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October 17, 2018
What I learned while teaching about learning
By: Armen Ovanessoff

Faced with a room full of hundreds of impatient entrepreneurs from around the world, it was clear that a straight lecture or presentation wouldn’t work. All the more so, as a core message of our research was the need to make learning more immersive and engaging. Practice what you preach, right?

The event was the G20 Young Entrepreneurs’ Alliance summit, held on 20-21 September in Argentina. The Future of Work is at the top of the G20’s agenda this year.

Our research shows that complex reasoning, socio-emotional intelligence and creativity are the skills increasing in importance across every single work role.

And neuroscience tells us that these skills are best developed through hands on, active learning.

With that in mind, our session with the entrepreneurs was designed to be highly interactive.

There was one special ingredient that made this session extraordinarily enlightening for me, making it a real learning experience for myself. This was the use of dozens of wearable sensors, worn by the audience, which tracked their engagement in real time, throughout the session. The device works by measuring the production of the hormone oxytocin, the neurochemical associated with empathy and human connection. Paul Zak, a neuroeconomics professor that Accenture partners with, developed this sensor and has shown that we learn best when we are emotionally engaged and oxytocin levels are high.

I’m delighted and relieved to announce that our audience engagement scores were high, not least because I was so aware that it was being tracked that we made sure to pull out all the stops! A few things I learned and would like to pass on:

  • PLAN FOR FREQUENT STIMULATION: No matter how charismatic you may be as a speaker, from the moment you begin speaking to an audience, overall engagement levels steadily decline after the initial peak of anticipation. The charts prove it! So, be prepared to insert some form of stimulus, provocation or redirection every 3-4 minutes, to re-ignite interest and maintain absorption levels.

  • VARY THE VOICE: Audience interaction and participation is always a good way to engage the mind and encourage effortful learning, but it’s not always feasible, especially with large audiences. We found that even getting a range of participants taking minor roles in the “performance” can peak interest. In our case, I focused on the research concepts, while an expert facilitator led the instructions for team activities and a learning technology expert talked through the results of the wearable sensors. This variety proved naturally engaging.

  • BLEND DIGITAL & PHYSICAL: All the digital learning experts involved in our research underlined that digital techniques work best when blended with physical instruction. For example, Virtual Reality (VR) is exceptionally well-suited to learning emotional and behavioral skills, but also needs the presence and guidance of a VR “trainer” to be truly effective. For our event, beyond the wearable devices, we used an online voting system that participants accessed from their phones with real-time results displayed interactively on a big screen. But the activities also involved deep conversations in teams facilitated by physical booklets, the use of stickers and even drawing to explore and express ideas.

Our minds and bodies were put to work, and we all learned something.

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