Why neuroscience is more than a buzz word in L&D

Most organisations have failed to unlock learning in an impactful way. How can educational neuroscience fix that?

About the author

Ilja Rijnen

Ilja Rijnen, HR Director, Emerging Asia, Beam Suntory

A hot topic in the field of Learning and Development is how to keep workforce relevant amidst the fast developing and high growth economies in Asia. Competition and rapid innovation demand a constant update of our workforce in order to ensure companies stay ahead of the competition in areas such as e-Commerce, commercial insights, and logistics. This is all taking place against the backdrop of a work environment that has never been as fluid and complex as it is today.

Whilst most international companies are now focusing on creating a learning culture and elements of 70-20-10, the majority fails to really unlock learning in an impactful way which will support the company to succeed in their mission.

This results in high staff turn-over numbers in across main sectors in Asia, either because companies are unable to inspire and bind people to grow and perform at their best, or people rapidly become irrelevant for the organisation due to lack of adaptability to the needs of their ever-changing external environments. The results are a suboptimal performing workforce, high redundancy, and talent acquisition costs, or low employee engagement numbers, all distracting a company’s ability to deliver its vision and strategy.

A potential breakthrough comes from the field of educational neuroscience. This is the fast-emerging scientific field that studies how human brains process information; conscious and unconscious. Is it the  “buzz” expression in L&D or could it really help us to keep our workforce up to date and thrive on the speed external changes in Asia?

Starting with neuroscience, it is the study of our brain and our nervous system. Our brain is responsible for the learning process. In our brain are neurons, nerve cells that are connected to each other and send each other messages. One neuron can connect to a thousand others, and in total there are about 100 billion neurons in our brain. Neurons form the base of our learning as their functionality is connected to our attention, focus, remembering things, emotions, and sensing things. These connection processes take place throughout every phase of our lives. Neuroscience can therefore help us understand how we learn in theory.

In recent years attention has been given to bridging the gaps between neuroscientific research and how to apply it in practice - in learning sessions - to increase the impact of our learning. What has become clear though is that often neuroscientists and L&D professionals hold conflicting views on how to use science in the learning space, and how more collaboration needs to take place to increase the insights of both fields.

What neuroscience has taught us is that many “theories” that have been applied for years in classroom settings to drive improved development can’t be validated by science – among these learning myths are widely accepted theories such as left/right brain focused people, the need to focus on preferred learning styles of the individual and critical phases in brain development. For the left and right brain side focus and critical phases, there is simply no scientific proof when it comes to learning. And for learning styles, it seems to have helped the educator understand the behaviour of employees, rather than that it helping with a learning uptake.

What neuroscience can drive when developing our people, is to come up with evidence-based learning solutions – where neuroscientists and educators can help each other to uncover education practices that help to develop people in a tailored way so we maximise everyone’s learning ability.

Research has shown us that there is no “one size fits all” in bridging the gap between learning science and practice. Tailoring and contextual understanding will be the critical element that neuroscience needs to take into account, as it is required to understand the challenges when wanting to create an environment of high learning.

In Asia where the development of external markets takes place so fast, more on-the-ground research should be conducted before coming with learning solutions based on science. Ongoing conversations between researchers and L&D professionals and establishing a common language is essential for success.

Whilst educational neuroscience is still in its infancy, it has already proven its value if applied well. There is much scientific research happening at a global level and the expectation is that this will cause a revolution in how businesses create effective learning environments.

We might be still some years away from a full neuroscience driven evidence-based learning environment in organisations, but there are some practical things we can start doing today as HR and L&D professionals in our own organisations to stimulate the processes of learning in a way that it adds to the relevance of our workforce.

The key insights from neuroscience is that we need to understand our workforce and how this links to learning barriers. Science has taught us that adults learn in the same way as children by creating new neural connections. However in the case of adults, new neuron connections will be built on top of previous ones. This implies that knowledge acquisition is dependent on what has already been acquired. The older the person, the more previous experiences become relevant. 

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