Learning & Education in the 21st Century

By Teresa Kistner
Vice President, Tri-Counties Section CWEA

Since 2004, the Tri-Counties Section of CWEA states its mission on the back of every issue of its Gravity Flowline newsletter. That mission statement is focused on enhancing the education and effectiveness of California’s wastewater professionals along with the dissemination of technical information.  It’s interesting that defining our goal and purpose as wastewater professionals over a decade ago coincides with a trend developing about the same time:  “21st Century Education.”

What is it?  “21st Century Education” is flexible, creative, challenging, complex, and contemporary. It engages participants, fosters innovation, encourages use of the digital world in which we now live and, when implemented successfully, will increase comprehension of our “dissemination of technical information” to improve our careers. Four words that consistently show up when looking into “21st Century Skills” are: Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking & Creativity.

Attendees at the 2014 CWEA Annual Conference in Santa Clara most likely experienced evolved training approaches during sessions. Were you asked to write things down, chat with your neighbor/group, or take some time to reflect on topics? Did you notice more humor, more personal experiences blended into information, more pictures than bullets during presentations? CWEA has been working with Jeff Hurt of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting for some time to accomplish better ways to engage conference attendees for the purpose of increasing retention of the information shared in sessions.

This year at the CWEA Annual Conference I attended a pre-conference Leadership Training Workshop W5 called, “Sizzle and Substance: Creating Brain-Friendly Presentations” presented by Jeff Hurt. He not only has knowledge of “21st Century Education” he also knows how the brain works and why this modern style of education dramatically increases comprehension and retention. He shared this information by example throughout his 6 hour workshop which, coincidentally, zoomed by!

Jeff was at the door to greet us, set a mood with music and began his session by inviting all of us to go ahead and answer texts or calls, and feel free to check out or leave whenever we wanted. At the start he asked us, “If you could have lunch today with anyone in the world, who would that be?” and directed us to write down our choices and discuss this with the person sitting next to us. His point being that it is critical to create a safe space to learn – especially for the introverts and, as we soon learned, to fire up our brains and ready them to take in the information he was about to share.

Jeff described a difference: “education” = learning a lesson, a new concept, creating ideas that perpetuate while “information” = something you can seek or share. He taught us that the brain thinks based on chemical/electrical impulses and releases dopamine on what we find interesting.

He emphasized that information ≠ education and education ≠ learning, citing research that shows we are all visual learners. When we dream, it is in pictures; blind people see and think in pictures – it is the biology of the brain. We cannot listen and think at the same time; telling doesn’t lead to learning and if we are not thinking, we are not learning. So presenters must shut-up sometimes and allow students a chance to think, however thinking = work = the brain gets tired BUT the brain LOVES to problem solve and be right because that’s when dopamine is released. For this reason, speakers must allow the audience time to learn and make sense of the information presented. Jeff says, “When information is presented in brain-friendly ways, listeners become participants, increase their retention, and spread contagious enthusiasm. Designing a presentation that aligns with how the brain naturally learns ensures success.”

His presentation described the biology and functions of the brain: neurons receive signals from our 5 senses via small electrical pulses with no immediate meaning…only when we give attention to the info does the brain begin to integrate and learning occurs. Brain functions are 1) Sensory (receive info through back brain), 2) Integrative (reflect/connect), 3) Integrative (make sense), & 4) Motor (test ideas as we speak or write). Notice that the brain must integrate the sensory information twice before it acts. Jeff described the billions of neurons and trillions of connectors, reminding us that if the brain doesn’t fire & wire then we don’t learn but when we do learn something new the brain grows. If you want your brain to grow, change up your routine – take a different route home to and from work.

Next topic: we feel before we think so successful presenters appeal to the emotions by showing empathy and pointing out what’s in it for the audience, making them the center of action. A PowerPoint report conveys information, but it is the stories that produce an experience. When good, people laugh and cry as the speaker layers facts and stories like a perfect cake making an impression, facilitating a learning experience to be remembered.

As promised in the AC program, Jeff went on to identify eight brain-friendly strategies for presentations:

  1. Safety trumps Learning – it takes 20-40 minutes to get rid of adrenaline, so the audience must feel safe and not threatened.
  2. Talking trumps Listening – info must be repeated to move into working memory or it disappears (remember – ‘integrative’ two times) having the audience give feedback enhances their self-worth and facilitates learning and retention of material presented.
  3. Chunking Info trumps Info Dumps – audience attention time is 10 minutes – must grab them, change what you’re doing every 10 minutes then discuss for 2 minutes while the brain re-sets. Anchor stories with relevant problems – there needs to be tension for problem solving: wrestle with what you agree and do not agree with to charge brains, keep everyone interested.
  4. Meaning trumps Content – Do facts, data and figures persuade? Facts fall short of emotionally connecting; it’s not the info that is important but the emotional impact of the info. Use facts and accompany with emotional appeal – people rarely act by reason alone, the presenter needs to tap into audience beliefs in order to persuade.
  5. Emotions trumps Facts – give the audience the freedom to think and a chance to feel the information as you weave content with stories and pictures. Silence is a speaker’s friend – leverage it (even though some are uncomfortable with unfilled gaps of time).
  6. Patterns trump New Information – for presentations use lots of VISUALS, fewer bullets. No light colored font on dark slide background – it is too difficult for the brain to process.
  7. Images trump Words – Vision trumps all other senses in retention and learning (solelylistening is at the bottom of the way that the brain processes). Recognition doubles with pictures – 80% of brain processing is devoted to visuals – it lives by images. Images are most effective when different, unusual and striking. We see with our brains, not with our eyes. Props create stories and important analogies. When given oral info we retain 10% of presentation, visual = 35%, when primary info is in oral and visual this increases to 65% content recollection. Using visual with words helps alignment in the brain process.
  8. Different trumps Same – “The enemy of persuasion is obscurity.” To learn what attracts, study the opposite. Your idea must be different to grab attention and make an impact when sharing information.

During this workshop Jeff shared 2 websites to assist in creating modern presentations: www.haikudeck.com and  www.slideshare.com. He also noted a couple books for anyone interested in learning more: 1) “Conversational Intelligence by Judith E. Glaser about, ”How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results”; and 2) “Socialized!by Mark Fidelman about, “How the Most Successful Businesses Harness the Power of Social.”

If this story has sparked your interest go to http://velvetchainsaw.com/category/education-adult-learning/feed/ or Google Jeff Hurt and/or Velvet Chainsaw Consulting – it will be worth the Web surf. Watch for integration of some 21st Century Learning styles during our CWEA TCS September Workshop in San Luis Obispo on September 11th – thoughts, comments and/or questions are always WELCOME!


Teresa Kistner is Vice President of CWEA’s Tri-Counties Section, and has been a Tri-Counties leader for many years serving as Secretary, Membership Chair, a member of the Certification Preparation Task Force, Photographer, and as a member of the renowned Tri-Counties Turkey of the Year Committee. She also holds CWEA Grade II Environmental Compliance Inspector and Grade I Lab Analyst certifications. Her day job is at Goleta Sanitary District where she serves as Industrial Waste Control Officer.

Contact Teresa: CWEA members can connect through the myCWEA.org membership directory.

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3 comments on “Learning & Education in the 21st Century

  1. Brett Offerman says:

    Teresa, very good article, I will use these ideas during my session at the September workshop.

  2. Paula Zeller says:

    Awesome info Teresa! I’m gonna share it with my agency’s leadership program team and with the WEF Plant Operations and Maintenance Committee.

  3. Tim Sikma says:

    Teresa, Excellent article! I will be incorporating some of this information into our work at Michigan Water Environment Association soon. Say hello to everyone at GSD

    Tim Sikma

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