The Ultimate Pretest

Test iconEver since I began reading about brain plasticity, I’ve started to sound more and more like Oprah and Dr. Phil when speaking to friends and family.

“You have the ability to change.”

“This task is only hard because your brain hasn’t made the necessary neural connections yet.”

“You aren’t doomed to be weak at something for the rest of your life.”

I’m not trying to be a motivational speaker. I’m simply communicating what researchers in the exciting area of brain plasticity are uncovering: that the adult brain is not hard-wired and doomed to live out a fate determined in early childhood. You aren’t necessarily destined to experience declining intellectual abilities in adult and later years.

Scientists are finding ways to change the brain through intellectual exercises. People with poor auditory memory, for instance, can benefit greatly by memorizing poetry. People who are socially clumsy can be given exercises that improve the brain’s ability to read nonverbal clues.

All of us have strong and weak brain functions. Brain plasticity exercises offer the ability to improve the weak areas. What we all need is a way to identify those areas of weakness so that we can develop a plan to improve them.

What this leads to is a need for the ultimate pretest. Just as the start of a physical exercise program often entails a fitness evaluation by a doctor or personal trainer, a complete evaluation of our brains’ abilities will identify our intellectual strengths and weaknesses.

This could have an impact on how organizations provide training. If a certain skill is proving difficult for learners to master, brain plasticity exercises may be suggested to improve the brain’s ability to learn such skills. Once the new neural connections have formed, learning the actual skill may be much easier.

What could this look like in the real world? People learning to become air traffic controllers, for example, could, perhaps, benefit from exercises that would strengthen their spatial thinking. With those neural connections developed, learning to manage busy airline traffic may be easier.

As Norman Doidge, M.D. writes in The Brain that Changes Itself: “Our weak spots can have a profound effect on our professional success, since most careers require the use of multiple brain functions.”

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The Positive Effects of Physical Activity on Learning

BycyclingIn my last post on brain plasticity, I mentioned that many people may soon embrace life-long learning to maintain mental health with the same fervor in which they attempt to maintain physical fitness through exercise.

It turns out physical fitness, brain health, and learning may be closely linked. According to an article in newsweek, people who are physically active have healthier brains and are able to learn more effectively.

This article mentions the result of one study of 259 Illinois third and fifth graders, which measured their body-mass index and put them through classic physical education exercises. The physical abilities of the students were then compared to math and reading scores on a statewide standardized test. The article goes on to say that “on the whole, the kids with the fittest bodies were the ones with the fittest brains, even when factors such as socioeconomic status were taken into account.”

The reason appears to be that strenuous physical activity produces a protein called IGF-1 that “travels through the bloodstream, across the blood-brain barrier and into the brain itself.” One scientist goes so far as to refer to this protein as “Miracle-Gro for the brain.”

We’re always looking for ways to improve the effectiveness of training. Perhaps one of the best strategies would be to incorporate physical activity into the learning plan.

New Brain Plasticity Theory to Create a Population of Life-Long Learners

I don’t know about you, but I’m VERY excited about the new theory of adult brain plasticity. Until recently, scientists viewed the adult brain as being hard-wired into areas responsible for different tasks. Injure an area of the brain, and the ability to do something was lost. Even more depressing, every day we age, our mental abilities diminish.

More and more scientists are now dismissing this tired model of the brain in favor of a theory of brain plasticity. Also known as neuroplasticity, brain plasticity suggests that the brain is a much more adaptable organ than we ever thought. Injure an area of the brain, and another area can be encouraged to take over its functions.

In retrospect, this should not be a big surprise. The human body is incredibly adaptable. Force a couch potato to run for 30 minutes, and he’ll suffer terribly. Make him run for 30 minutes each day for a month, and it will then seem to him quite effortless. Travel to a new time zone, and your body will quickly adapt to a new schedule. Lift a heavy weight for a few weeks, and it will feel considerably lighter over time.

One of the most encouraging findings in brain plasticity research is that new neural connections and structures develop by learning new skills. When it comes to aging, the brain, like just about every other component of the human body, is a “use-it-or-lose-it” organ.

According to a recent CBC radio interview (MP3 version) with Dr. Norman Doidge, author of “The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science,” we should be focusing on immersing ourselves into new hobbies or activities every couple of years. [Thanks to Stephen Downes for having provided the links to the radio interview.] Just as our muscles adapt to lifting a heavy load over the span of a few weeks, continuing to do the same brain-taxing activities over a long period of time has diminishing returns when it comes to brain health.

Many adults spend hours each week sweating at the gym, running on treadmills, cycling country roads, and stretching in yoga studios to keep their bodies in shape. As more people learn of brain plasticity and the positive effects of learning on maintaining mental health into old age, we can expect to see people embracing learning as passionately as they have embraced physical fitness.

It’s one thing to learn out of curiosity. It’s something else altogether to learn new skills because your mental health depends on it.

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Instant Gratification

The Web and all it has to offer is making patience obsolete. We’re now used to getting:

  • Instant entertainment: Have 30 seconds of downtime? See what’s new on the YouTube home page or click your StumbleUpon toolbar button for a quick fix.
  • Instant news: Have all the bad things in the world gone away? Better check Google News again to see.
  • Instant financial updates: Why wait for your monthly statements when you can go online and spy on your money to see what it’s doing this very second?
  • Instant weather reports: You checked the weather this morning. The temperature may have moved a degree since then, so you might want to check that forecast again.
Little House on the Prairie My generation thinks this is all pretty amazing. Before the Web, we waited for the 6 p.m. news to find out what was going on. For entertainment, we’d plan our week around being home on a specific day and time to watch a favorite TV show. For a younger generation, stories of life 20 years ago must sound like something out of Little House on the Prairie. The pace of life back then must seem snail-like.

Dr. Maria Montessori, founder of the Montessori Method, coined the term the “absorbent mind” to describe the ability of an individual to absorb all aspects of one’s culture and environment without effort or fatigue. For this to occur, the learner must have unbridled access to the information and experiences he or she needs. In a world of instant gratification, access to information required to learn needs to be immediate. Younger learners especially will likely have little patience for limitations on what content they can access and when they can access it.

If you’re designing learning content, you should keep instant gratification in mind. Include links to resources that provide additional information. Make it possible for the learner to dig deeper into a subject. Don’t assume a learner will be content to wait a week for the next module to appear. Don’t design textbooks in a way where key information is withheld to be covered in class by the instructor. Always assume some learners will be ready to absorb more content immediately.

Learning to calculate the area and circumference of an irregular shape

My 13-year old daughter was doing very well in her grade seven enriched math class until her teacher fell ill for a month and was replaced with a substitute teacher. A couple of below average showings on math tests convinced the two of us that it might make sense to sit down together for an hour each week and review the material.

I don’t have any recollection of ever studying what she’s currently learning: how to calculate the area and circumference of an irregular geometric shape such as this:

Geometric shape

I would have studied this material back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, so it’s been long forgotten. Consequently, it’s meant learning high school math all over again.

I stared blankly at a couple of sample problems for a minute and realized I didn’t have a clue how to proceed. So, I turned to the appropriate chapter in her math textbook, hoping to find the explanation.

The opening page of this chapter contained diagrams of geometric shapes and a space to enter their area and circumference. Had the page containing the explanation on how to solve these types of problems been ripped out by a previous owner of the textbook?

I turned the page. More sample problems. Still no explanation.

Finally, about four pages into the chapter, a page contained a sidebar with some tips on how to proceed. Needing more information than this, my daughter and I turned to the Web and found many helpful pages such as this one on

The Gatekeepers of Knowledge

For thousands of years, people in power have assumed that providing the masses with direct access to information was dangerous. Instead, the information contained in books on topics, both religious and secular, needed to be interpreted by enlightened “Gatekeepers of Knowledge.” The same practices apparently still exist in schools today.

My daughter’s experience with the substitute teacher started making sense. The textbook was likely designed with the assumption that the teacher would provide, in class, the explanation on how to solve these types of problems. The students’ edition of the textbook contained mostly exercises. For a student to access the information he or she required to solve the problems, he or she needed to see the gatekeeper.

A good teacher would be able to explain the methodology required to solve these problems clearly. A lesser teacher, such as the substitute my daughter and her classmates endured, could not.

The immediate result was that students’ grades declined. The longer term result would likely be that children would become fearful and hateful of mathematics. What a tragedy.

It’s disturbing that the antiquated notion of Gatekeepers of Knowledge still exists in schools today. Luckily, the Web allows people with online access to circumvent the Gatekeepers and get the information they require quickly, efficiently, and often in multiple formats. With gatekeepers still around, we need to ensure that all children have access to the online learning resources they need.

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Range in Pricing of Commercial Learning Management Systems

My last two blog posts examined the change in average pricing for learning management systems from 2005 to 2007. It’s easy to make the mistake and assume that average pricing means that all systems cost about the same. This is true for commodity goods and services like peanut butter, Web hosting, and cellular phone plans. But, in the world of enterprise software, the price difference between the least to most expensive system is extraordinarily large.

The charts below indicate cumulative, three-year pricing for installed LMS implementations of various sizes.

500 users:

Three-year, cumulative LMS pricing for 500 users (installed)
10,000 users:

Three-year, cumulative LMS pricing for 10,000 users (installed)

25,000 users:

Three-year, cumulative LMS pricing for 25,000 users (installed)

100,000 users:

Three-year, cumulative LMS pricing for 100,000 users (installed)

What’s encouraging for LMS buyers, and is displayed in these charts, is that the vast majority of systems price at the lower end of the scale. A small number of systems are much more expensive than the norm and raise the overall average price substantially.

About Richard

While studying at McGill University in the early 1980s, I took a course called “Computers in Music.” The course provided an introduction to programming languages such as Pascal, C, Prolog, and others. This was before the days of Microsoft Windows. We navigated through DOS prompts on “powerful” 8086 computers and managed to create bits and bytes of pure magic.

I quickly became obsessed with computers and embarked on writing software to teach basic music theory. Programmers were a rare commodity in those days so I soon began receiving requests from various organizations to write software and to create computer-based training courses.

These early CBT courses were completely unlike what we have today. Simple text and graphics would be displayed on a monochrome monitor. Every once in a while, the learner would be presented with a question. Since pointing devices such as mice were not yet standard, the student would type an answer using the keyboard. A correct answer would generate a beep as a reward.

Looking back, it’s amazing how far computer-based training has come in such a short time.

That early “Computers in Music” course has led to a 20+ year career in the field of learning technology. Throughout these years, I’ve worked as a programmer, instructional designer, Web developer, author, and analyst.

I’m very pleased to now serve Brandon Hall Research as CEO during a time when technology-based training is once again undergoing dramatic changes. Blogs, wikis, podcasts and other emerging technologies are transforming training in a way that will redefine how people learn. I’m convinced the best is still ahead in learning.