Telling Isn't Teaching: Getting Started with Brain-Based Learning Design


I used to watch my mom trot after my elementary-aged brother as he headed out the door to go some place, maybe an overnight at a friend's house, an extracurricular school event, or an outing with a neighborhood family. As she trotted after him she was a fountain of motherly expertise delivered in what I would now describe as a stream of consciousness at high speed since she needed to get it all in before he was out of earshot.

Spray and pray teaching and training just doesn’t work.

As my brother headed for the door and down the walk my mom, trotting smartly behind him, would deliver "training" for everything he might need to know for this real-world experience. It might sound something like this...

"Take your jacket it might get cold. Don't forget to thank them. Do you have pocket money in case there is an entrance fee? Don't eat too many sweets or too close to dinner, you don't want to spoil your appetite. Now stick with them and don't wander off. Oh yes, if they buy you something say thank you. Let them know you need to be home by 8:00 because it is a school night. But if you can't be home by then call me so I don't worry. Maybe a hat would be good because it will be sunny for a few more hours and you might get sunburnt..."

What in the world does this story have to do with teaching and training? Well, I think many of us may have experienced this spray and pray form of education and some of us may even, on a rare occasion, have perpetrated it!

As an instructional designer for hire over the last 9 years I have inherited lots of PowerPoint "training" to redesign that felt a lot like the story I just told you. Slide after slide, crammed with text that read like a stream of consciousness linking unrelated items at high speed from an accomplished subject matter expert who passionately wanted to make sure that learners would know EVERYTHING they might ever need to know but that took them 25 years to acquire, all delivered in a one-hour lesson or training.

How do content dumps impact learners?

But what is the impact of such a content dump on learners? Well, it is pretty much the same as the impact on my then 10-year-old brother. He averted his eyes, said nothing, made no objection, hoped it would end soon, and in case it didn't, he walked decidedly faster down the escape walk knowing only momentarily he would be safely out of earshot.

We've all likely been here and experienced this whether we were the unfortunate instructional designer, teacher, or trainer who did it, or the even more unfortunate learning participant who had to live through it. More is not better. Faster is not more efficient. 25 years of expertise hosed onto new hires, professionals-in-training, or clients who have come to enhance their life skills is definitely not helpful. So what's a caring, passionate, committed teacher, trainer or designer of learning to do?

Begin with the end in mind.

When I inherit projects like this I  go back to the end, which is really the beginning and ask, What is it that you want learning participants to do: on the job, in their work, at home, in their families, as communicators, as recovering alcoholics, as job seekers, as parents (fill in your teaching context and learner need here) that you will take responsibility for in this training, lesson or course? The answer to these questions allows me to develop training, course, or lesson outcomes in outside-of-the-classroom language. The real-life outcome becomes the target and I only include content that gets me to this particular end.

Use the end to decide how to evaluate whether students have gotten there.

From the outcome I design an in-training demonstration of learning task that will let my client, the teacher, and their learners know whether real learning occurred and whether or not the learner has what s/he needs in the way of skills and understanding to meet the on-the-job or in-real-life outcome.

Use a brain-based design model to construct a learning path to the end.

Next I take all the content on all the slides and keep only what is essential to successfully perform the demonstration of learning task and meet the outcome, and THEN I TOSS THE REST!

The stuff I keep I chunk into categories - no more stream of consciousness. Then I use a brain-based model to turn that content into a carefully scaffolded adventure story, of sorts. I create activities to get their buy-in, elicit mental models (find out what they already know), provide new ESSENTIAL content, give them opportunities to practice and get feedback so they can move toward mastery, and assess their performance in real-world or simulated real-world circumstances using the demonstration of learning task.

Use active and collaborative teaching strategies to move learners down the path.

Out go the slides which are replaced by active and collaborative activities that engage learners with the content and each other, helping them construct the skills and understandings they need to get started on their new job; be successful in life tasks such as parenting, being a good partner, landing a job, communicating effectively, or maintaining their sobriety. The key here is that new content isn't hosed onto learners, it is presented through active learning opportunities in which learners work with each other and their instructor to build the knowledge and skills they need to meet the outcome.

Join me for a more in depth exploration of this brain-based design model.

In the upcoming weeks, I’ll take the brain-based design model I introduced here and in this post and unpack each step - one per week – to share activities from each stage of the model that you can use with your own content. 

Download my favorite list of resources for designing brain-based curriculum.

If you’d like to get started designing brain-based learning, download my favorite learning activity resources by clicking here.

Please join the conversation.

Will you please share what kind of help would be most useful to you in designing brain-based and trauma-informed curricula for your adult learners?