Why having fun when you learn is not just for kids

Remember trigonometry? Nope, me neither.

To be fair, being a writer rarely tests my maths skills. And I don’t need to call on chemistry very often. But even the stuff you’d think I’d find useful, like grammar, I’ve basically had to relearn on the job.

Fun wasn’t on the timetable when I was at school

Even though all the research shows that when classrooms are fun places pupils not only learn more – they remember more for longer.

Same goes for grownups. Think about it. How many times have you sat in a training workshop staring at slide after slide of uninspiring information? And how much of that do you remember the next day?

Nada.

But don’t feel bad; there’s good reason your mind draws a blank.

Here’s the science to prove it.

It’s all about the dopamine

When learning’s fun it sparks the reward centres in your brain, releasing a feel-good chemical called dopamine. When your dopamine levels are high, you’re more likely to be feeling alert, motivated and ready to flex your mind muscles. What’s more, it triggers the release of acetylcholinem, a chemical that helps you focus.

PowerPoint slides are not known for their dopamine-stimulating qualities.

Your brain craves a little bit of novelty

It helps information pass through your reticular activating system (a bundle of nerves at the brainstem that acts like a filter, getting rid of unnecessary information so the good stuff can get through).

When you come across something new, your brain goes into overdrive making connections and associations. Associative learning lights up lots of different areas of your brain – plus it’s important for making long-term memories.

Fun cuts through the affective filter

That’s a term coined by the linguistics expert Stephen Krashen. Think of it as an invisible wall that goes up around your brain to protect it from any scary new facts that might try to invade.

When you’re relaxed and comfy the walls come down, meaning more information can pass through. But when you’re feeling intimidated, anxious or embarrassed, the walls go up even higher.

The upshot? You don’t need to be sat at a desk to learn. Make a workshop a safe space and people will be way more open to what you want to say.

Relevant, personal information is more likely to make its way in

Not knowing why you’re being taught something is frustrating, which sets your affective filter into overdrive. This often happens when information is abstract and doesn’t seem relevant to your life or role.

When information is concrete and personal the walls around your brain come tumbling down. Your affective filter chills the hell out and instead of blocking the information, waves it on its way to your brain.

It’s not just that dull lessons make it harder to learn. They actually stop you learning altogether.

Through neuroimaging and measuring brain chemicals, scientists have shown that when we’re not enjoying ourselves, our learning processes grind to a complete standstill. We shut down, unwilling to let new info in or give any energy out.

It’s why we go out of our way to make our workshops the antithesis of your usual corporate training.

We like to get folks thinking on their feet, writing love letters, playing games and working as a team. Sure, we use PowerPoint. But we don’t rely on it and it isn’t the end of the world if there’s a tech hitch and we need to go it alone. (And yes, our clients agree it works for them. Here’s one we asked earlier.)

So don’t feel bad if you’ve just sat through a three-hour workshop about new system processes and can’t remember a thing.

There’s nothing wrong with your memory. And it’s nothing to do with your ability to understand.

Sometimes your brain just has a mind of its own.

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