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Neural Coding System: Framework for improving thinking and behaving

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

Our underlying driver as a learning community is to create positive and lasting behavior change that helps people and, ultimately, organizations perform and treat one another better. Therefore, we aim to have learners transfer what they learn to their lives, careers, and communities.

“Transfer,” to the training professional, is the Holy Grail. It refers to how much of what is learned within the learning arena can be applied back to the workplace. We define two levels of transfer:

  • Situational transfer occurs when learners can apply what they learned to similar situations.

  • Adaptive transfer occurs when learners can adapt what they have learned to a variety of situations.

There is another dimension to transfer, which we call capacity. Capacity correlates with the amount of information that an individual retains and is capable of applying after the learning program. If, for example, an individual can apply many newly learned skills to different situations, then the program is said to have a high adaptive transfer capacity. Part of the goal for training, then, is to increase each learner’s capacity for transfer.

Organizations that are trying to get the most out of their employees should note that learning that has a high adaptive transfer capacity is the most desirable for improving each worker’s value potential. When it comes to developing how-to-think workers, this level of transfer is also imperative.

With this in mind, my colleagues and I have spent a considerable amount of time and resources rethinking traditional principles and evaluating assessment techniques focused on improving experiential learning. As a result, we created the Neural Coding System (NCS).

Our underlying philosophy for developing the NCS is that the training must cause learners to stop and think, reevaluate their mental models, and reach their own insights into how to modify their own thinking or behavior. It must balance learning and practice, leaving students the opportunity to fill gaps and reinforce new skills. It must provide informative and relevant feedback regarding their limiting beliefs within dynamic and complex systems. And, it must be fun and not a waste of time.

Neural coding is a neuroscience-related field concerned with how sensory and other information is represented in the brain by networks of neurons. Neural coding describes the process of neural network formation in the brain in response to a stimulus. The formation of these neural networks determines how people respond to future stimuli. With repetition of any stimuli and response, neural pathways are etched deeply and become the default “programming” for how people behave or respond to similar types of stimuli. As noted earlier, this is the neurological basis for habits and mental models.

Neural Coding System

Self-generated insights

The NCS is a design framework that consists of four cognitive conditions that create an optimal learning environment for developing how-to-think workers when the conditions exist together. It is not a step-by-step methodology or series of discrete events. Rather, it is an interconnected system of mental conditions that are created through the artful implementation of various design principles. As the image in Figure 27 illustrates, the NCS is more like a funnel. Simulation participants are placed in the middle of new situations that are evolving in response to their decisions and actions. This spiral approach, moving between the various conditions, is critical to engaging workers as they evaluate their mental models and seek to resolve gaps. Through trial-and-error and reflective dialogue, this approach allows them to work toward that sudden moment of convergence.

In summary, insights create motivation and, in turn, the energy necessary to grow and improve.

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