SIMAGES 2014.2 – Learn by Doing

Learn by Doing:

Activity-Based Learning for Contractors, Architects, and Engineers

By Brent Darnell

When I first started with gamification and applied improvisation for learning, I was skeptical.  I warned the participants that this would be out of their comfort zones and they would be uncomfortable.  And guess what?  They WERE uncomfortable.

So I changed tactics.  I told them that what we were going to do during the session was thoroughly researched, and this is the cutting edge for learning, the latest and greatest, the newest, the most exciting way to learn!  And guess what?  They had a lot of fun with it; even the hard-nosed superintendents from the field participated fully and loved what they got out of the session.  They found that it was “not as boring as they thought it would be.”  High praise from folks who normally sit in the back with their arms crossed!

Learning, for most companies, is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  Companies spent $156 Billion on training in 2011.  But to what end?  Training is supposed to create some kind of behavioral change.  But most training is informational and event based.

You’ve been to these “three ring binder” trainings. You attend for a day or a weekend and you are very excited about the changes you will make when you return to your office.  There, you put your three-ring-binder on the shelf and never look at it again. Then, a year later, you need the binder for something else.  So you take out all of the contents and inserts and throw them away.  What is the lesson? Traditional training may be something thought up by binder manufacturers to sell more binders!

With this in mind, how should you spend your money on training?  How do people REALLY learn?  How do they take information, retain it, apply it, and ultimately create positive changes in behavior and performance?

Innovative companies use the latest neuroscience to develop program content and delivery so that participants will actually apply the information and create behavioral change. They use hands on, experiential learning, role-plays, games, simulations, improvisation, story-telling, and discussions in the classroom. The participants get up and move and do a lot of reflective learning and self-directed learning. In addition, it is vital to include accountability, coaching, and follow-up. Without accountability, it is human nature to set these development strategies aside.

This type of activity-based learning is especially effective for technical people, who tend to be highly kinesthetic and visual learners.  They also love the challenge of a game or competition.

The principles of the neuroscience of learning are spelled out in a great book called Brain Rules by John Medina. According to this neuroscientist, the following brain rules apply:

  1. Our brains evolved while moving. You have to get people moving in order for them to learn.  The worst possible classroom setting is a windowless room where everyone is looking at the backs of heads.
  2. Emotions more readily create memories that you can recall. Stories reinforce the learning. Jesus taught in parables for a reason.
  3. Repetition:  repeat to learn, learn to repeat. Reflective learning exercises along with continuous follow-up and coaching ensure that the participants apply the learning and create change. Participants can also roll this learning into their review processes and meet with class accountability partners on a regular basis.
  4. Sleep is vital to preparing your brain to learn and retain. Nutrition is also a vital element to prepare your brain for learning.  This should be emphasized throughout the learning process.  Get the proper sleep each night, and instead of cookies for the afternoon snack during a program, perhaps some food with higher nutrition will help the learning process.
  5. Stress will prevent you from being able to learn. Relaxation techniques help students to learn more.  Distractions from the workday add to stress and prevent learning from taking place.  Encourage your participants to shut down the work for the day and fully participate.  If they are worried about an email or a voicemail, it is impossible for them to absorb information from the session.
  6. Use all senses. Although vision is the most developed sense, all senses should be used whenever possible. Participants can listen to music and have in-depth discussions. They can perform hands-on, kinesthetic exercises. They can practice mindful eating and drinking. They can watch videos and look at other visual media.
  7. Curiosity creates a sense of wonder. People will want to learn if you challenge them and increase their curiosity.

Stuart Brown’s Institute for Play sees play as more than just having fun.  It is vital to your well-being, your success, and your ongoing learning.  People learn more when they are having fun.  From the TED site:  “A pioneer in research on play, Dr. Stuart Brown says humor, games, roughhousing, flirtation, and fantasy are more than just fun. Plenty of play in childhood makes for happy, smart adults – and keeping it up can make us smarter at any age.”

Stuart Brown’s research shows play is not just joyful and energizing – it’s deeply involved with human development and intelligence.

Jane McGonigal is famous for her TED talks on games.  The gamification of learning is an emerging field.  If you test someone at the end of the semester or program, it is just a boring evaluation.  If you test someone every five seconds, it is a game.  According to McGonigal, “When we play a game, we tackle tough challenges with more creativity, more determination, more optimism, and we’re more likely to reach out to others for help.”  Wow!  Isn’t that a powerful testimonial for tackling a tough construction project.

Companies can now stop throwing money away on training that is soon forgotten. By using these methodologies of interactive, activity-based learning such as games, role-plays, simulations, and other kinesthetic learning, companies can create fundamental changes from within their participants.

Brent Darnell teaches people skills to technical people utilizing all of the latest neuroscience of learning.  He can be reached at  Also check out, a one stop shop to evaluate, get the resources to improve, and build in accountability.

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