Too stressed to learn?

The Picture says it all.

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Yes, we know a tomato is a fruit and no it doesn’t belong in a fruit salad, but when we are stressed our ability to think clearly and to get things right can drop dramatically!

Such as putting the car keys in the fridge or pouring orange juice onto the cornflakes instead of milk in the morning.

Or is that just me?

Managing stress levels matters because it can impact how well we learn, how well we encode memory and how well we can recall an important piece of information.

Learning is fundamental to how we develop our knowledge and understanding of the world, it enables us to up skill and improve our performance from how to unload the dishwasher to writing a dissertation on how to prepare a great fruit salad

A little bit of stress is really good to help us improve our performance. That’s why the pressure of an upcoming test can up the anti so we study harder. But as with so much of the brain, it’s about keeping things in balance. Too little stress and we get bored, too much and our thinking skills can collapse into a heap.

This week I found myself at the KICC Lee Shau School for Creativity in Kowloon addressing a group of very enthusiastic and concerned parents. What were they worried about? Basically that their kids are being exposed to too much structured learning too early and it’s stressing them (kids and parents) out.

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Now that’s an entire topic for another newsletter in itself, but the point here was that while everyone recognises the importance and value of continual learning, knowing the best way to learn is crucial!

Getting the brain ready to learn is what matters. This includes our level of interest in the subject matter, our state of mind and importantly our mindset. A growth mindset is where we are excited to learn something new and recognise we can always get better at what we apply our focus and effort to. It’s also about being OK when we make a mistake because we can aim to do better next time. This takes away or reduces the fear of failing.

Of course we are human too. It’s easy to have those good intentions to follow a study plan but when it comes to crunch time –  we often fall back to the “old” ways of cramming and staying up all night to try and stuff just a it more information in. Stress has to be managed too  :)

When the parents were asked to choose between having a happy child or a child drilled to pass tests, the vast majority said they wanted their child to be happy, but felt compelled to follow the drilling routines to ensure their child didn’t get left behind.

Ah the wonderful pressure of social proof.

We might not have thought about enrolling Jemima into extra maths and English tuition or signing Timmy up to music lessons, when we see or hear other parents doing that for their kids – we feel compelled to follow suit – to avoid being labeled non conformist or worse still disinterested!

But here’s the thing and it’s not just about how a child learns, this is applicable to all brains – we learn best when in a brain safe environment, where we are engaged and interested in the content, where we are able to make associations between the material being presented and what we already know, and it feels relevant to our needs.

Forcing anyone to learn simply doesn’t work. Rote learning might get you through a test but won’t translate into meaningful memory that can be retained for the future. Cramming doesn’t work because too much learning in a short period of time exhausts the brain. We are far better off reading through our notes and then getting a full nights sleep because it is during sleep that our marvelous brain consolidates our memories and picks out the salient ones it knows will be useful to us not just for the following morning but for other times as well.

In training and conference rooms around the world, inappropriate and out of date teaching methods are boring brains to death and are basically a complete waste of everyone’s time and money.

Integrating brain friendly techniques doesn’t have to be hard or expensive and forward thinking institutions such as the Khan Academy and the Blue School have already recognised this.

So next time your department or company is looking to undertake some new training, check in first to ensure that brain friendly techniques are being used.

There are a couple of things to consider for making learning work.

1.     We have to pay attention first. Sounds obvious doesn’t it, but learning takes effort. We are looking to use our wonderful neurobiology to create new synaptic connections and that starts with focus. Have you ever noticed how it’s hard to pay attention when there are other distractions going on around you? If you’re reading a book and two people are engaged in a loud conversation next to you, it’s hard not to listen to what they are talking about or remember what you’re reading.

2.     We have to apply meaning to what we learn to help us remember. Did you know we forget around 40% of what we have learned after just 20 minutes! Creating associations between new material and what we have had prior experience or memory of is what’s needed plus time to consolidate and strengthen those new synaptic connections.

The joy of learning is about using our new-found knowledge and understanding to make our lives and those of others easier and more effective too.

Retaining our sense of curiosity allows us to think like a child, to explore, unpack and disassemble and then to put it all together again in a new and meaningful way.

Does your business encourage brain friendly learning?

Do they ensure that everyone is ready to learn; with stress levels taken care of and the material presented being appropriate to needs?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.