for the easy way out  – or the way that confirms our already known ideas (don’t believe me? Watch this Khan Academy video to see more).


Why do we do this? Well science suggests it’s all for  efficiency. We look for patterns and other easily recognizable routines that fit the mold of what we originally think, to help us make a decision or select an answer. When we do this, and we’re correct, it’s a good thing because it allows our brain to focus our mental energy on other items that might be present in the near future. This stems from the need to preserve the mental energy. However, when we do this and we’re wrong, we’re not setting us (or the students we teach) up for success.


Dr Ann Herrmann Nedhi, from Herrmann International, broke down the learning process into three steps – encoding the information, building deeper connections and optimizing and designing. Below, I’ve synthesized some of her major points from a presentation I was lucky enough to watch from the Learning 2014 conference.


Encoding information:

To properly learn, one must first encode the information or the message. That means we must actively listen, not just hear, what is being said. Listening is the first step to understanding a new concept or message, but it’s not tThis is a three step process that an be enhanced by engaging the whole brain through different learning activities such as providing analogies, stories, metaphors, examples, narrations, definitions, tests, etc.

Processing/Patterning: 

First part of learning is processing the information. We’ve learned that the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” and the saying has stuck around for a reason – research has found that visual is one of the easiest and fastest ways for people to absorb information. Hence the progress and success of the flipped classroom, videos and animations for learning.

Rest & Sleep: 

Recent research indicates that our memory consolidates information in the first four hours of sleep. This is often times why people claim to wake up in the middle of the night with the answer to a problem, a better solution or simply feeling more accomplished – because our brains actually work and process information while we sleep.

Own through translation & digestion: 

Bloom’s Taxonomy notes that one of the lowest levels of learning is “remembering.” Think back, have you ever studied content and memorized the words so that when taking a multiple choice test, you could easily look for the similar words and know that it was the right answer? That’s barely understanding. However, the next level of Bloom’s Taxonomy is XXX, and how we get to this level is by actually digesting the information and paraphrasing it back to someone. One of the best ways to do this, Dr Ann Hermann Nedhi recommends is by coming up with an analogy or metaphors. She said “metaphors force translation” of information. Want to make sure someone really understands the concepts you’re educating them on? Try asking them to provide a metaphor.
One last thing, as teacher or sharer of information, I couldn’t agree more with this. We’ve often found that by using simple analogies that are rooted in already-known topics, it helps folks to draw parallels from the information and the point which is trying to be made.
A popular example is the company that I work for – HubSpot. HubSpot is an all-in-one marketing platform that makes it easy for people to do inbound marketing. Often times when selling the software subscription to folks, our sales reps will share an analogy that HubSpot is like a gym membership. Having a gym membership makes it easy to work out because all the tools are at your disposal. However, without actually going to the gym and working out, you won’t see results. HubSpot’s software gives you the tools to do inbound marketing, but without actually creating the content, it will be difficult to see results.
Or another popular example in our marketing realm is that lead nurturing is like dating. You wouldn’t ask for someone’s hand in marriage on the first date – so why would you ask for the sale in the first email?


Deeper Connections:


Context first is crucial:


Context is what drives where we decide to focus our attention. Hence why providing context and what to look for in a situation is critical.  When context isn’t providing in a learning situation – a person will come up with their own context.


Dr Nedhi provided a great example to drive this point home – think of a living room in your mind, and now pretend you’re an interior designer – what are some of the elements that would stand out to you in the room? How about if instead of being an interior designer, you are a cleaning person – what would you look for or what would stand out to you now? How about if you were there to improve the feng shui – what would you look for now? Notice how your context changes everything that you focus on and stands out to you in each situation.


Emotion:


Emotion helps to hard wire our brain. Emotions often are what tell us to pay attention, and force us to remember the story, because our brain and emotions help see it’s importance.


By engaging the emotional side, you’re going beyond just facts, figures, statistics and metaphors – you’re speaking to a different part of the brain.


Social by design:


We humans are social creatures. To further enhance connections in the brain, encourage conversation and community to form around the information. The conversations force us to think, reflect and better communicate the content being discussed.
 


Optimize & Design: 


Space rehearsal: 


This was all about staggered learning. The best way to share lots of information or new concepts with people is to stagger the information you share. Thus, versus sharing all of the information at once, you should space out the information and repetition. This helps people to learn more over time, and also really understand it.


A great analogy that Ann used to further illustrate the point is that learning new concepts is similar to watering a lawn. Would it be better to water your lawn completely all on Monday, with all the water it will need for the entire week – or would it be better to space it out over a longer period of time giving it the water it needs at the right time?


Which one do you think? Why?


Just like watering a lawn all at once can cause it to flood, doing the same thing to the brain – via teaching concepts and information all at once – causes our brain to flood as well.  How could one consume any more information when it’s already at capacity and maybe even a bit under water?


Exercise 

How do you easily boost energy when educating groups? Get them to exercise. And yes, we all know exercising is key to being healthy – we’re not necessarily focusing on that type of exercise (albeit that’s also a huge plus), but rather the quick burst of exercise that brings energy and blood flow to the brain.


To help further ingrain this point, Ann had us stand up and do a quick exercise. We stood up and took our right arm and tapped it to our left knee. Then did the reverse, taking our left hand and tapping it to our right knee. Then continued this for about 30 seconds. This was just the right amount of energy to liven up the group again and


Now I know why HubSpot’s CEO, Brian Halligan, has us stand up frequently in company meetings or in keynotes and stretch or move around a bit.


 

Style Inclusive:

Here is the final kicker, the type of learning and education you provide must engage everyone’s brain. And there is no big surprise here, everybody likes to learn differently. To better engage everyone and everyone’s brain, we should consider the whole brain thinking model.


There are four sections and each one discusses a better way to educate and reinforce concepts to the students/attendees. The styles are characterized by the graph down below:
whole brain thinking


Overall, this is a lot of information. But what Ann did perfectly was introduce these new concepts and used supporting material and learning activities that engaged the entire brain. This kept folks not only engaged and learning, but also got us to really think about what was being said.


For myself, this was a major wakeup call that in order to be better educators, we must engage the brain more with creative learning examples.


How will you apply this information to change your presentations or events?

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