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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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