As a coach, educator, and/or leader, we are pursuing some kind of end that we have in our mind. We call them goals, objectives, or outcomes. In some way, shape, or form to achieve these ends –in-mind, change is involved. It is crucial to recognize that, whether you are a coach trying to help your player learn a new skill, an educator helping a student obtain new knowledge, or an employer training their employees, all of these activities involve change. Change involves learning, whether we are doing something new or trying to do something better.
Recent developments in educational research and cognitive science provide important insights into the learning process that are useful in terms of maximizing the effectiveness of our players, students, and employees. James Zull in his book, The Art of Changing the Brain, provides a straightforward description of the brain and learning. The bottom line is when learning occurs, the brain physically changes. Practicing a skill engages neurons in the brain that, as a skill is done multiple times, reach out to other neurons. As these neurons are made to fire frequently, they grow, network, and extend biochemically outwards to other neurons and create connections. This represents knowledge and skill acquisition. The expansion of the networks and the connections is what is referred to as learning.
Designing learning opportunities is like building a house. First, the foundation represents the previous knowledge and experiences. As you build the house, you connect the new pieces to the foundation. New learning opportunities need to start from and connect to the previous knowledge and preexisting neuro-networks in the brain, in order to maximize learning. As building proceeds, the house is constructed and the building materials are connected in many different ways from many different directions. Learning opportunities need to be designed so students, players, or employees can construct their knowledge from what they know and link it to as many other concepts as they can. This “scaffolding” helps students learn and perform better. These principles of learning apply equally to children and adults. As part of the scaffolding process, the more practice and repetition along with variability in the context in which practice occurs, the more connections are made in the brain. Reaching our goals requires us, as coaches, educators, and business leaders, to use methods and strategies that will engage people in learning so they can change and move forward to get to the end we have-in-mind.