It was the weirdest conference I’d ever attended. Instead of rows of chairs in the main hall, there was a vast empty floor, punctuated by the occasional flip chart. The startled expressions on the faces of fellow delegates suggested this was a new experience for most of them, too.
The facilitator called it an “unconference.” People could walk from one part of the room to another whenever they felt like it, joining and contributing to conversations of their choice.
Attendees were tentative at first, but gradually the activity began to gather pace and energy. Toward the end of the session, delegates were smiling, the air was buzzing with ideas, and flip chart pages were filling up fast.
The Neuroscience of Learning
After talking to Stella Collins for our Expert Interview podcast, I realized that the unconference was an example of “brain-friendly learning” in action.
Collins is the author of “Neuroscience for Learning and Development: How to Apply Neuroscience and Psychology for Improved Learning and Training,” now in an expanded second edition.
She’s also the founder and chief learning officer at Stellar Labs and creative director at Stellar Learning.
In our conversation, Collins talks about the power of physical motivation in learning.
“There’s lots and lots of evidence coming up now that shows that if you walk, if you run, you actually promote brain cell growth in your hippocampus, which is the part of your brain you use for memory processing,” she says. “Getting people physically motivated is hugely important.”
And it doesn’t take much to incorporate this into training.
Improve Training Sessions With Neuroscience
Collins suggests encouraging delegates to take a brisk walk before training starts. Or pairing them up for a “walking reflection” between sessions.
Better yet, make movement part of the training itself, just like the unconference. It’s what Collins does in the training that she designs and delivers herself.
“One of the things we quite often do is, rather than have something on a flip chart or on a PowerPoint, we’ll map it out on the floor and people actually go and stand in the model that we’ve mapped out,” Collins relates.
“When people are physically engaged as well as mentally engaged, it seems to improve the quantity of questions people ask. But it seems to also improve the quality of questions and the effort they put into answering their own questions.”
I’ve noticed this myself when I deliver podcast production training courses.
Part of the day-long training involves recording an interview. Each pair finds a quiet space to record, which they usually do standing up. And, when they return to the training room half an hour later, they’re always energized, chatting and laughing, keen to start editing.
Getting It Wrong
By contrast, I recently completed a professional development course that took a more traditional approach.
The course consisted of several months of weekly classes held in a dark room. There was minimal interaction and the rows of desks faced a screen at the front.
At the beginning of the course there were 20 learners, all sitting quietly and patiently listening to the trainer. Only 10 of us made it to the bitter end, and a straw poll among us confirmed that no one had learned very much. The format of the class was an obstacle to successful learning.
Uniting Body and Brain
In her book, Collins explores a spectrum of connections between physical and mental processes, and how they can help trainers to design training, and help learners to learn.
There are some fascinating insights on the importance of sleep for absorbing and assimilating information. There are also tips on using all of our senses in a training environment. (For example, Collins uses chocolate as a trigger in her training sessions.)
So if you’re planning a training session anytime soon, it’s worth dipping into “Neuroscience for Learning and Development.” It’s remarkable how our bodies and brains work together. There are so many ways to harness this connection, in ways that help us to learn and grow.
Listen to Our Interview With Stella Collins
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