HR: beware the pitfalls of brain science in L&D

What organisations and schools crave is behavioural and social change: things far better understood, measured, and impacted outside of neuroscience

HR professionals should beware anyone peddling ‘brain-based’ interventions for learning and development, according to an expert in the field, who said perhaps the largest misconception in this field is the role of ‘neuroscience’ in learning, memory, and performance.

“Everywhere you turn, people are shouting from the rooftops about the importance of brain-training and plasticity in the educational and corporate spheres.

“Unfortunately – the majority of these ideas are incorrect and, ultimately, meaningless,” said Jared Cooney Horvath, who is currently completing his PhD in cognitive psychology/neuroscience while conducting research at the Science of Learning Research Center out of the University of Melbourne.

“The reason for this is that knowledge of the brain, although important in its own right, is simply too far removed from the everyday workings of business and education to be of practical value.”

Speaking ahead of the Mind & Its Potential 2015 conference, which will be held from 27–28 October 2015 in Sydney, Horvath said business and education are behavioural activities that occur within a social environment (such as any program or learning activity aimed at improving performance) must take these higher-order concepts into account.

“Although psychology and organisational research can be great in this regard, neuroscience simply does not (and cannot) take these larger concepts and emergent properties into account,” he said.

“In the end, everything you do (including reading this sentence) will change your brain.

“But ‘brain change’ is not the outcome most people desire. What organisations and schools crave is behavioural and social change: things far better understood, measured, and impacted outside of neuroscience.”

Brain science and learnings for HR
Aside from the fact that knowledge of the brain is extremely limited and confined largely to correlation-al (rather than causative) relationships, Horvath also said discussion of the brain in a behavioural and/or social context is largely meaningless.

“When considering development or learning programs, ensure the ‘input’ and ‘output’ are clearly established, researched and meet with your personal goals and desires,” he said.

“By ‘input’, I mean the program itself: are the activities you are being asked to undertake grounded in solid research and have they been developed for your specific milieu?”

For instance, he said a prominent commercial program might be based on multitasking and switching quickly between different clerical tasks, which may confer very little (if any benefit) to learning, and may be only tangentially related to someone working in sales or teaching.

“By ‘output’, I mean the outcomes: have the reported gains from a program been firmly established and are they meaningful to your specific goals?” he said.

“For instance, a different well-known commercial program promises increased brain plasticity – which may sound important to many.

“But, is increased “plasticity” truly your goal – or are your aims more behavioural, social, or applied? If any of the later (for example, improved memory performance or reduced anxiety), then generic ‘plasticity’ does not address the aims you hope to achieve.”

Finally, while there is some very solid evidence available and some very respectable people in the field of brain science, he said that “sometimes these can get lost in the rush to make and sell products.

“Unfortunately, there’s no sure fire way to separate the wheat from the chaff: though a little bit of homework can go a long way when adopting a new learning tool or program,” said Horvath, who formerly worked as a brain researcher at Harvard Medical School and is also co-founder of The Education Neuroscience Initiative: a company dedicated to bringing the latest research findings to students and educators.

Brain science and key L&D drivers
There are a number of key drivers behind organisations’ interest in exploring and adopting brain and behavioural research into memory and learning processes, according to Horvath, who said a primary driver is “wholly commendable”: to improve employee learning and performance.

“At the end of the day, all application of learning tools is a form of ‘education’ – and, education is the primary driver behind shaping and improving lives,” said Horvath.

“To that end, it’s commendable to be open and willing to consider ideas from all avenues claiming to be able to beneficially influence the educational process.”

A secondary driver is somewhat innocuous, according to Horvath, who said that in considering learning/performance, individuals will often defer to ‘experts’ – “those they feel lay the largest claim to understanding the learning/performance process.

“In this instance, as there are a number of brain/behavioural researchers exploring learning and performance, deference to ‘science’ seems an understandable course of action,” he said.

A third driver is “quite inimical” and Horvath said many researchers are actively pushing products into the workplace.

“These products, though often founded on solid premises, are almost never comprehensive, often ineffective and almost always expensive,” he said.

“In this instance, researchers who have spent little-to-no time in an organisation or classroom setting will purport to understand how individuals think, learn, and perform in said environments.

“But, the research they cite and products they develop are often only tangentially related to the goals these users hope to achieve. Unfortunately, what happens in a lab rarely translates smoothly to real life.”

Practical L&D applications of brain science
There are a number of learning and performance principles that have been well studied and elucidated in the lab, Horvath said.

“Though specific application of these ideas are impossible for researchers to pin down (as they will vary according to environment and situation) the foundational concepts are sturdy and quite broad in applicability,” he said.

“Perhaps the strongest learning principle is spacing. In short, several short practice sessions spread across a period of time will always trump one long practice session squeezed into a single ‘cram’ session.

“Although cramming will help people learn information for a short duration, information is quickly forgotten. Spacing ensures information is retained for a longer time and in a ‘deeper’ manner.”

Another emerging principle concerns written text and spoken word, and Horvath said that often during presentations and PDs, people will utilise PowerPoint slides filled with words to support their speech.

“Unfortunately, we’ve recently established that reading and listening to someone speak require the same brain resources – meaning the two can’t be done simultaneously. This has implications for presentations and PR.”

Another principle concerns the role of attention during performance.

“In a nutshell, it turns out multitasking is not really a thing – rather, when undertaking several tasks at once, people must effortlessly shift between each,” he said.

“This ultimately impacts the time taken to complete said tasks and final performance on each task.”

The Mind & Its Potential 2015 conference will be held from 27–28 October 2015 at The Concourse, Chatswood, Sydney. Inside HR readers are also eligible for a 20 per cent reader discount (use HR as registration code). For more information or to register visit the conference website: www.mindanditspotential.com.au. Image source: iStock