What are the Risks to Instructional Design, if Organisations Fail to Consider and Utilise the Current Understanding of Neuroscience or is it all Just a Fad?

A blog by Stella Collins

Question 2 (following on from my post on 31st July)

What are the risks to instructional design, if organisations fail to consider and utilise the current understanding of neuroscience or is it all just a fad?

Designers of learning don’t need to know all the neuroscience; we have different priorities. But the principle of evaluating and measuring evidence is valuable; all good learning design should be evidence based. As designers/ deliverers we need to question and check whether models, facts, information have a valid basis.

One difficulty with ‘science’ is it can seem to provide nice, clean numbers to make messy human behaviours and skills seem easier to grasp. The classic is Albert Mehrabian, a psychologist, who did a perfectly reasonable experiment about communication, with verifiable results, but it was in a very limited scientific context. Unfortunately those numbers got picked up, mis-quoted and distorted to apply to all communication and became a ‘fact’ that you can still hear quoted. Check out the ‘Mehrabian Myth’ – just don’t quote the figures incorrectly.

Having said we don’t need to be neuroscientists I believe designers will miss something if they fail to educate themselves about what we’re learning about the brain. For instance there’s a huge amount of research out there now as to how learning is consolidated in our brains whilst we sleep. If we fail to take that into account in our design process then we’re missing the opportunity to transform short term into long term memories. You could argue that our Mum’s told us to get a good night’s sleep before an exam but organisations don’t usually listen to Mums. So the neuroscience gives us a way to prove to other areas in the business that we’re credible, have evidence to back up what we do and can deliver better results when we work with evidence based learning.

I don’t believe neuroscience is a ‘fad’ especially if you use the broader definition to include other evidence based learning research. Some of us have been working with it at different levels for many years and now it’s being recognised as a useful tool to affect how we design and deliver agile learning in rapidly changing organisations.

One of the great things I’ve found about neuroscience is how it engages people because it’s about them. Learners seem to find it helpful when you explain to them a bit about their brains, why they behave like they do, that they can change and there are some evidence based ways to do that. Perhaps one of the things it does is to give our learners more confidence in what’s possible to change, and in us as professionals supporting that change.

The risks if we don’t embrace this phenomenal area of knowledge are that instructional design falls behind and becomes out of date and unwanted. It’s plausibly possible with the speed at which AI is advancing that there will be no need of design in the future anyway – but that’s probably another story.

In the meantime we should continue to educate ourselves about what learning is really like for people and what happens in their brains and design our programmes with that in mind.

Learn more about the application of neuroscience in learning at these upcoming workshops:

How to be a Brain Friendly Trainer
Neuroscience for Learning & Development