How do people learn, and how should we teach?

As genealogical lecturers, we should be aware of two factors: what our audience wants, and what our audience needs.

In order to understand what our audience wants, all we have to do is ask them, and listen to what they tell us.

However, to understand what our audience needs, it is important to understand a little bit about how people learn. This is a relatively new field of research, employing both brain biologists and psychologists. There are numerous theories about how the brain works, and researchers still openly admit how little is actually known. Yet strides are being made.

Dr. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and research consultant affiliate with the University of Washington School of Medicine and the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University, published the New York Times bestseller, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School in 2008. This book outlines 12 “Brain Rules” that discuss various aspects of the brain that are currently known, and how these can be applied to our daily lives.

These twelve rules are summarized on the Brain Rules website:

  • EXERCISE – Rule #1: Exercise boosts brain power.
  • SURVIVAL – Rule #2: The human brain evolved, too.
  • WIRING – Rule #3: Every brain is wired differently.
  • ATTENTION – Rule #4: We don’t pay attention to boring things.
  • SHORT-TERM MEMORY – Rule #5: Repeat to remember.
  • LONG-TERM MEMORY – Rule #6: Remember to repeat.
  • SLEEP – Rule #7: Sleep well, think well.
  • STRESS – Rule #8: Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.
  • SENSORY INTEGRATION – Rule #9: Stimulate more of the senses.
  • VISION – Rule #10: Vision trumps all other senses.
  • GENDER – Rule #11: Male and female brains are different.
  • EXPLORATION – Rule #12: We are powerful and natural explorers.

The Brain Rules website contains quite a bit of information, including the Introduction to the book, Chapter Summaries, References, a blog, and several supplemental videos and SlideShare presentations. All of the information can help to inform us both on how we ourselves learn, and how we can teach others effectively.

There is even one presentation included on the site that is specifically designed for this purpose: “Brain Rules for PowerPoint presenters.” The presentation carries the additional credibility of being designed by presentation expert Garr Reynolds, author of the absolutely essential book, Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery. Garr’s philosophies on presentation use much of what Dr. Medina espouses, and the presentations are highly effective.

In other words,

Understanding how the brain works –> understanding how our audiences (and ourselves!) learn –> providing what our audiences need –> effective presentations

11 thoughts on “How do people learn, and how should we teach?

  1. How people learn is NOT a “relatively new field of research.” The process of learning has been studied for close to a hundred years, and the basic principles of learning have been known for decades. Just consult any Psychology 101 textbook.

    • I guess that depends on what you consider “relatively new.” Since humans have been on the planet for thousands of years, less than 100 years of study, to me, is “relatively new.”

      But thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks for the website link – very interesting information for me to think about for my next genealogy classes! I’ve always found that I need to move around, write with coloured markers, use humour, repeat repeat repeat, celebrate wins, draw pictures, provide handouts, etc. People are always interesting animals! Cheers – Celia

  3. I read both of these last year and think they are a great pair of books as well – add to that pile the Heath brothers’ “Switch” and “Made to Stick” then mix in some of Nancy Duarte’s “slide:ology” and there is some powerful stuff to be had.

    We are certainly in an economic time where design, creativity and understanding effective educational techniques are not only important but are becoming necessary.

    To add more fuel: Dan Pink’s “A Whole New Mind” wraps these concepts up very nicely.

    I was going to add links to the books I mentioned, but didn’t want my comment to appear spammy – look them up all, you won’t be sorry.

    • I have read both slide:ology and A Whole New Mind, and would definitely recommend both of them as well. I would also recommend Beyond Bullet Points, by Cliff Atkinson, and anything by Malcolm Gladwell.

      Thanks for the comments!

  4. but, but, but…

    I have so much information to give and so little time to give it. 100 slides in 60 minutes…is that too much? 🙂 what if most of them are screen shots with highlighted portions?

    I guess I could give a pop quiz after every segment, lead power-walk exercises to the wall and back,and hand out Hershey kisses every 10 minutes! What else works!

  5. I think 100 slides in 60 minutes is fine. I have at least one presentation like that. And it is mostly screen shots with highlighted (or more accurately, darkened-out) portions.

    Of course, right now all of my presentations do require the audience to be quiet and hopefully stay seated until I am done, but maybe at some point I can work some movement into the mix. It is interesting what is becoming known about the human mind and how it functions. Now how do we incorporate this into a genealogy presentation?

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