Barry Johnson and Mandy Geal explain how to craft learning practices that work with, not against, the brain’s biology

The brain is so resource-intensive that it will always choose the most energy-efficient path. That means we L&D professionals need to focus our learners’ attention on what is most important and relevant for them to learn.

Learning involves working memory, the conscious processing of inputs and decision-making, problem-solving, memorising, planning, self-reflection, regulating emotions, focusing energy and exercising self-control and willpower. It’s hard, energy-intensive, work. It is the reason learners need shielding from distractions, and require reflection time, sleep and energy to learn effectively. Learning is what the learner does.

Attention is the mechanism by which learners focus limited resources on a particular stimulus, physical activity or mental task. It enables the forging of new neuronal connections, progressively strengthening these and gradually pruning unused ones. The brain works on the principle that motivation focuses attention, which in turn stimulates further motivation. Helping the learner find the motivation to learn is critical to embedding learning.

New synaptic connections are embedded through practice and repetition. Forming a new network or pathway of multiple connections is not enough, as new connections are fragile. Neural networks need to be repeatedly activated until they are well-established to remain usable. ‘Use it or lose it’ is, therefore, a critical learning principle. The more learners act on something, the stronger the neurological connections. If the learner experiences the same information via different sensing channels, active responses and analysis, they will establish a stronger neural network.

Reusing a neural network created as a result of learning a skill not only improves that skill but also gradually changes the location of that network in the brain so that it needs less attention and effort to accomplish outputs. Telling a learner how to do something is relatively ineffective; showing a learner is more effective; getting a learner to do something, then feedback to you about what they did, is far more effective. Active repetition, practice and reflection are the basis of learning and help to embed learning. Help your learners to practice and reflect when back at work.

Motivation, willpower and focus on change together sustain focused attention. Without focusing attention and practising, learning will not be sustainable, and will therefore not create long-term robust learning that improves performance.

Finally, the environment has to be conducive to focusing attention. That means managers must create opportunities for new learners to practice in calm, safe conditions.

In situations of overload and uncertainty, the brain’s resources are driven by a need for survival. This need focuses attention on the sources of distraction and on trying to predict the next threat, on escape or battle rather than on innovative or creative solutions, on avoiding risk rather than managing risk, on protecting oneself rather than taking action to produce outputs and improve performance. People are the most important part of the working environment. People make profits – but only if they have the motivation and skills to do so.

Barry Johnson is a non-executive director, and Mandy Geal is a director, at Learning Partners