Four Questions to Ask About Neuroscience and Learning Right Now

(Originally appeared in Trainingindustry.com magazine)

Neuroscience is the convergence of multiple scientific disciplines applied to the study of how brains work. While very new as science goes, it’s been around as a term for at least 60 years, when biologist Ralph Waldo Gerard included it in a paper to describe his work with the human nervous system. So why is it such a “hot” topic right now? Three factors are helping accelerate interest: technology, social media and hype.

With the invention of Functional Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and other technologies, we can observe the brain in action. Rather than guessing about how we form new memories, retrieve information and change behavior, we’re getting closer and closer to truly knowing. In some cases, these discoveries are validating long-held theories drawn from psychology and philosophy. In other cases, these discoveries are toppling some long-held beliefs, such as learning styles, that can’t be supported by the scientific evidence. But reading a scientific paper can be challenging. How can we be sure that we’ve extracted the most valid, most pertinent conclusions to apply to the classroom? If you’re like most of us, your first step will be to go online and conduct some research, but social media can lead you astray.

Watch Out for These Pitfalls

While social media has given us a whole new way to consume information, it has also shortened our patience for lengthy, nuanced explanations and encouraged us to believe that all opinions are equally valid, so long as we see them on the Internet. In this climate, it can be hard to separate facts from clever marketing schemes or catchy phrases. As learning professionals, we need to ask questions like, “Will this “neuroscience of leadership” program help my team develop the next generation of leaders, or is it just clever repackaging classic of leadership theory with ‘neuroscience’ added to the title?”

It might be tempting to just opt out all together and say with “tried and true” techniques in your old training books. The challenge with that approach is that you may be missing out on truly revolutionary discoveries – and that means your learners are missing out, too.

The good news is that just a few questions can help you avoid false information and identify a few changes that will help you incorporate neuroscience into your learning practice.

What’s the Source?

Always try to work back to the original research and read the Abstract. That’s a decent indicator that there has been no deliberate attempt to contort the information to meet a hidden agenda.

Who’s Getting Paid?

Be very cautious of “studies” and “reports” put out by folks who are selling something. Be very wary of scientific-sounding statements made by people who are selling you something based on those statements. Find third-hand corroboration before you buy that bright shiny new “neuroscience-based” program.

How Can I Use This?

There’s been a lot of interesting research that just doesn’t have a practical application for the learning professional, at least not yet. Before you run off and change what you’re doing based on something you’ve read, take some time to reflect. Ask yourself how you would use this in your work as a learning professional. If you can’t find a clear application within a few minutes, file the information under “cool stuff,” but don’t change your current practice around it.

Where Can I Learn More?

The fact that you’re reading this magazine tells me that you’re committed to learning as much as possible about your profession. As you’re reading something about the neuroscience of learning, looks for references, resources, links and other suggestions where you can learn more. A reputable author will provide this guidance for you.

Conclusion

Don’t let all the hype and excitement about neuroscience stress you out. You don’t have to become a neuroscientist to incorporate learning science into your training practice. Just approach it with an open, inquisitive mind and use these questions to keep you on the right path.

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