Learning professionals: have you thought of yourself as a "learning scientist" lately?
Twenty years ago, it would have been hard to imagine that understanding the brain and how it functions would play such an important role for L&D professionals! Advances in neuroscience and technology such as fMRI continue to inform many dimensions of life - including learning. Today, learning professionals must become learning scientists - responsible for discovering the ways that evolving research can be practically applied to change behavior. But first, a quick science lesson: One potentially powerful opportunity to use science toward better learning involves the Reticular Activating System (RAS). According to educator Gary Allen Miller, RAS is "a critical component of the brain, which filters all incoming stimuli and prepares individuals for learning new information." This gatekeeper housed within a bundle of nerves at the base of the brain filters out extraneous information. But, more importantly, for learning professionals, the RAS uses what we focus upon to generate a filter, then sifts and sorts the information we encounter through that filter, allowing what's important to get through.
So, there's a part of the brain that organizes and prepares our minds for learning new information. How do we tap into this as learning professionals?
Preparing learners to learn: more than an afterthought
While many organizations do a masterful job of conducting and even following up on training, preparing people to learn is generally treated as a lesser priority or even an afterthought. As a result, using what's known about RAS might provide a relatively easy way to bring more value from the training that's currently being offered.
Using the RAS to prepare learners
What if we could wire learners to be more interested and attentive? What if we could ensure a highly receptive frame of mind? What if people arrived for learning with a clear context for the content or skills to be taught? All of this is possible by strategically tapping the RAS.
Learning professionals who want to use what we now know about brain wiring to their advantage (as well as the advantage of the individual and the organization) need to focus their attention on two key pre-learning activities: configuring the filter and filling it.
Tip #1: Configure the filter
Too frequently, learners approach training opportunities like blank slates-with no expectations, little or no preparation, and limited reflection and pre-thinking about the possible value of the experience. Whether the training time is face-to-face, virtual or electronic), the results are less than they could be. Tap the RAS by helping learners form a filter in advance of the training. This can be done via such simple tools as agendas and outlines. But, in many organizations, these methods get lost in the crush of email and other print materials. So, you might need to get creative, offering short previews or even generating training trailers (such as movie trailers).
Managers play a key role as well. When managers meet with employees before a learning opportunity, providing an overview of the training, possible outcomes and why it's important, this literally strikes a nerve (within the RAS). The key is to help people understand what they are going to learn and implant it in their brains firmly enough to establish a filter around the topic.
Tip #2: Fill the filter
Once the filter has been established, the learner's mind will naturally allow related information to sift in. But, don't leave the process entirely to chance. Offer relevant pre-work that will strategically fill the filter and create a powerful context for learning. Invite people to engage in observation-based assignments (perhaps identifying effective and/or ineffective examples of the competency being taught) or surface/generate case studies related to the topic. Find ways to enhance what the mind wants to do naturally by complementing the subconscious with deliberate, conscious effort.
This is also a particularly fertile time for you to share short videos and articles that can front-load the learning while sending more vital information through the filter. And management modeling of the skills to be learned sends a powerful non-verbal message and puts the content at the center of a learner's mental "radar screen."
L&D professionals who take advantage of the power of the Reticular Activating System will find that their learners arrive with their minds already marinating in the material. This sets them ahead, allows for deeper and sometimes more efficient learning and elevates the overall results. Take care of the RAS and it will take care of you!