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The Science of Learning: Best Approaches for Your Brain

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Do you wonder why people don’t understand the idea you’re trying to get across in a meeting? Are you mentoring another developer and struggling to understand why the still don’t get it? Do you run training courses and wonder why the attendees only learn 10% of the material? We are all teachers whether as informal mentors, coaches, trainers or parents. Yet only professional educators receive training in this area. Nearly two years ago I started reading neuroscience (Norman Doidge’s “The Brain that Changes Itself”), for fun. Along the way I acquired an interest in neuroscience and wondered how its lessons could be applied to Agile Software Development and beyond.

Only twenty years ago most people in the world of neuroscience believed that the connections between the neurons in your brain were fixed by the time you were a teenager (or even younger)[1]. Now we understand that our wiring continues to change (even new neurons can grow) as we grow older. It’s just the rate of change that slows down. This is called neuroplasticity. The discoveries around it are what make this article possible. All of our knowledge, memories and all of our ideas are stored in neural networks – in other words everything inside our brain is encoded as connections between neurons. Neuroplasticity just says that we’re able to make changes to those connections on an ongoing basis. It says that those connections can be grown, strengthened, weakened and even disappear with time.

The hippocampus is the gatekeeper for long term memory, in this case declarative memory (i.e. stories and experiences). Its job is to store and index these memories. It is our job to make it as easy as possible for the hippocampus to do its work.[2]

Abstract Ideas

We sometimes start talking about Unit Testing with a long theoretical explanation and we get blank stares from the people we’re trying to help. The trainer starts off the class with an abstract definition of Agile, and the group is struggling to understand simple concepts. Teaching a class of grade one kids, the teacher explains addition without grounding it in the real world. In these cases we’ve confused the audience. What has happened? Have the students/kids missed some key point? Are the teachers/trainers not being clear in their explanations? Probably not. The problem is that the audience has nothing to relate the abstract idea to. Instead the trainer should help you by providing concrete examples that relate to what you already know. Ask open-ended questions around the topic that will help discover their existing knowledge and then provide concrete examples that map to that knowledge[3]. Questions like: “What does this make you think of?” or “Is there some part of this that rings a bell for you?” or “What is the first thing you thought of when we began this topic?” will help uncover their existing knowledge.

In the case of kids it would be more effective to teach math by using blocks or any other physical object that makes the idea concrete. When explaining Unit Testing we might want to show a small test case and then watch it run. Better yet, give people a series of concrete examples and then let them tease out the theories on their own. In Agile/Scrum training many trainers use exercises (a concrete experience) and then ask the attendees to interpret what happened.

What is going on in your brain?[4] When we learn new things we’re simply growing new neural networks. Since these don’t just grow out of thin air we need to attach them to existing ideas. It’s easier to easier to relate abstract ideas to concrete experiences. In terms of neurons it’s easier to grow an existing neural network than it is to grow a new one. Abstract explanations are the domain of the expert. They can be used to convey complex ideas quickly to people who are experts in the field.

In addition to making the idea concrete, we should stick to the simplest expression of the idea that we can find. Once we’ve provided concrete examples it helps to keep the abstract ideas simple and give our audience a chance to remember them. We can always provide more detail in a follow-up paper via references.


The limbic system handles our emotional system and our relationships with people, objects, thoughts, etc.

It is used to drive our behaviour however it can sometimes get in our way. In response to events, people or new situations it can generate ‘towards’ and ‘away’ responses. For example:

  • Boss sent you on a course and you don’t want to be there
  • Intimidated by learning Unit Testing or new language
  • Bullied by the teacher: I don’t want stupid questions
  • Afraid of being shown to be stupid.
  • A roomful of people you don’t know

All of these can generate an ‘away’ response. Once that’s happened our brain is going to want to flee and not learn. ‘Away’ responses worked well when many new situations were fatal and sudden surprises might eat you. That’s less of problem in today’s world, but the response mechanism remains.

On the other hand, a ‘toward’ response is positive; the stronger your feeling about something, the easier it is to recall[5]. So instead of an ‘away’ response how do we generate a ‘toward’ response? By making learning their idea and in the process helping them to discover the interest in learning about Unit Testing for example. Once they’ve started to learn, engage them in the Cognitive task. Put the learner in control:

  • When you have a room full people who don’t know each other take a few minutes for introductions. Survey the room to understand their interests.
  • Get people to talk about themselves.

All of these break down barriers between people and reduce the likelihood of an ‘away’ response.

Correcting Mistakes

How many people have the experience of making the same spelling mistake over and over? Environment is mine – I’ve been struggling to spell this word correctly for a long time. The more I focus on wanting to spell it correctly the more likely I am to make the mistake. Why does this happen? Like any piece of knowledge in our brain the spelling mistake is encoded in a neural network and the more we use the connections in that network the stronger they become. So the more I repeat the mistake the more likely it is to happen again. If there is someone staring over my shoulder focusing on my mistake and telling me: “Mark don’t make that spelling mistake again”, the more the network is reinforced and the more I am likely to make the mistake.[6] 

Avoid the error – focus on the correct outcome. Pairing with another developer? Don’t focus on the problem, focus on what something better would look like and how it will work. When I’m teaching Karate and I see that someone has made the same mistake a few times I don’t them tell what’s wrong, I show them what’s right. I guide their hand or foot through the correct motion, doing it several times over. My goal is to try and create a new stronger network with the right behaviour.

You can do the same with spelling mistakes. With words that I’ve found troublesome in the past instead of relying on the autocorrect features of MS Word, I find the correct spelling and retype it manually. Now even Environment has become a word that I can spell.


How many people know the Baby Einstein DVD’s? How about the Leap Frog’s DVD series like the Letter Factory? These all promise that they will improve our kids' knowledge in a certain area – even create “Einsteins”. Yet they don’t seem to live up to their promise. If you’re lucky your child remembers the contents but understands none of it. They gained information but not real knowledge.

How many people have attended 1-2 day seminars that promise to teach you how to conquer the world? Yet when we leave we remember only a tiny fraction and find that we struggle to act on the information. Why does this happen? Why isn’t it sufficient for someone to stand at the front of the room lecturing all day to impart real knowledge?

You and your child received information in this way but you didn’t make it your own. You can’t and don’t act on it because it isn’t really your own knowledge yet.

The problem is that we have Short Term and Long Term memory. Short term memory is good for seconds, minutes and, if you work hard, a few hours at best. We use it for solving problems: planning our day, planning the route from our house to the coffee shop, and much of the work that we do every day. Short term memory is great for problem solving but it’s not where we put things that we are learning.

Long term memory on the other hand is where we store things we really learn.

Unfortunately for Leap Frog, Baby Einstein and the people giving 1-2 day courses, it’s much harder to get something into the long term memory and have it stick. These people are just shoveling information into short term memory, and it’s never transferred to long term memory. Most of what you have learned today will be forgotten by the time we leave. So what works better?

Note-taking helps but it’s still just recording the facts on a piece of paper. We’re just acting as recipients of knowledge. To truly learn we have to do something more. The key ideas: restate the learning in your own words and use as many parts of the brain as possible. When I run this as a seminar I invite the audience to discuss the ideas during breaks with the goal of creating and performing a play. The discussion, restating the ideas in your own words, and performing a play involve the motor, visual and auditory cortexes. Even when people don’t perform the play, just visualizing it will involve the motor to cortex to a degree.[7]

In a classroom setting, exercises and games (especially ones involving movement) are good, as is anything else that engages more of the student’s brain regions. When giving assignments, consider asking for detailed thinking and high level thinking; pictures; sounds and even smells. Our goal is to create the largest neural network possible.


Images are a bit like Google for your brain: they’re easily remembered, provide fast lookup service and can provoke strong emotional reactions. Pictures work because they're rich in content, convey relationships, sizes, shapes etc. They also work because millions of years of evolution have equipped us with fast, efficient, visual processing. By comparison, words take a lot more energy to store. This works because the effort is being offloaded to the occipital lobe in the back of the brain. Pictures, storytelling and metaphors can all be used to activate the occipital lobe[8].

Many good presenters use the Presentation Zen[9] approach to delivering ideas: Many images and few words. PowerPoint slides full of words encourage distraction and multi-tasking. Since our brains don’t multi-task well we have a choice either read the words on the screen or listen to the speaker. Inevitably we do the former. Images on the other hand stimulate the visual cortex and provide an addition hook to help remember the information at a later date.

While not as strong as images, sound plays a similar role. At Agile 2007 I attended Jean Tabaka's presentation "Why I don't like Monday's". Jean used the Boomtown Rats song as a background/introduction to her presentation. Three years later, its one of two presentations from whose content I can recall.

How can we use this? Where possible it helps to use pictures and drawings to convey some of our ideas. When we can’t use pictures it helps to explain ideas in terms of real people and their interactions as opposed to using complex abstract ideas[10].


Rather than summarize what I think you should have learned from this material, instead I invite you to summarize the material yourself. In addition to using words consider drawing pictures, mindmaps and anything else that might involve new parts of your brain.

[1] Norman Doidge, “The Brain that Changes Itself”

[2] David Rock, “Your Brain at Work” p78 (approximation from Kindle)

[3] David Ausubel, "the most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows" (ref Zull)

[4] James Zull – “The Art of Changing the Brain” p94-100 provides a more detailed explanation

[5] David Rock, “Your Brain at Work” p78

[6] James Zull, “The Art of Changing the Brain” p 122

[7] David Rock, “The Brain at Work”: You can play various “tricks on yourself to generate the release of this chemical. Visualizing an activity generates a similar metabolic response to actually doing it. One study found that picturing yourself doing a finger exercise increased muscle mass by 22 percent, which was close to the 30 percent achieved by doing the exercise for real. (For those thinking this sounds too good to be true, remember that you still have to put in the effort, a lot of effort, to keep mentally focused on doing the exercise.)

[8] David Rock, p17

[9] Garr Reynolds, “Presentation Zen”

[10] David Rock, “Your Brain at Work” p18: “ Studies have shown that when you give people a logic problem to solve, they do so dramatically faster when the problem is explained in terms of people interacting rather than in terms of disembodied conceptual ideas.”

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Community comments

  • Programming: journey through our brains

    by Pronab Pal,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Thanks for the beautiful article. I also read and was moved by the book “The Brain that Changes Itself” by Norman Dodge. I do believe what you have highlighted has got much deeper implication in the software technology and its future. I believe it is time now that we programmers realise and acknowledge that what we create through programming does have some very real and tangible effect in the real world -how people interact and behave around the systems that we software developers create.
    In a way what starts with requirement engineering is a creation of some neural network connections depending on the requirement anayst's own background - what he assumes and what he visualises - then it is passed on to analysts and developers each adding their own cognitive twists and structures and finaly when it gets down to programmers they create the final network of interactions that gets mapped onto the electronic connections and mappings and virtual networks.
    I believe future of software lies in facilitating this big neural transfer chain through methophors and images and most importantly manging contexts for real people in real world-so that their short term memory can work more in unision or in sync with their longer term memory and motivations .There is a need of extending the computer science to this bigger playing field rather than limiting itself to the notion of artificial intelligence - it is time to realise nothing we can create is artificial in the wider context ,they are real and has its implications in the real world - in that sense the model of the new computer scientist is not the turing machine any more -it is the plasticity mechanism in our barin.

  • Re: Programming: journey through our brains

    by Mark Levison,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Thanks Pronab - my wife can tell you three drafts ago it wasn't quite so good. I owe alot to her for reading the article and pushing me to improve.

    Your questions are very thought provoking, I've not considered this angle yet. At this stage my focus has been improving the quality of most trainings (for instance I no longer use powerpoint) and improve the way people interact in meetings. I'd not considered the wider implications.

    Its interesting, at its core our problem is how to improve the quality of communications in any circumstance. Thanks for giving me more food for thought.

    Mark Levison
    Agile Pain Relief Consulting

  • Wonderful articles

    by Jun Ran,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Thank you, Mark, I think you have provided us a very good article, I have summarized the material by myself as you suggested, very helpful.

  • Another book to read

    by Jason Donnell,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Thanks for this write-up. There's a lot of information out there and not a lot of focus on how to effectively teach and communicate it.

    You may have already read it, but I would also recommend Brain Rules by John Medina as another great book on attention, learning, and memory (from a neuroscience perspective).

  • Re: Another book to read

    by Mark Levison,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Jason - Thanks for the comment, I know and have read John Medina's book. He has some interesting things to say about the importance of vision and movement. Unfortunately I found the book on the light side and have been trying to find more corroborative evidence. I think his ideas are right but I'm not comfortable citing them yet.

    Roger Brown and I working on a book together, the chapter that results from this article will include references to Medina (and others).

    Mark Levison
    Agile Pain Relief Consulting

  • Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Loved this article. I've always struggled with what's my most effective learning method. This article helps me think through this in more depth and help me figure out where I need to tweak things. This article is very informative and provides a lot of food for thought. Thank you of posting.

  • Re: Wow!

    by Olivier Gourment,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Indeed, Mark, this is one great, dense, article. I'm glad it took you "some" time to write down! It is probably much better than all previous, non-refactored, versions.

    One of the techniques I've been using to teach TDD is to wait for bugs to come up, tests to be written, and ask questions that lead developers to make the connection for themselves.. YES this may take some time, but I guarantee that once they HAVE made the connection, it DOES STICK.

    Another good tip I could provide to Scrum Masters is to make team learning their priority, and ask, every morning: "what did you learn yesterday?". This works wonders.

    Mark, your article will make me write the book I have intended to write for some time now, "The Mythical Knowledge Transfer(©right;)"!!! :-)

    I would recommend other books, on the basis that the main goal is to create a desire to know more: one from an autist and one from an Agile Manifesto signatory.. but more on this later in a presentation at the Montreal Scrum User Group and on my blog ( Stay tuned!

    Powerpoint is dead, long live Powerpoint.

  • Re: Wow!

    by Mark Levison,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Olivier - thanks for the comment. I liked your TDD and learning tips, I will make use of them soon.

    I'm also looking forward to hearing more about your book. Speaking about the Montreal Scrum User Group would you be interested in me presenting on either this topic or Continuous Creativity sometime this fall?

    Mark Levison
    Agile Pain Relief Consulting

  • Very interesting article

    by Bastian Ville,

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    Mark the ideas that you explained here sounds to be very useful on a lot of aspects and fields. I think one of our most important abilities is to be able to evolve. The evolution of our brains was determined with the ability of creating and destroying neural connections, that was the adaptation that marked our evolution. We will not be better than others, we should be better than ourselves yesterday... that means we should evolve every day... With this article, I believe i can follow evolving of a better way every day. Thanks.

  • Illustrate, don't Dictate

    by Charles Hammell,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    This same brain characteristic is why good song lyrics work:

    "She was driving last Friday on her way to Cincinnati
    On a snow white Christmas Eve
    Going home to see her Mama and her Daddy
    With the baby in the backseat

    Fifty miles to go and she was running low
    On faith and gasoline
    It'd been a long hard year

    She had a lot on her mind and she didn't pay attention
    She was going way too fast
    Before she knew it she was spinning
    On a thin black sheet of glass

    She saw both their lives flash before her eyes
    She didn't even have time to cry
    She was so scared
    She threw her hands up in the air"
    (Songwriters: James, Brett; Lindsey, Hillary; Sampson, Gordie)

    Instead of: "she had a lot on her mind, had a messed up life, and lost control of her car."

    Charles Hammell

  • self teaching and life

    by Larry Johnson,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    For me as a programmer I have to learn on the fly by reading code, books, videos, seminars. I wonder about how I can learn and remember better. Factors such as diet, sleep, time of day or night, duration of study are variables that must play apart. But I don't know the answers other than follow my own feelings... More interesting, is my need to switch focus. I may program at work all day then come home and feel refreshed to read a computer magazine on topics I like, or work on my own computer. In general its the same tasks as I perform at work yet it feels different. Or if remaining at work, changing focus from one task to another task, even when very similar can give me a re-energized feeling. Such that I think ability to change focus provides better output then sticking with one problem through to solution before switching to the next. This is my own self observation, perhaps self trait but maybe there is some material and studies on breaking learning into certain size durations... maybe even... like high school classes a possible benefit to arranging PE first, english second, math third, science forth.... just dreaming here. Anyway thanks for the article.

  • Re: self teaching and life

    by Pronab Pal,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Larry, Very good point about changing focus. In retrospective I see all my good programming insights came to me when I was not focussed -as sitting over a pile of books on the desk to understand a concept or trying to debug my little code. Instead they came when I set my self go with the flow of my mind ..may be just while relaxing with my favourite cup of tea or simply driving down the free way. The power we have [i.e.mental will that we possess ] of changing focus of our mind- that itself has a diffrent quality than the power of our mind to simply focus.
    I grew up in India and there is a famous visionary from our part of the world by the name "Swami Viveknanda". I still remember one of the quotes from this man in a little book said "you should practise changing focus of your mind in the same way that you practise focussing your mind " . Nowadys I realise what this "saint" was pointing to.

  • Engage

    by prathap gym,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    When learning it is very important to engage the student

    Java Training in Chennai

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