LS 2011 Opening Keynote: Dr. John Medina

This tweet from Brent Schlenker of the Elearning Guild is the best summary of the opening keynote for the Learning Solutions 2011 Conference by Dr. Medina. This will be a long blog (blong). After seeing the stream of tweets on the keynote and some live blogs, I felt it would be difficult for anyone who wasn’t at the presentation to connect the dots. The amount of material covered and insights were astounding, as was the presenter himself. I am only certain of two things: [list style=”arrow” color=”blue”]

  • All of us who witnessed his presentation won’t forget it (and he’d be first to tell you that this is a tremendous feat)
  • This blog will attempt to give some detail and context of his keynote, but will hardly do it justice. Take the opportunity to engage in the content he provides (there is much posted online). If you ever have the opportunity to see him speak; take it. He is as engaging and entertaining as he is intelligent and insightful. You will never have so much fun learning so much (okay, maybe Thiagi…)

A little about Dr. John Medina

Dr. Medina is the author of Brain Rules and other books, and contributor to He has forgotten more about how the brain works than most of us could hope to learn in a lifetime. Dr. Medina opened by stating that he was asked to present how brain activity was relevant to elearning, and as far as he could tell only memory and wiring would relate to our field.

First, let’s debunk common brain myths

Dr. Medina noted that our brains are truly designed to solve problems related to surviving while moving.  He quickly dispelled the many prevalent myths about the brain. We don’t use a small percentage of our brain; we use 60-80% of it. That left/right brain stuff? Toss that too. Memory, as it turns out, is not a “unitary phenomenon”. There are 30-40 gadgets of memory in the brain that work together, and it is the cross talk that makes them work.

Learning is mostly about forgetting

[blockquote type=”blockquote_line” align=”left”]Human Learning is actually controlled forgetting[/blockquote] The key point is that memory not fixed at moment of learning. It is repetition that provides the fixture. Thus, human learning is actually controlled forgetting. (This gave me extreme validation. My presentation immediately followed this keynote, which freaked me out, but this insight strongly supported one of my key points which referenced the work of Hermann Ebbinghaus)

How short term memory really works

Dr. Medina illustrated the process. He started with declarative memory, something you can declare. This is a basic fact like “the car is red”, “this is the letter A”, or “the phone is on the table”. Here’s what is known about declarative memory: If your brain decides to, it can hold 7 pieces of declarative information for 30 seconds, or it will go away. This IQ independent. (of course, Dr. Medina repeated the message less than 30 seconds later) If the information is repeated within 30 seconds, it goes to the working memory and the rules change. Now you can hold onto this new information for about 2 hours. There are some profound implications for learning design based on these scientific observations. [list style=”arrow” color=”blue”]
  • Start with something interesting so the brain decides it is of value.
  • Load balance for 7 or less pieces of declarative information to be repeated within 30 seconds or it is likely to be forgotten.
  • Even if it makes it into working memory at that point, the information needs to be repeated within two hours or it is likely to be forgotten.
[/list] Dr. Medina made an observation directly related to education. Because of how subjects are typically presented, homework is not review. Homework is actually new learning based on the fact that the content learned earlier is long gone. Long term memory takes a decade to encode [blockquote type=”blockquote_line” align=”right”]It takes a decade to make a memory permanent without corruption in retrieval.[/blockquote] More shocking than these insights was what Dr. Medina shared regarding long term memory. It takes a decade to make a memory permanent without corruption in retrieval. The process is called systems consolidation.  Basically, a memory moves from the hippocampus to the outer surface of the brain (cortex) and back to the hippocampus to be re-routed to another part of the brain for about a decade until it settles into a final “permanent write” place in the outer cortex. This pong game lasts about a decade until the memory finds its permanent home. Thus, when an individual graduates high school, only the memories and learnings from 3rd grade have been systems consolidated- written to long term memory without corruption in retrieval. Here is a great YouTube video of Dr. Medina explaining systems consolidation.

Alternative training design following Brain Rules: Booster Shot Learning

Dr. Medina showed alternative training designs that follow brain rules. This Booster Shot method repeats information at intervals based on what is known to support remembering. Instead of an hour of Subject 1, followed by an hour of Subject 2, then Subject 3, each hour of instruction would cover multiple subjects and repeat and reinforce them throughout the day. At a macro level, subsequent years in school would repeat and reinforce learnings from previous years to support systems consolidation.

All brains are different

After leading us through the workings of memory, Dr. Medina showed us how brain types vary widely. Showed. He shared specific brain mappings that surgeons perform. These maps chart where memories and skills (i.e. language skills) are stored for each individual to help surgeons determine a path to perform the surgery with the minimum adverse impact to the patient. [blockquote type=”blockquote_quotes” align=”right”]What is obvious to you may only be obvious to you[/blockquote]No two are alike or work identically. We could see in these mappings how the same linguistic skills were encoded to different locations and patterns on each patient’s brain. The highly tweeted quote capturing how different each brain is was Dr. Medina’s statement “What is obvious to you may only be obvious to you”. Dr. Medina also spoke of two types of intelligence. Crystallized intelligence which is concerned with fact, and fluid intelligence, which is an individual’s ability to improvise once something is learned. The implication of this on training design is to have learners improvise from what they learn. I equate this to moving from recall, sequencing and other lower-level Bloom’s skills to higher order application and synthesis skills.

Theory of Mind: The ability to connect with others

Dr. Medina concluded his presentation discussing theory of mind. This is an individual’s ability to peer inside someone’s head and understand reward & punishment system there. Women are twice as good at it as men, and autistic people have impaired ability in this area. It is related to empathy and being able to understand and relate to other people. There is a test that can measure ability in this area, an Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) Test. He noted how this ability could be a key indicator for effective teachers. Technology may allow us to measure it effectively to find and keep teachers and mentors who will not not only be selected for their expertise in a subject, but their ability to have insight into their students. Today we live in a world with ever-increasing ability to connect with others. The capabilities of social media allow us to reach and connect with individuals in a manner that was not previously conceivable. Theory of mind, the ability to gain insight into those we interact with, would be a key success factor for any individual. However, it is easy to understand why Dr. Medina would present this as a key skill to be evaluated for this audience of professionals who have committed themselves to the development of others.