by Dr. Alan W., Entrust SA Contextualized Training
Have you ever had the experience of falling asleep in class? Or like me, crammed a whole night before an exam only to forget what you learned within a few hours of taking the test? I had some classes as a university student where it was impossible to stay awake. The professor wrote some wonderful books, but his voice could put a whirling dervish to sleep.
I’ve been learning recently about how our brains operate and learn. The brain receives thousands of pieces of information from its environment every second. It can’t pay attention to everything. Most of what it picks up is filtered out and not even brought to conscious awareness. The brain is constantly filtering what it needs to pay attention to. But it is also filtering what it chooses to remember and for how long.
All of this makes a difference as we seek to get information past the brain’s filter and into long-term memory so that thinking, attitudes, emotions and behaviors can be transformed.
Dr. David Sousa, in his book How the Brain Learns,* says the brain basically asks two questions about information it receives. “Does it make sense?” and “Does it mean anything to me?”
Does it make sense?
With this question the learner asks, “Do I understand this?” and “Do I agree? Is this believable?” The brain goes back to its experience and knowledge and checks to see if the new information fits with old information it has already learned. If the new information doesn’t fit, the brain tries to figure it out with an inner dialogue of asking questions and experimentation with the new ideas.
However, there are times our brains simply cannot grasp the concepts. Some of my good friends love the game of cricket, but no matter how hard I try, the game defies all logic to me. As an American, my background looks to baseball to help me understand. But cricket seems to me to be some combination of baseball, bowling and human ping pong. It makes my eyes cross. It just doesn’t stick. I’m sure the game of American football equally defies logic to those who are used to the more genteel game of soccer.If the brain cannot understand something, then it cannot easily hold onto that idea or keep it in memory for any length of time. If the idea does make sense, the brain is more likely to file it in the memory for future access; the brain senses a reason to retain that idea.
The second question is even more important for catching the brain’s attention.
Does it mean anything to me?
Here the learner asks, “Is this important to me? Is it relevant to me? Do I need this?” When new information isn’t necessary for life or isn’t in some way linked to one’s environment or activity, the brain doesn’t give it much priority.
Connection is key. The brain needs to connect what we are saying to its interests and needs. I often ask myself, “What is the student’s pain point? What threatens their identity, their being, their role in life, including their family, community and ministry? What do they wrestle with when they are at home?” When I as a teacher or discussion leader start talking in those terms, students’ brains fixate on what I’m saying like a cobra riveted on the snake charmer.
There are other factors that affect how the brain learns but these two questions are key. The brain learns best when our training makes sense and is relevant to the student.
Implications for teaching and training
These two questions are where we often get off track when it comes to training. When we present material that is too complex or esoteric, or present material that students simply don’t care about—or both—we risk the great possibility the brain will simply pay scant attention and choose not to incorporate it into long-term thinking and behavior.
Sadly, most teachers teach what they have been taught, regardless of its relevance to the student. We reason that if it was important enough to be taught to us, then surely our students need it as well.
It might be tempting to teach new believers about the difference between atonement and propitiation, but their eyes will probably glaze over. Ask new Christians in parts of Asia what questions they have. The responses aren’t likely to be about propitiation. “If I worship Jesus Christ alone, can he protect me from the anger of the other gods?” some ask. “Can I depend on Jesus for all of my needs or does he specialize like the other gods do? Can he take care of me when I get sick or do I still need to go to the witch doctor to appease angry spirits?” Where you live, you might get questions like, “Why do Christians say we can’t live together if we’re not married?” or “What does the Bible say about tattoos and piercings?”
Consider. Are we connecting with the student so the brain pays attention and learns or are we simply wasting that brain’s precious time? If we are student-centered and connect with those things the students understand, and if we deal with matters students face in their ministries, in their everyday cultural realities, in their pain points, when we know what we pass along has meaning and significance to them, there is a strong possibility those students will engage with these new ideas and apply them to their lives. Teaching thus moves beyond a temporary information dump to a learning process that leads to transformation.
*How the Brain Learns, 4th edition, (SAGE, 336 pages), by Dr. David Sousa
This article first appeared in the Fall 2017 Engage.