The latest thing… the right thing?

brilliant image of a glass of water from

Just been listening to a fascinating programme on Radio 4 which, although primarily focused on teaching children, has implications for trainers everywhere.  You can pick it up on BBC iplayer for the next few days here.

Like many trainers, I’m fascinated by what enables us to learn, and in particular the science behind it.  The programme said that the general public has a huge curiosity for understanding more about how the brain works and, to digress for a moment, looking quickly at the BBC iplayer science list reveals a programme on what science tells us about our need for religion, on the Guardian website there’s a whole section on neuroscience, and type “how we learn” into Google and you’ll get at least 194,000,000 results! 

The programme warned of the dangers of pseudoscience, ideas seeping into the public consciousness that are not fully tested and pursuing an idea too far.  

One of the best examples used was the six to eight glasses of water a day thing.  We all know (always a dangerous phrase!) that drinking 2 litres of water a day is good for us, don’t we?  Depending on what we read it can give us clear skin, healthy looking hair and nails, keep us bright and alert and better able to concentrate… yes, 2 litres of water a day is indeed miraculous.
And it is also untrue.  We need about 2 litres of fluid a day, yes, but it can come from fruit, veg, in fact any food, and from other drinks (another myth that accompanied this was that “bad for you” drinks like coffee, tea etc. didn’t count as they were diuretics… well yes, but surely you’re not meant to retain the water?  Water retention is also bad!)  The programme pointed out that while being a tiny bit dehydrated makes you less able to concentrate, being overhydrated is, according to research from the University of Bristol, just as bad! 
The reality is that you should drink when you are thirsty – in children this means having water dispensers or water bottles at school that they can help themselves to – for training adults, having some water in a dispenser in the classroom is a pretty good idea. 

Another was the visual/ audiatory/ kinesthetic learning split.  While trainers who have done the CIPD Certificate in Training Practice know that while learners have preferences, to fully learn you need to take a learner right through Kolb’s cycle of experiential learning, it seems some people are seriously taking things to extremes if you have classes tailored via session planning at at individual level to just one learning style to suit that individual’s preference.  The programme maker also stressed that the most memorable learning experiences can be those that are outside the familiar.  Hear hear.

And overextrapolation can be potentially more widely problematic at a societal level.  There’s a learning theory for small children that has been translated to older children, and indeed adults, that exercise increases memory.  That’s how it’s come across in the press in any case.  But actually the theory was related to infants and toddlers. 
We know (see, that phrase again?) that in infants, every learning experience makes synaptic connections and that these are confirmed or overwritten based on life experience.  The theory is that, for boys in particular, cross lateral movement such as crawling strengthens their abilities to make these connections because there’s a connection between physical and neural development and left-brain right-brain interconnection (NB this is not the same as saying that there’s some people that use their left-brain more than their right-brain). 
Now, if this is being used to mean that a bit of running around is necessary for children who have had bad experiences and overwrite them, then that seems to be serious overextrapolation. 
If it’s about making sure that a rounded learning experience means some activities involve some moving around, and that this might reinforce learning overall, then actually that’s just good training practice appealing to those with any Honey and Mumford Activist preference… 

But the Active Movement theory is a theory, and  even if it is wrong, it’s good for small children to crawl, be upside down a little bit, practice the muscle movements that strengthen them and enable their physical development.  And if there’s no real evidence that exercise  increases memory, whether child or adult, at least it’s physically good for you. 

So is following the latest information about things that can help students learn always the right thing to do?
Well, it depends.  As with all things science, we have to remember that neuroscientific theories of learning are just that – scientific theories. 
And the point about a theory is that it is not “true”, it’s the best idea that we can come up with based on the evidence that we have. And if we have new evidence we change the theory that we apply.  Public understanding can lag behind the movement in theories in academia. So what we think is the latest thing might not always be the right thing.

What do you think?  Have you referred to or made use of any of these types of theories in planning your training?  Let’s talk!