Podcast | The Brain And L&D: A No BS Chat About Learning Science

Gary Stringer
October 5, 2023
October 5, 2023

Lauren Waldman, Learning Pirate, joined us ​​to chat through what learning science means in practice, why L&D pros need to understand how learning happens, the role of the brain in upskilling and driving change, and much more.

Watch the episode

Listen to the episode

Running order

0:00 Intro to Lauren and this conversation
3:10 What does learning science mean in practice?
7:28 L&D’s perception of itself
12:28 Understanding behaviour change
19:28 How does our brain work against us?
22:57 The challenge of getting buy-in
31:25 Why L&D pros need to understand the brain
34:10 Lessons from a NASA astronaut
39:56 Designing learning for the brain
42:56 Good examples from Lauren’s experiences
46:20 Considering stress and other emotions
53:21 Being kind to yourself and where to find Lauren

Learning And The Brain: Six Key Takeaways

“Even when I started to study and started diving into the brain and the science itself, you start to realise that, yes, it's about being better at your profession and learning. 

“But, at the end of the day, it's about us learning about us as fundamental human beings and what that means to be an operational, fundamental human being and how we can work better…” - Lauren Waldman

☝️ This context is really important as you read or listen to the rest of the conversation!

Because it’s not about the gimmicky ways to incorporate learning science into your L&D, but how a better understanding of our brain, emotions and people can improve what we do and who we are.

1. Build a foundational understanding of the brain basics

“If we understand foundational knowledge about the brain and we're talking very basics like what is a memory? How does one encode such memories? Are there different memories?

“For all of my designers out there, if you're responsible for designing learning, knowing these things is just going to take your ability to design to crazy levels.

“Because all of a sudden we're now understanding: how does attention work? And how does focus work? And when I'm designing, do I have to take these things into consideration?” - Lauren Waldman.

2. How L&D perceives itself matters, and maybe we need a mindset shift

Lauren went to one of the largest L&D groups on LinkedIn and asked: how is the learning and development function perceived in your organisation?

Over 1,000 people responded, and the majority said they were a valuable necessity…

But close behind that? ‘Highly misunderstood’ and ‘An obligation versus a desire’.

“Yeah, we're a valuable necessity, but then when you go in and start to read the comments, that's when it kind of got a bit more like, Oh, this is how we see ourselves?

“But it's nothing we haven't had conversations with each other about. You know, we're not valued enough and we're under-resourced, we're deprioritised, and we're fighting to show our existence.” - Lauren Waldman.

But if that's what we're saying about ourselves, what is the rest of the organisation saying about us? And that’s perhaps why we need to reframe our position in our own minds first.

3. When it comes to behaviour, we need to stop putting the cart before the horse…

In the sense of trying to drive behaviour change without knowing if people have the tools and skills to achieve behaviour change? 

Lauren made a great point that nobody’s ever really taught us these things like:

How does my brain work? How do we cultivate behaviour? What is behaviour?

“We want to adapt this new culture in our organisation, or we would like to see a behavioural change across a whole organisation. Without even thinking, do people even understand or have the skills to do that now?” - Lauren Waldman.

And as much as we’d love our brains to work with us all the time, they can work against us too.

“So if we taught those things first, those underlying skills that would then make us successful in cultivating a new behaviour, because now we're consciously aware of what could work against us, that seems like a good place to start. 

“And it's the same with learning. It's not that we don't know how to learn, we all know how to learn, but we could definitely be learning better.” - Lauren Waldman.

It comes back to taking the time to learn more about how our brains work and applying it to both our personal and professional lives.

4. How does our brain work against us?

“The brain is always going to go back to the thing that it's most familiar with. And it's a big challenge for us because it's always going to revert back to what we're comfortable with. 

“It becomes a bigger challenge for us in the learning field: how do we design the learning and how do we facilitate the learning to distinguish those things? Knowing that that person's brain is going to keep going: no, come back over here.” - Lauren Waldman.

5. Designing learning for context and managing expectations

Who remembers learning to ride a bike? We’d loved to have jumped on and started pedaling gracefully on day one, but it just wasn’t that simple.

There’s a battle between how quickly people actually learn and how quickly we want them to learn.

And a lot of that’s influenced by experience and context, so we have to design experiences that allow people to use information in a contextual and relevant way.

“Does that take a little bit more time up front? Yes, it does. 

“However, how much more time is going to be wasted when someone doesn't learn something, doesn't want to tell you that they haven't learned something, and will waste their time Googling to find answers somewhere else because they just didn't learn it.” - Lauren Waldman.

And if the learning isn’t going to be great, can we give people the skills to learn better so that they can discern:

  • What do I know?
  • What don’t I know?
  • What do I think I know?

6. The importance of understanding how our brains and emotions work

“What if I understood that when I’m stressed out, or I'm feeling these moments of anxiety… I know that I'm going to emotionally react four times faster than I will logically act?

“What does that mean for the way that I can perform and show up in my work and as a human being? Well, okay, that means that I'm going to get emotional quicker.”

And then you can ask yourself what you can do about it! Whether that’s a breathing exercise or change of environment, recognising this is incredibly powerful.Learning science feels like a buzzword to some and comes with baggage for others, which often stops us understanding what it really means and applying it to any great effect.