Idea Learning Group

"brain" Posts

It’s Not How Much You Know, It’s How You Think

In case it isn’t obvious, Jillian and I are fascinated by brain research that explores how people learn. Last week we looked at emotional learning. This week we’re taking a closer look at cognitive learning, which incorporates emotions and thought into the learning process. This theory gives less importance to the role of behavior and instead embraces the learner’s thought processes and other internal insights unique the individual.

Cognitive learning theory focuses on learning through understanding and meaning, as opposed to memorizing facts and figures. We observe, listen, touch, read, or experience new information before processing and then recalling it. Although it might seem passive, cognitive learning is quite active. The difference is that all the activity is going on inside the processing and storage areas of the brain.

Roger Schank, a leading visionary in cognitive science and learning, defines learning not as an accumulation of knowledge, but as an improvement in one’s own cognitive processes. In his book Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools, he outlines twelve learning processes organized into three categories:

  • Conceptual processes: prediction, modeling, experimentation, evaluation
  • Analytic processes: diagnosis, planning, causation, judgment
  • Social processes: Influence, teamwork, negotiation, describing

According to the ASTD Handbook, the cognitive view of how learning takes place is “based on how information is processed, stored, and retrieved in the mind, rather than on how behavior changes.” The approach helps learners remember information, comprehend how things work, and refer to new procedures when needed.

That’s a high-level view of cognitive learning theory. So how do we use cognitive learning theory to actually design training for adults? Here’s what the ASTD Cognitive Training Model recommends:

  • Gain attention: Start with a relevant way to grab the learners’ attention right away. Focus the attention on the new knowledge to generate encouragement and excitement for learning.
  • Recall and relate: Draw a connection between the information the learners already know and the new knowledge they’re about to gain. Highlight similarities between the old and new knowledge throughout the course.
  • Structure content: Be clear about the desired behaviors and knowledge. Organize new information into bite-size pieces to avoid cognitive overload and to promote learning that will stick.
  • Use visuals throughout: Along with organized on-screen text, graphics and animations may help introduce and support new content.
  • Assimilate the old and new knowledge: Use real-life or realistic examples to demonstrate how the new knowledge works in a context that appeals to the learners.
  • Strengthen the new knowledge: Engage learners by having them do something with their new knowledge, such as through interactive exercises, games, or on-the-job application of their new skills.

ASTD Learning Leaders Forum: Leading Brain Based Learning

ASTD Learning Leaders Forum: Leading Brain Based Learning with  Jillian Douglas

Intended Audience
The Learning Leaders’ Forum is designed for workplace learning professionals who have a minimum of 10 years of workplace learning experience (or equivalent) and are responsible for developing workplace learning strategies. These programs are designed to offer strategic insight and time for round table interaction with peers.

Understanding the neuroscience of how adults learn can help trainers and instructional designers build training that maximizes employee retention, and help training departments improve the effectiveness of training efforts throughout their organizations. In this session, you’ll learn six of Dr. John Medina™s Brain Rules and their implications for leading learning strategies. Based Dr. John Medina breakthrough book, this session employs video, discussion, and research, plus you’ll walk away with a strategy for integrating brain-based learning in your organization.


  • Identify opportunities to leverage neuroscience to improve the effectiveness of training efforts throughout your organization
  • Outline a strategy document for integrating brain-based learning in your organization.

The Power of Shower Thinking

Have you ever spent an hour staring at a blank piece of paper, willing some new ideas to spill onto the page, only to feel disappointed and exhausted when nothing materializes?

You might be going about brainstorming the wrong way. To generate new ideas, give your brain a break. Try starting with a clear mind, and avoid being so direct in your thinking.

When Albert Einstein said, “Why is it I get my best ideas while shaving?” I think he was on to something with this observation.

It could be the steam, the isolation from everyday distractions, or the quality time spent with the subconscious mind. Or maybe it’s the white noise it generates, the ritualistic simplicity of it, or just a fresh start to the day.

Whatever the reasons, I get many of my best ideas in the shower.

According to the article “How to Produce Big Ideas On Demand” in Business Week Online, “There is a scientific theory that water hitting your head helps trigger the synapses and that’s why people get great ideas in the shower. But we think it’s simpler than that: The ideas occur because you are not making an effort to think. You aren’t worried about anything. You are not stressed. Hence some of your best thinking occurs.”

Perhaps we find a special sort of relaxation in those transitory moments of our days, which allow us to dig deeper into the incubation stations in our minds, seemingly without effort.

“Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious.” Thomas Edison had a different approach to tapping into his subconscious meanderings to mine new ideas. Although he only slept for four to five hours each night, he regularly took catnaps. He would think of something he wanted to resolve before sitting in a chair, drifting off with a ball bearing in each hand. If he fell into too deep of a sleep, the ball bearings would come crashing to the ground—a sign that he’d gone too far into slumber. He would then quickly record the ideas that were brewing when he was jolted awake.

You would think that Edison would have invented and patented a device for recording creative ideas in this manner. But it wasn’t until 75 years after his death that such products were available, at least when it comes to recording creative ideas in the shower.

Although I haven’t personally tried any of these products, I’m amused and impressed with the selection of idea-recording devices for use in the shower! There’s Divemaster Slate, a waterproof whiteboard. AquaNotes makes a waterproof notepad (“No more great ideas down the drain!”). Rite in the Rain makes a handheld waterproof flip pad. Aquapac makes waterproof cases for digital recording electronics.

But if I were to hang up the waterproof notepad or eagerly clutch my waterproof voice recorder as I shampoo my hair, would that quiet my creative subconscious? Would the ideas become less accessible if I were to enter the shower with such lofty expectations?

When do you find yourself generating your best ideas, and how do you record them?

What we learn before we’re born

Wonderful and fascinating Ted talk by Annie Murphy Paul about the experience of learning from the perspective of a fetus.  “Learning is one of life’s most essential activities, and it begins much earlier than we ever imagined.”

To what extent do the conditions we encounter before birth influence our individual characteristics? It‘s the question at the center of fetal origins, a relatively new field of research that measures how the effects of influences outside the womb during pregnancy can shape the physical, mental and even emotional well-being of the developing baby for the rest of its life.

Science writer Annie Murphy Paul calls it a gray zone between nature and nurture in her book Origins, a history and study of this emerging field structured around a personal narrative — Paul was pregnant with her second child at the time. What she finds suggests a far more dynamic nature between mother and fetus than typically acknowledged, and opens up the possibility that the time before birth is as crucial to human development as early childhood.

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