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Learning21Discover key principles for learning design that maximize the brain's capacity to learn, build memories, and develop habits.

The latest report from the research firm Bersin by Deloitte shows that more money is being spent on learning and development than ever before. And yet, studies suggest that as much as 90 percent of new skills learned are lost within a year. If learning activities don't yield real and sustainable behavior change, that investment is wasted.

We know that learning is the pathway to improvement, so it's natural that as organizations seek to improve their talent, they look to learning and development. But the problem is that some of our learning initiatives are not being designed as effectively as they could be.

As a learning professional, I have immersed myself in neuroscience research, and what I learned really changed how I approach training design and delivery. Some of the studies confirmed things I had learned through trial and error long ago, and others completely shifted how I approached my craft. Here are six takeaways.

Tip #1: Work with the brain
Different parts of the brain play core roles in how a person first learns information, then stores that information into memory, and finally uses that learning to create real and lasting behavior change. If we don't work with the brain and its natural processes, even the most popular or highly rated programs won't deliver in the long run.

It is imperative that talent development professionals keep their finger on the pulse of brain science. As researchers learn more about how the brain and nervous system work, it will only enhance the quality of our learning products.

The brain structures that are involved in learning include the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the basal ganglia. To design the best learning experiences, we need to understand and respect the neuroscience of learning.

Tip #2: Focus is the starting point of learning
The hippocampus is the part of the brain that takes in information and moves it to our memory. When it's damaged, people lose access to past memories and no longer can make new ones.

The hippocampus acts like a recorder or data drive; like those devices, it has an "on" button. Physiologically, it's when our eyes and ears attune to something that causes the hippocampus to begin recording. Richard Davidson, from the University of Wisconsin, calls this "phase locking" and it's the starting point of all learning.

As a result, we must design our learning environments to help people focus and we must bust the myth that you can multitask while learning. Research has proved that when we divide our attention, our focus switches back and forth between the two activities, also known as switch tasking.

The hippocampus loses vital pieces of information for both of the things we were trying to attend to. I call this "Swiss tasking" because we end up with holes in the data the hippocampus was capturing and, therefore, holes in our learning that cannot be recovered.

Here is the big shocker about the hippocampus: It can only hold so much information before it must be processed and pushed into short-term memory. Studies show that the maximum amount is about 20 minutes of information.

Lecture-style sessions never have demonstrated good results for retention, and now we know why—it works against the brain's natural functioning. The good news is that many other learning activities can help.

All the hippocampus needs is a few minutes of processing to push that data into short-term memory and it's ready again for more. I now build all my learning events in chunks of 15 minutes of information followed by a processing activity, such as a dyad discussion, a period of reflection, an experiential activity, or even a break.

I can then string these mini-modules together into a longer session, although I rarely go longer than a half-day because of what I have learned about the brain. Since I have adopted this approach, I have seen a real increase in the effectiveness of learning events in terms of comprehension, retention, and ultimately behavior change.

Learning is not the only activity that benefits from focus. Daniel Goleman's latest book, Focus: The Hidden Ingredient in Excellence, details the positive impact focusing has on leadership, decision making, and creativity.

Tip #3: Connections are the key to memory
As soon as the hippocampus captures learning, it first moves that learning into short-term memory and then eventually to long-term memory. Again, our knowledge of the brain can help us tap into the body's natural process for doing this.

Studies have shown that learning is the most likely to be retained and remembered when it can be connected to something we already know. Knowledge is stored in the brain as schemas, which are built up over time through experience. For example, think of bananas and you will recall instantly their color, shape, taste, smell, and whether you like them.

Schemas are neural networks and they get bigger and stronger as we add to them. Because I traveled in Venezuela, my schema for bananas includes the smaller, sweeter cambur, along with fond memories of baking with family.

Talent development professionals can take advantage of this natural process by attaching new learning to schemas that already exist in the learner's brain. The best teachers instinctively do this. Whether they are teaching calculus, software, or leadership, they explain the abstract in concrete ways that connect to learners' existing schemas.

Having been a dean at a major research university, I noticed that this was what distinguished the best math and science instructors from the rest. They were gifted at connecting to schemas that existed in the minds of young adults in a way that made the complex not only accessible, but even easy.

So how do you activate your learners' schemas? First, you must step into the perspective of your learners. Knowing your audience will help you know what is there to play with. Many of us have faced this with multigenerational groups when an example that works for Boomers generated blank stares with Millennials. Any learning design or facilitation should start with asking yourself, "Who is in the room and how can I make meaningful connections to something they already know?"

Another shift I have made is to share a few different models or examples instead of just one. This broad approach allows me to activate the schemas of more people in the room because I know that at least one is likely to hit the target. And this approach creates the added benefit of connecting the dots between those models.

For example, when I teach change management, I share a model of organizational development, research on how humans respond psychologically to change (known as the change curve), and Brené Brown's work on vulnerability. Together, these models provide the why and how change is both inevitable and difficult. It also shows the complex intersections that are at play, which provides insight about how to navigate them successfully.

I ask my learners to remember two times they experienced change, one that went smoothly and one that was difficult. This activates not only those specific memories, but also their individual schemas of change. When I pair this with hands-on activities for leading change effectively, the result is powerful and lasting.

Tip #4: Aim for three retrievals
One of the biggest insights from brain science has to do with how our memories are made. For conceptual learning, the evidence is clear that it's through the act of retrieval—having to recall something we have learned—that makes learning memorable for the long run.

For example, I could teach you about neuroscience today (reading is certainly one of the ways we learn). I can activate your schemas and you might even have an "aha moment." But if you don't have to retrieve that learning again, it eventually will get dumped from your brain.

Retrieval can occur through a variety of methods such as sharing what you learned with someone else, reflecting on how it relates to a past experience, doing an activity with hands-on application, quizzing yourself on your understanding, and a host of other learning activities. As instructional designers, we can easily build retrievals into our learning events and empower our learners to do that for themselves.

This is what distinguishes great presenters from excellent instructors. Great presenters can create a feel-good experience that activates our schemas and that we thoroughly enjoy. And we will give those presenters or programs high ratings for satisfaction and raving reviews. But if no retrieval occurs, that learning will disappear in the following weeks and months. Sure, people will still say that they loved it, but they won't be able to remember much of what they learned, nor will their behavior change as a result.

Research has shown that it is most effective to get to at least three retrievals. Memory studies have shown that three retrievals yield the best accuracy and retention. Although you can go on to more, the benefit seems to be better at three, so I focus on that number of retrievals in my own learning design. You can certainly build three retrievals into one learning event, but retention will be even more powerful if you add sleep to the mix.

Tip #5: Build in sleep between learning
It turns out that the sleeping brain plays a large role in how long-term memories are formed. While we sleep, the brain pushes information that we learned that day from our short-term memory into our long-term memory. It's when we sleep that our brain adds the day's learning onto existing schemas, and physically builds and strengthens neural pathways.

It also does a little housecleaning. Every day, we take in thousands of bits of information and it is during sleep that our brain chooses which of those bits is worthy of being retained. It even revisits items already in long-term memory and deletes the information that has not been activated in a while.

The animated movie Inside Out does a great job of depicting this process. While Riley is sleeping, the minion-like workers in her brain decide to vacuum out most of the names of the U.S. presidents.

So how can we use sleep to enhance our learning events? Flip the classroom and use blended learning.

I now have learners do some pre-learning a few days prior, then we take a deeper dive in the classroom through hands-on application. I extend their learning with post-event opportunities and resources. For example, when I design leadership training, learners are asked to watch a corresponding online course at They can do this at their own pace and it frees me up from teaching some of that content so that I can use our in-person time for more focused work.

When we come together, we do in-depth hands-on practice of the skills I want them to use. And after the event, I provide them with additional learning materials such as links to TED Talks, articles, and assignments to further hone their skills.

This blended approach allows me to create three retrievals spaced with sleep, and it also starts to build the habits of the behaviors I am trying to cultivate.

Tip #6: Be a habit designer
Ultimately, the goal of most learning activities is behavior change. No matter the topic, we are trying to elicit new and better behaviors in the learner.
Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit changed the way I see my work. He shares the science of how the basal ganglia in the brain builds habit loops that include a cue or trigger, the routine of behavior, and the reward for completing that routine.

Over time, habits become well-grooved neural pathways that almost happen on autopilot, for example how you currently log in to your computer or how you get to work.
When we are trying to create behavior change, we need to think about the habits that are currently in place and how to design new, better habits that will be more compelling than the comfort of the current ones.

I now think of myself as a habit designer. All of my learning design starts with identifying the habit loop I hope to instill, and I work backward from there. Although retrievals are the key to moving conceptual learning into memory, repetition is the key for habit design. The more we fire neurons together, the stronger that neural pathway becomes, to the point that researchers can measure the neurons growing thicker.

As talent development professionals, we are in the business of cultivating potential. Your organization as a whole—as well as every person in it—have unrealized ability, and your job is to cultivate that potential through the learning experiences you create. Work with the natural processes of the brain and nervous system to maximize the impact of your great work.

By Britt Andreatta. Winner of Chief Learning Officer magazine's prestigious Trailblazer Award. Britt is a seasoned professional with 25 years of experience in consulting, coaching, and teaching talent development. Her research and experience with businesses, universities, and nonprofits inform powerful solutions for today's workplace challenges. Britt has published seven titles on leadership, learning, and management at - now part of LinkedIn, where she serves as the director of learning and development and senior learning consultant for global talent development.

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Lessons from World TVET Conference 2015 – Day one
Vocational development is a lifelong journey and VET providers must prepare individuals for advanced occupational standards that have evolved from work-task based to work-process focused.

It was a pleasure and an honour for me to present at the World TVET Conference 2015 in Kuching, Malaysia. Education and training professionals from around the world had the opportunity to get together for a few days and discuss the transformation and globalisation of technical and vocational education and its effect on developing living skills in the 21st century.


In a globalised economy, with complex production processes that spread beyond national borders, countries GDP depends, among other parameters, on its capacity to add value to the production chain. Consequently, highly skilled workers are needed in the workforce of a country that wants to take a share of those high valuable and most profitable processes.

Dr. Pang Chau Leong, Director of the Department of Skills Development, Ministry of Human Resources, Malaysia, shared Malaysia's goal of increasing by 10% the number of individuals with VET qualifications in the workplace by 2020, as part of a strategy to transform VET to meet industry needs. "In progressing towards an advanced nation, we will need more high-skilled workers," Dr Pang said.

The need to develop more highly skilled workers is a constant challenge for every nation's
Government, to raise its economy, support social equality and provide better work opportunities for its population. But, what constitutes a highly skilled worker for today's industrial environment?

The world of work has changed since the introduction of cyber-physical systems, and today's highly skilled workers must not only be competent in performing specific tasks, but must also have a broader understanding of work-processes. Dr. Georg Spoettl from University Bremen, Germany, stated the importance of developing "... curriculum and the appropriate methods of instruction for conveying the competence for successful performance at today's and tomorrow's high-tech workplace..." and the need to transform the objectives of VET programs "from mastering narrow skills we need to shift our emphasis to mastering broad competences".

I don't believe in the contest between University and VET. It is time to see University and VET as a partnership and complementary tools to support lifelong learning of individuals. Vocational education's contribution to society must be considered beyond the traditional vocational preparation of individuals for specific work tasks, but as integral support during different stages of an individual's vocational development. Within this context, VET must coexist with other types of higher education programs, inside and outside universities, providing an opportunity for connecting knowledge with application, by defining vocational fields that connect learning with occupational standards and practices.

This later connection is at the core of VET's success. To achieve the ultimate goal of meeting industry needs we must break the "glass wall" defined by Dr Wahid Razzaly from UTHM University, Malaysia. The use of a competency model is more than describing the outcomes of work tasks as learning competency standards. The use of competency standards required alignment of learning objectives with business needs, and that can only be achieved when vocational curricula has been designed to address performance needs that will have an effect on business results, and will add value to the work process.

In a volatile and dynamic globalised industrial environment, work processes are continuously changing, and performances must be continuously adjusted. This is why vocational education providers must have a range of industry engagement strategies, to break the "glass wall", to "... learn from companies, and learn together with companies" as suggested by Prof. Olga Oleynikova, Director of Center for VET Studies in Moscow, Russia.

worldtvet201536Industry's lifecycles have a definitive effect on VET. We prepare individuals to develop skills and knowledge required to perform different tasks in a particular industry, and we support them to maintain their competencies, as these tasks evolve and change. Recent history is proving that those industry lifecycles are shorter, and the pace of changes in work-processes and tasks is increasing at an incredible rate. Therefore, the partnership between VET providers and industry must be stronger to maintain relevance of vocational education curricula and industry needs.

The Australian Qualification Framework (AQF) provides the conditions for VET and Universities to coexist and work together, while National Training Packages are developed to support vocational education providers and industry players to break the glass wall and engage in aligning training with industry needs, without compromising individuals' development. The use of consistent occupational standards across the industry has proved to have a positive effect on VET's relevant courses, enrolments and completion rates.

Vocational education and training professionals must use these tools to develop and implement training that respond to current advanced occupational standards, considering the fact that vocational development is a lifelong process, that requires enhancement of self directed learning, and conveying a holistic understanding of work-processes.

From a government perspective, we need a modern regulatory framework that is responsive to the concept of advanced occupational standards that recognises the complexity of the current industrial environment. This means it is imperative that our regulatory framework is strategically reviewed to set and enforce the required conditions for the development of higher-skilled workers.

Government must work with industry stakeholders to establish, adopt and, in some cases, enforce national occupational standards that will support further development of VET.

It is important also for government to promote vocational education, not only as "... vocational preparation for work, but shifting the focus to the stages of vocational development, as an individual's lifelong process of building one's career". (Dr. Georg Spoettl).

The Australian government must increase funding in VET if we are to support current and future industry needs, but we require a renovated funding structure, and shift priorities to fund outcomes and not just buying seats in a classroom, or a login in an online training program. Currently, this is one of our weakest areas with funding schemes that are not aligned to outcomes, but this is the topic of another article.


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BRAINSTORMINGRecently, there's been a lot of discussion about how brainstorming doesn't work. Forbes, Fast Company, and the New Yorker have all weighed in with articles (see references). I agree that what they term as brainstorming doesn't work, but that doesn't mean brainstorming doesn't work.

So, what is brainstorming?
The concept of brainstorming is that we get more people involved in thinking of alternatives to current issues or challenges. This is good for two reasons. First, we want alternatives when we have problems to solve, we want new ideas when we're innovating, and so on. Second, when we tap into more people, the solution is nearly always better.

The model of brainstorming most organizations use is to get people in a room, give them the topic or problem, and have them discuss. This was the proposal of the originator of the concept. Which sounds like it aligns with the above, but this model is flawed. The main problem is that the first person to speak unintentionally influences the thinking of everyone else.

So, what's a better brainstorming model?
First, you want to give people the problem or topic beforehand, or at least have concrete time to ponder the issue on one's own. Then you can bring people together to share ideas and riff on them. (And it goes without saying that you need to pick the right people that you can trust to actually do the work to come up with ideas.)

The various articles naysaying brainstorming were touting different alternative models. One option was called brainswarming, another was brainwriting. In both, the idea was to individually ponder before discussing together. And I agree that this is a good idea. Your group doesn't necessarily have to be co-located; the independent work can be accomplished apart.

The point is that there are nuances to getting the best output. The statement "the room is smarter than the smartest person in the room" has a major caveat that contends "if you manage the process right." Otherwise, the room's as smart as the most dominant, persuasive, or authoritative person in the room.

What's more, you need to keep people focused on generating ideas first, diverging before you converge, and ensure that the feedback is always on the idea, not on the people. Counter-intuitively, constructive criticism is good, empirically. You also have to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to contribute.
Other components also come into play. Finding ways to spark lateral thought have proven useful. The presumed impact is to add ideas that might otherwise have been missed. Having diversity on the team helps, as well as a moderate level of connectedness. The average emotional intelligence of the team has also been shown to contribute, with higher EQ leading to better solutions.

Bottom line: The goal is to explore the space of possible solutions. We have cognitive biases that work to limit the spaces we'll consider, and a good process has to find ways to break through those biases. Anything that helps us generate and evaluate alternate ideas is a potential contributor to the likelihood of optimizing the solution. For example, once we have a suite of ideas, and have had some lateral input, trying to combine the ideas to generate new ones can also be useful.

You can say that the process I'm calling brainstorming goes away from the original definition. You're welcome to do so, and relabel what I'm doing as anything you want. All I care about is that you use what's known to produce the best outputs, so that you're innovating as optimally as possible.

Call it what you will—brainstorming, brainswarming, brainwriting, whatever—but please do it right. You'll get better results, and that is what will make a difference.

By Clark Quinn, PhD


"Brainstorming Doesn't Work—Do This Instead" by Rochelle Bailis;

"Brainstorming Doesn't Work; Try This Technique Instead" by Rebecca Greenfield;

"Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth" by Jonah Lehrer;

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