Care to Learn Podcast Episode 5: Jared Cooney Horvath
Published: 10 October 2018
Published: 10 October 2018
In this episode of the Care to Learn Podcast Jared Cooney Horvath, an incredible influencer, neuroscientist, author and teacher, speaks about optimising knowledge translation, the importance of engaging with errors to facilitate learning and much more...
Wayne: From Ausmed Education, hello and welcome to episode five of the Care to Learn Podcast series. I’m Wayne Woff and each month we sit down with interesting and influential professionals working within healthcare and education.
In this episode we’ll be talking to Dr Jared Cooney Horvath, an expert in the field of educational neuroscience and lecturer at the University of Melbourne. Jared is passionate about teaching and he truly believes that educators are the biggest influencers in the world.
In today’s episode we’ll discuss the incredible importance of purposefully engaging with our mistakes to facilitate learning, and how educators can optimise the translation of knowledge to practice. Jared will also speak with us about the future of education and share his top tips for engaging reluctant learners.
So, let’s get into it.
Wayne: Welcome to the Care to Learn Podcast, Jared. It’s terrific to have you here with us today. We’d like to kick off our discussions with you telling us a little about your professional journey and what attracted you to the area of neuroscience.
Jared: I was originally a teacher back in the day, so education is my passion passion.
But back when I was teaching – I worked in middle schools and high schools – that’s when the neuroscience and the brain stuff started to get sexy. We had people coming into the school all the time saying “brain; books; brain; programs”. But you’d ask them what they were actually talking about and no-one had answers. So, it was this really cool buzz word with no depth.
I figured that the only way to get to the bottom of it was to go back and learn it myself.
I spent a couple of years at Harvard University, a small little school that I’ve been to. I got my master’s there and worked at the Med School a lot. Then I did my PhD down here at Melbourne University.
Twelve years, essentially, of brain science and research, with the expressed purpose of bringing all of that back to schools, to classrooms, to teachers and saying: “here’s how we can use it. If this is how people learn, here’s how we can use this stuff.”
Wayne: Your original teaching jobs were with adults, young adults, children?
Jared: Yes, I started with young people. My first job was in middle school, year six, seven and eight. Then I moved into year nine to twelve after that. All of those years I’ve covered something.
I always thought I’d go back to that classroom, but when you’re in academia, now I primarily just work with teachers and adults. They’re my favourite crew. Occasionally I’ll get with students, but they can be a little trickier to handle.
Wayne: You’re currently the director of the Science of Learning Group. Could you speak to us a little bit about that group and also what it means to be a classroom innovator?
Jared: The whole idea of the Group is translation.
We’ve got all these scientists doing research in the lab, finding out all of these incredible things about learning.
But almost none of that becomes practically useful on the ground without what we call translation: how do you take that cool knowledge and make it practical?
So, we’ve got neuroscientists, teachers, principals, psychologists… you name it. And the entire point of the Group is to say: “if this is what we understand from the lab, what do we need to make that actionable on the ground?”
Our whole passion is helping teachers teach better, learners learn better and enabling people to engage with it more.
Moving into classroom innovator, it turns out that when it comes to translation we always just assumed: learn this about the brain, and tomorrow you’ll be able to teach like this.
But that’s never how it works.
That final step when the rubber hits the road, it’s taken us a long time to figure it out, but it has to come from the practitioner, the people on the ground. I can tell you that your brain can’t process X and Y simultaneously, but what does that mean for you, in your classroom, with your students? That last step has got to be down to you.
A classroom innovator is someone who does that last step, where they try something. They say: “here’s what I understand this to mean and here’s a strategy that I’ve come up with.” And they don’t just do the strategy, they actually measure or test or experiment with that strategy, so they can then come back and tell others what worked.
From these people we start to get a database of skills and techniques and strategies that teachers can use that were developed by the classroom innovators, influenced by us, but tested by them on the ground and useful. So, it’s essentially bringing teachers back into the fray.
Wayne: The teachers and educators you’ve spoken to, when you bounce that ball in front of them in terms of innovation and traying something new, what sort of response do you get?
Jared: What do you think? Teachers, educators, education as a whole is the most brow beaten field I’ve ever come across. It’s so denigrated, and because of that story, for about ten years now it’s been said that: “computers can do it; we don’t even need teachers anymore”.
Teachers have started to buy that message. They assume that someone out there has an answer and all they have to do is learn it and apply it. But that’s just not how it works.
So, you’re met with a lot of resistance at the beginning when you’re saying “you’re an expert and you have to own that expertise. Part of being an expert is evolution, adaptation, movement. You can’t stop, you’ve got to keep going. Whatever answer you got today, you’ve got to push that tomorrow.”
So, of course when you bring that to them, if you throw them in the deep end they wouldn’t do anything. But when you piecemeal it to them, work with them for a year to slowly start to build it, eventually you get to a point where they just take it and run. They’ll come to you and say: “do you mind if I have a couple more days to do this?” or “do you mind if I try X?” and that’s the moment where I tell them to go and do their thing.
Wayne: You bounced absolutely to my next question which is, when you do get buy-in from them, do you see that excitement, do you see that lightbulb go on? That realisation that this is why they were in teaching in the first place, rather than some of the times when it goes a little flat?
Jared: It’s got to be a passion. No one gets into teaching because of the pay; no one gets into teaching because it’s highly respected. We get into teaching because that’s what we’ve got to do. It’s our passion, it’s our love.
It’s really easy to get brow-beaten down by top-down control and beurocracy. And then you forget that this is one of the most creative professions in the world. Not only are we doing incredible things by moulding people’s stories and changing the way they understand the world, but we’re developing the means and the tools by which to do that. Which makes us the biggest influencers in the world.
Once you regain that passion, once you remember: “wait a second, there’s a reason I chose this job, I love doing this stuff”, you step back up into your expertise where you start looking at politicians, researchers, lawyers and say: “hey, why don’t you stop telling me how to do my job. I’ll let you drill teeth, you let me teach because this is what I do”.
When you step back up into that expertise, then you want to grow. You want to evolve because you want to be the one to come up with that next great idea.
Wayne: And your work has been across industry segments. Do you find any commonalities or differences in healthcare versus industry versus business versus other areas?
Jared: I think the language changes, but I think the underlying issues remain the same.
From a learner standpoint, I think most people just assume that it happens. They don’t realise that learning is a very distinct process, and once you know it you can game that system so easily – it can take you a week to learn something that would normally take you a month, purely because you understand what it is that you’re doing.
From a teacher’s perspective I think it doesn’t matter if you’re a trainer in business, if you’re a nurse educator, if you’re a pre-school carer, we still hit that same wall where I think everyone’s slightly afraid. They assume that there must be a right way to do it, and they spend most of their time looking for answers outside of their profession, rather than stepping into their profession.
Wayne: Where do you think the future of education is heading?
Jared: There would be people out there who say that it’s going digital, it’s going online, it’s going to move towards machine learning and tutoring catered to your learning process and style.
But honestly, it ain’t broke. All of that stuff sounds great if the system was inherently broken.
There’s this thing called Edge and they ask a provocative question every year, and the question last year was: what’s your dangerous idea? And I was thinking that my dangerous idea was: what if education isn’t broken? What if we just like to speak as though it is? But the reason that it hasn’t changed dramatically for the last 200 years isn’t because we’re lazy. It’s because it works.
So, the future of education – as much as I love the new technology and tools and ideas – is that I think it’s essentially going to stay the same.
It’s a relationship, a connection, between at least two people exchanging ideas. And that relationship, although it’s one of safety and comfort, evolves from one where someone is influencing and inspiring the other, into one of collaboration. “I’ve got some information, skills or ideas that you don’t, together we learn, and eventually now we’re equals”.
I don’t see how that ever goes away. Do it on a computer or do it live, it’s the same process.
Wayne: Your next book Stop Talking, Start Influencing – I like the title – due to be published early next year, talks about 12 scientific principles of how people learn and teaches readers how to effectively impart their knowledge to others.
Could you talk a little about a few of those principles that you think would be most relevant to our audience as educators in healthcare?
Jared: The original title was actually Stop Talking, Start Teaching, but the publishers thought that was going to turn a lot of people off, so we went with Stop Talking, Start Influencing.
What I tried to do with this was – without going too deep into the big learning trajectory because that can get heavy fast – was to see what sort of nuggets I could pull out that people could run with.
So, there are some really practical things, for instance my favourite is that people can’t read words and listen simultaneously. Highly practical – if you’ve got a PowerPoint slide with words and you’ve got a class who are trying to listen to you while they read the slide, they can’t do it. And when they try to, of course they’re going to try and jump back and forth, they end up losing information from both of you. It would have been better if they didn’t show up, you just printed out the slides and handed it to them.
So, we’ve got these practical nuggets, but I think some of my favourites are the larger thematic ones. Errors, for instance. Across the board, people are afraid of making mistakes and failing and so they think that most of learning is trying to insulate against that.
But it’s not. Most of learning is trying to find every error you can and then engage with it.
We’ve got this process that happens in the brain, we call it bottom-up versus top-down coding.
With bottom-up you’re just living in a prediction, and that’s where most people live, it’s how we survive. When I read words, I don’t actually have to read them I can just predict them because I have that skill on lock-down.
Top-down is when you have to actively access your coder and start programming your brain, which we call learning. There are many ways to access that top-down, the easiest way being to make a mistake. If you have a prediction of how something should be but then it isn’t, you don’t have a choice, you have to access your coder and you have to start rewriting. At that moment it feels weird, and unfortunately the way biology plays out is that, love it or hate it, you do kick in to that gear. But then you get to choose whether or not to stay with it. If you choose to stay with it you will physically start changing your programs, changing your brain, changing your skills and knowledge. Choose to ignore it and three days later you’ll forget you ever made that mistake and you will make it again because it’s now gone.
My favourite one is that concept of: if we know most people are living a prediction, half the point of education is to break that prediction, to get them to screw up and learn to love that feeling, because that’s where all growth and innovation happens.
I also think another one, with Nurse Educators especially, is that we think in stories. From a pure learning standpoint nothing goes into the brain clean – there is no such thing as a standalone fact.
The quote I like is from Steven Pinker who said: “A fact that sits alone in the brain is like a webpage without a link. It might as well not exist”. Everything has to be linked. The way the brain chooses to link things is through cause and effect emotional stories: X happened because Y happened, and it felt like this. Whether that’s true or not, that’s how the brain starts to link things.
So, if we know we think in stories, from a learning standpoint, how do we find these stories behind these potentially dry – if it’s just lists of symptoms, lists of treatments, processes we have to follow – how do we find the cause and effect, emotional story behind it that will help people stick with that?
But beyond pure learning, we also find that the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, how the world works, how patients should react, those stories that we use to make sense of the world dictate what we see, smell, hear, feel. We’ve got this little – we call him the coder – guy who sits in the brain and according to the stories we tell can send signals back and change how we perceive everything so that we experience the story.
So, if you think someone should be scary, good news, they’re going to be scary to you. Not because they are, but because your story says they should be. The coder changes your brain and that’s what you get. If you think you should be good at something, congratulations, the coder changes your brain and you can access that. If you think you should suck at something, congratulations, coder changes your brain and you won’t be able to access it.
So, those bigger stories of who we are, why we are, drive everything we see and experience after that.
Wayne: So, from a nurse educator’s point of view, the power of a case study, the power of real-life situations can be hugely beneficial from what you’re saying there?
Jared: And people just assume that those are cute hooks to get people excited. No, that’s the foundation around which they will understand and remember and apply everything else.
You get the right story and all of a sudden, you’re going to see tremendous growth. You try and skip the story and you’re going to get a lot of struggle and a lot of people not engage with things.
Wayne: A question a little from left field, my colleague Georgia and I went to a recent event on simulation and the use of simulation in healthcare education. Do you have any particular thoughts there?
Jared: I love it. Over at Melbourne University they just built a haptic feedback machine for a dentist – it’s all VR. Love it, love it, love it when used correctly. Hate it when used incorrectly.
The basic trajectory of learning goes from surface, to deep, to transfer.
Surface: I need to know the facts. A lot of people say “well, if I’ve got Google do I need to know the facts?” Bad news, yes. If the fact isn’t embedded in your brain, you can’t use it, ergo you can’t go deep. We’ve got to start with knowledge – what are we doing, what is this procedure, what is going on? From there you can start to go deep, and this is where you personalise.
Deep learning is the fun stuff – it’s the hard stuff, but it’s the fun stuff – and that’s where VR comes in in a big way. If you put VR in at the beginning before they know what they’re doing, it’s useless. It’s like having a medical student perform an autopsy before they’ve learn basic biology – it’s fun, but nothing’s going to come out of it and chances are that what they learn will be wrong so you have to unteach them after that.
Once they know the facts they move into deep learning and VR becomes incredibly important, but then you’ve got that last level of transfer. How do I take my knowledge from here and apply it somewhere else? It’s not trivial and it’s not easy.
The other side of VR is that if you do really well there, you still need to work at applying that skill without VR – without the headset, with real tools, with real people – and it’s not a straight shot. If you ace it in VR you’re still going to suck the first time you try it by hand. And it’s not because you don’t understand it, it’s because that transfer is a little sticky. Once you get it, you get it. But a lot of people just assume that if they beat it on a video game they’re good. No, they’re not.
Wayne: The other side of simulation that they talked about at this conference, more so fell into the realm of role playing and learnings that could come out of that: conflict resolution, difficult situations, challenging family dynamics et cetera and how to navigate your way through that. In terms of a learning environment, there’s rich potential there?
Jared: Absolutely. Context matters.
Let’s take it back to school and you’re studying a text book. Let’s say you’re studying it in bed, eating crackers with your dog curled up next to you. You’ll lay down all of those memories. But if you then have to go and take a test in a quiet room, at a hard desk with a ticking clock and silence around you it’s going to be a lot harder for you to access those memories, simply because you didn’t study that way.
If you know where you’re going to have to access a skill, you’d be best to practice it in that way.
This is why with the military, when they train they don’t just sit and talk, they get out in the field and shoot ammo and it’s high stress because they know they’re going to have to apply that in a high stress environment.
At the surface level it’s great to just talk through concepts of patient management and to talk through patient care, but once you want to go deep, if you can act out the real thing the easier it’s going to be for you to apply those skills once it happens in real life.
Wayne: And one more thing before we move on is just to come back to the issue, in teaching and learning, of errors – do you think that’s a huge block for people?
You talked about it before, but it really resonated with me about people not confronting issues, people re-learning stuff where they’re just re-learning problems rather than solutions. Do you think that’s fair? That we’re very reluctant to go near the pond of errors, put our hand in and say, “there’s so much rich learning to be done here”?
Jared: It makes sense, in the medical field especially, when there are potentially lives on the line. You cannot let that scare you. As crazy as that sounds and as hard as that sounds, that is a reality of the field of medicine – health and wellbeing and lives are on the line.
So, you can make a better argument in this case that errors might be something to be weary of, but you can’t avoid them.
It turns out that it’s more of a systematic thing. It’s not just in medical education, it’s across the board. We live in a world right now where errors are to be avoided. Perfection is key. If you take a picture and it only gets 10 likes, it failed, and you delete in immediately. We’re afraid of being seen as vulnerable and unknowing.
So, it doesn’t matter which field you’re in, but the truth is, for all the replication crises in science there’s one thing we do know about learning and it’s about errors being the integral part of it. You learn to embrace those and you’re going to be fine. But it becomes a cultural thing.
What we’ve been trying in schools – and this will resonate here – is that you try and teach individuals to be okay with making errors. So, you teach them all the skills but if the context doesn’t shift with that, they’ll be more apt just to do what we call the social norms. You tell them that it’s okay to make a mistake but then you turn around and reward the kids who don’t make a mistake by giving them top marks, getting them into Harvard, and then kids that do make a mistake you say, “don’t worry about it, get out of here”.
So, you can’t just talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk. The entire context has to shift to where the teachers demonstrate mistakes, they’re okay to say, “I don’t know”.
Success isn’t measured on how quickly you learn something, as much as it is how much did you work with it and where did you come out at the end?
So, this is where everyone stops being judged relatively – you’re better than him; you’re best; you’re worst – and starts being judged personally – you’re better than you were last week but I still want you to push a little harder, or, you didn’t change much but you’ve always been strong, I think you’re ready to move up. It’s self-assessment, essentially.
Wayne: We’ll conclude our podcast, Jared, with a series of questions that we ask all our guests. One of our most popular questions amongst out audience asks you to comment on what are your top strategies for engaging reluctant learners? Not that we’ve ever met any of them, they don’t exist, but if they did your comments would be…
Jared: Step one – agency. Let me re-phrase that. Step one – purpose. Most people disengage because they forget what the heck they’re doing there, or they just never sat down to think about it. A disengaged sixth grader is disengaged because he or she doesn’t know what they want to do with themselves. Typically, a doctor or a nurse or a medical student is disengaged because they’re bored, they’ve forgotten what it is they’re passionate about.
So, step one is find your aspiration and find your passion again. Which then brings step two where we say ‘agency’ – if I have a passion, if I have an aspiration, I need to know that I’m okay to tackle it. If I’m constrained on all sides by “you have to do X, you’re not allowed to do Y”, all the aspirations in the world go nowhere.
So, something to do and feeling like I have the power to do it, and then a sense of influence as well. Knowing that when I do something, it impacts the people around me. If I come up with a new treatment technique, other people can learn from it and use it. It’s not that I live my forty years, get really good in my own self, then retire and I’m out and all that knowledge goes with me. It’s that I’m really good for forty years, I retire, and everyone is now a step higher because they’ve learned from me.
So, help them find their purpose, help give them a sense of agency and help them see that they’re having an impact on people around them. Then they start to step back up.
Wayne: And just a follow-up question picking up on something you said there, do you think it’s highly influential if a learner feels they’re going back to an environment where they think their learning won’t be supported, won’t be embraced, won’t be celebrated? Do you think that makes people more reluctant to learn?
Wayne: I’ve got to take this back to the ward, to the unit, and anytime I’ve come back previously there’s been a “yeah, but that was in the classroom et cetera et cetera”. So, that folds back on itself and makes them reluctant?
Jared: You can almost see it from people who go to learning sessions. That they’re the ones who are begrudgingly there. And they’ll ask that question and say, “but I’ll never be able to get that across my board”.
And that all springs from the environment we build for them. If you think about it, that has nothing to do with how human-beings learn, that’s foundational thinking. It doesn’t tell you what to do to help people grow, but it says that we do know that they won’t grow at all if they don’t have a place to grow in.
It might sound tangential – “why don’t you just tell me that if they did ten problems or memorised these words then they’ll be fine?” Those strategies are there, but all of that is meaningless if they don’t have a place to grow.
Wayne: So, the total context of learning, the very broad lens view is enormously important. Not just the learning moment, ten minutes, one hour, one day, but their broader context of work, personality, colleagues. The whole mix.
Jared: Bingo. What is your situation, what’s your identity, what’s your purpose, what’s the story of your unit, what is your group identity? That influences everything.
Wayne: And three closing questions – what is one thing that you’ve learnt in the past month that has genuinely stuck with you?
Jared: I’ve been doing a lot of work with lucid dreaming recently. This concept of emergence – that you can be awake even though your brain is asleep – is tripping me up. It’s leading me to question a lot of the things that I understand.
For good or bad, that is sticking with me. The fact that you can wake up in a dream and your brain doesn’t show the signs that you’re awake, but you can say “no, I’m conscious”. That asks a lot of questions.
Wayne: You’ve now taken our audience to exactly that place and they’re asking the same questions. What’s your favourite personal learning tip?
Jared: For me it’s recall, recall, recall. It sucks, you don’t want to do it. But the reason you remember your favourite TV show, even though you’ve only watched it once, is because you’ve recalled it a tonne of times – you’ve talked about it with friends, you blog about it, you paint a picture about it, you argue about it.
The reason you don’t remember the periodic table even though you’ve remembered it five times in your life, is because you just never brought it back up.
It’s not about how information goes in. It’s about bringing it out. I can remember almost anything after only seeing it once so long as I kick in to recall immediately. So, my biggest tip is just recall, recall, recall.
Wayne: And that also goes back to our conversation earlier about context, about the learning moment, what comes afterwards, how it’s shared, how it’s spoken about.
Jared: Boom. If you go to a class or a session or a conference and you go home, and you don’t touch your notes for three days – it’s gone. You can re-read your notes, but it’s not going to get any deeper or better. You’ve got to do something with it.
I always tell my students: “when you’re in one of my classes, do not take notes. I’ll give you notes, don’t worry about those. For the hour we’re together I want you here, I want you with me. And in the last five minutes I want you to write down what you remember.”
So, immediately we’re going in to recall. “I’m not telling you what to write down, you’re writing down what’s resonating. Do that again tomorrow morning when you wake up. Whatever two or three ideas you’ve got down tomorrow morning and after the class, that’s what you need to know. That’s the stuff that’s saying give me some attention.”
Wayne: And the final insult for the learner who has got notes, hasn’t looked at them, but then goes back to their colleagues on a ward and wants to celebrate what they’ve learnt but they’re met with blank faces and pushback. That doesn’t help.
Jared: It’s hard to recall if you’ve got no-one to bounce those ideas off of. You can do it yourself, but it’s so much easier and nicer if a conversation I start gets bounced back to me and then starts to resonate.
Wayne: And finally, what’s the best advice you’ve ever received about continuous or lifelong learning?
Jared: We were having a big debate about this, actually. You know how the big move now is 21st century skills – we want to teach you to be creative, collaborative, curious and a bunch of other c-words.
But the big joke is that none of those are transferrable. So, Rembrandt – put a paintbrush in his hand and he’s creative as heck but put a basketball in his hands and he’s not creative because it’s not a general skill. It’s a skill tied to a field.
So, we were arguing about whether there is a transferrable skill and the only one we came up with was learning. Knowing what the process of learning is, knowing how to start, how to move deep and how to transfer. That is the same process applied everywhere.
In terms of lifelong learning it’s that that is the skill, the only skill that will allow to grow and change and adapt into the future. Everything else, once it gets locked down, bad news – you’ve got to go back to the drawing board when you want to change things up.
Wayne: Fantastic. I think today we’ve shared some fabulous insights; some fantastic stories and we greatly appreciate your time at this edition of the Care to Learn Podcast.
Jared: Thank you for having me out, this has been great.
Jared Cooney Horvath (PhD, MEd) is an expert in the field of educational neuroscience, with a focus on translating neuroscientific principles to enhance teaching and learning practices within the classroom. Jared has conducted research and lectured at Harvard University, Harvard Medical School, the University of Melbourne, and over 30 schools around Australia. Jared has published three books, over 30 research articles, and his work has been featured in numerous popular publications, including The Economist, WIRED, The New Yorker, New Scientist, and ABC’s Catalyst. Jared is a lecturer at the University of Melbourne, researcher at St. Vincent's Hospital in Melbourne, and currently serves as director of the Science of Learning Group: a team dedicated to bringing the latest in brain and behavioural researcher to teachers, students, and parents alike (www.scienceoflearning.com.au).