if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—  you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself?  Romans 2:19-20

 I’ve written several posts that touched on this topic. Several of them have focused on the changes in teaching where colleges are abandoning the traditional lecture in favor of a participatory small group session that discusses the material (See Get it Got it Good and more recently, Outside the Box). It’s called the “flipped classroom.”

A recent podcast interviewing Dr. Britt Andreatta give credence to the brain science behind learning.  My research has already convinced me that much of our learning models in schools and college are ineffective. After reading this short piece and listening to the podcast, I now know the reason why.

Dr. Andreatta has several interesting points on how we learn.  Learning occurs in three separate phases, using different parts of the brain. It starts in our hippocampus which is where we begin the learning process. This is short-term memory.  According to the science, you need about 20 minutes of processing in the hippocampus to enable you to retain content in your memory.

The second phase is remembering – putting the information into your long-term memory so that it can be retrieved some time later – even years later.  Years ago, this was accomplished by repetition – memorizing things like multiplication tables or words.  Remembering is best accomplished when the content connects with something that the person already knows or has experienced before.

The interesting thing is that the retrieval method (i.e. pulling the information out of your brain) works best if you do the retrieval with intervals of sleep. The “sweet spot” is to retrieve information three times separated by sleep. To me, that’s an “aha” moment. I remember folks in college pulling “all-nighters”, trying to stuff their brain with course material on the night before the exam. It was all short-term memory, and not much stuck for the rest of the semester.

According to brain science, this is a poor method, which is something I intuitively learned in college. A good teacher will require retrieval of information three separate times to ensure that the information is getting stored into your long-term memory.

The third part of learning involves changing behavior, which involves making new habits. Brain science now says that you can change behavior. According to Dr. Andreatta, habits are formed when you have repeated something between 40 to 50 times. At that point, you have created a strong neural pathway or a habit.

As I read this explanation on learning, I couldn’t help but recall one of the disorders affecting the next generation which is called the “Google Effect” (see my post on Digital Dark Side). The Google Effect describes the effect of the digital world on our brains. The next generation has lost the ability to store information and, instead, use the digital world (Google, Bing, or others) to “keep” information instead of retaining it in their brains.

Dr. Andreatta uses this science in how she teaches young adults. She limits her talking to only 15 minutes (never more than 20). She always has her learners do some processing – possibly asking questions and then letting them either discuss it in a smaller group, or write about it, or even take a little assessment, which is a hands-on activity. If it’s a longer session, she does a wash-rinse-repeat by stringing together 15 minute sessions interspersed with a “processing” activity.

What’s interesting to me is how this affects interaction with the next generation. Already, institutions like businesses and professional sports are having to alter things to accommodate a shorter attention span.

Most millennials learn best by an interactive model which may explain why they value and want a mentor in their life. They don’t want lectures, either from you or anyone else.

Even churches can learn from this science of the brain. Long sermons (particularly in Africa) results in the least amount of retention. I don’t expect pastors to break up their audience into small discussion groups. Still, in other venues or seminars, this has proved to be the most effective mode of teaching.

After all, the goal of teaching is to be sure learning is happening. All too often, long-term learning does not take place, and based on brain science, it’s not just the fault of the audience. Sadly, many teachers (and even pastors) forget this goal.

The challenge here is to use this science in a way that helps you communicate effectively, whether to a large audience or small, or even your mentee. The next generation has some hurdles to overcome due to the digital age and its negative effect on learning.  We can be more effective knowing how the brain retains memory.

MENTOR TAKEAWAY:  The process of mentoring is one of the most effective methods of learning.  It is interactive, and provides the next generation with a badly needed sounding board.

FURTHER STUDY:  To listen to the podcast by Dr. Britt Andreatta, here’s the link:


Dr. Andreatta’s book, Wired to Grow discusses this topic in more depth. It is available from Amazon.

For information on the “flipped classroom”: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar13/vol70/num06/Evidence-on-Flipped-Classrooms-Is-Still-Coming-In.aspx

WORSHIP: Join Hillsong as they sing “You Said”:

COMMENT:  I would be delighted at comments on this or any other post. You can comment by clicking on the icon at the top of the page, or emailing me at otterpater@nc.rr.com.

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