Rewiring Learning

“Experience is the teacher of all things.”  – Julius Caesar

“I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”  – Pablo Picasso

Times tables?

How much do you still remember of what you were taught at school?  I was labelled as “backward”  when I started formal education (and tested for learning difficulties), but I have very fond memories of my earliest experiences in primary school.    One enlightened teacher gave us freedom to be creative, and my clearest memories of this time are of putting together collages of images, sounds, music and words with classmates, and working on a TV version of a favourite kid’s book (a long lost schoolfriend reminded me of this recently via Facebook).

My later memories are of dull rote learning lessons, only broken by one or two exceptional teachers.  When I made it to University I found things pretty much the same.  It was only when I continued in post-doctorate education, that I went back to enjoying learning, as I was my own master, able to choose topics which interested me, and learning from experimenting in the real world.

So between the ages of 7 and 21, there was a huge gap in my enjoyment of learning.   Sadly, this is typical.

Experience teaches everything

New discoveries in brain science support what common sense has always told us.  We learn most through real and relevant experience.  So although it’s difficult to teach old dogs new tricks, new experiential approaches to adult learning are proving far more successful than the schoolroom.

The most profound of these ideas is brain plasticity.  Although our habits become entrenched over time, hardwiring them into our brain, we can remould them as our brain rewires its connections.  Norman Doidge uses a great analogy for this, explaining that first learning a behaviour is like being the first person on the ski run after fresh snow.  If we manage to navigate the ski run in virgin snow, leaving a clear and distinct track behind us, we enjoy the experience and want to go back.  When we return, we tend to follow the same path, and the more times we do the ski run, the more the tracks become part of the landscape.  Eventually, we find we can only complete the run by following the ruts in the hardened snow.

In order to change behaviour we have to go to the other side of the mountain, or be prepared for a rough ride!  In his remarkable book The Brain that Changes Itself Norman Doidge cites many examples of how even badly damaged brains are able to rewire over time.  In one striking example, a patient was able to regain use of an arm after a stroke, by putting her good arm in a sling, forcing herself and her brain to find ways to control her initially useless other arm.

The lesson is that the brain is resistant to change (the ruts are deep), and we have to push ourselves hard to learn new skills by sheer force of experience!  Yet the more times we try something, the more likely we are to create new ruts.  For training to effectively rewire our brains, we must focus on real and relevant experiential learning, although this is not enough as we will see later.

Neurons that fire together, wire together

Brains work differently from computers, especially in memory functions. A computer’s memory is a simple filing system, whereas the brain’s almost infinite connections store memories by remembering how neurons fire together to change connections.  When we look at someone’s face, our brain doesn’t need to check if it’s familiar.  If the face is familiar, then the same set of neurons fire together as fired when we previously saw the face, and our brain knows that something is familiar.  This is why we remember faces (humans are extremely good at this), but may not be able to recall a name, which is stored separately in our memories.

Memories are based on networks of connections.  Freud first wrote about the importance of association in memory long before there was a biological understanding of this.  Our brain is extremely good at pattern recognition, so that when the same sensations happen together, they become associated together in our minds (for good or bad), and this strengthens the more often they happen.  It’s important to remember that these associations include all the sensations that were taking place, including context.  This means that context can help us to better recall what we learn.

The myth that you should take your exams drunk if you were drunk when you read your textbooks has a basis of truth (but I don’t recommend this strategy!).  Have you ever noticed how your memories of school are much stronger when you return to your home town? By context I include your body’s movements and posture, as there is compelling evidence that physical activity is associated with stronger emotions and hence better memory.

Theories of learning such as NLP and Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences focus on our individual preferences for sensory modalities and modes of learning, and there is some truth in this.  A more important truth is that when we experience the same thing through multiple senses (eg sight, sound, touch, movement, taste and smell), this multiplies the “signal” to our brain, creating stronger experiences, more powerful emotions and longer-lasting memories.

Effective learning uses different media, styles and activities, ensuring that messages are conveyed through as many senses as possible.

Experience feedback

Feedback is the key mechanism through which we learn.  We are all like scientists in our daily lives, using experience to build and test hypotheses about how pleasure can be maximised and pain minimised.  However, unlike Karl Popper’s view of how science should be conducted, we tend to focus on affirming if our theories are true, and avoid attempts to disprove them (ie we tend to stick to the ruts).

In 1984, David Kolb published a model of experiential learning which captures these feedback mechanisms.  It includes four stages which are cyclical (rather than linear), and we all have slight preferences for styles of learning within the cycle.  The model includes, in no particular order, experience, reflection, conceptualisation and experimentation.  That is, when we have new experiences, we reflect on how to assimilate them in our mental models of the world, leading to new or enhanced theories which we then actively test.

For learning to be effective, we must give time for thinking, experimenting and reflecting.  I have found the following five stages, which follow the cycle, to be a very effective way of structuring training around any specific topic:

Steps What to Cover Purpose
Step 1 – Set Scene
  • Set out clear aims and objectives
  • Present outline agenda – steps and timing
Create clarity, dispelling any uncertainty or confusion about the session.  Establish facilitator credibility
Step 2 – Engage
  • Check familiarity with topic.
  • Ask for relevant experiences
Raise energy, engage participants.  Provide useful information on participant needs.
Step 3 – Inform
  • Provide input succinctly and clearly
  • Use real examples to illustrate
  • Use visual/auditory aids to make memorable
Provide participants with the relevant information that they need in order to achieve the aims and objectives

Stimulate participants to look at a problem differently

Step 4 – Apply
  • Give the group an opportunity to apply knowledge
  • Make the activity practical and relevant for all participants
Deepen learning

Ensure learning applied to real business problems

Step 5 – Reflect
  • Ask for feedback from the practical exercise
  • Check for questions
  • Ask about key action points
Embed learning

Support the development of key actions

How to rewire learning?

I have covered a lot of ideas here, although there are three key lessons:

1) Effective learning is based on real and relevant experience (ie “learning on the job”).   The more relevant the practical examples (ie using real current business issues) the more we remember.

2) The greater the variety of stimuli and senses which are used (including physical as well as mental activity), the more effective the messages.

3) Although experiential learning is important, it must be structured to allow time for prompting relevant previous experiences, learning new ideas, practising real examples and reflecting on what we have learnt.

I only learnt these lessons fully by applying them myself in coaching and training.  I hope you can use some of these ideas to rewire your learning too!


The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge (2007)

Mind Hacks by Tom Stafford and Matt Webb (2005)

All Life is Problem Solving by Karl Popper (2001)

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