Over the past few months, I’ve heard Bill Nye speak on several podcasts and I’ve read his book Unstoppable. It’s reminded me of one thing: he is an incredible educator. He is absolutely brilliant at making ideas stick. Scattered throughout his content are techniques that brain science tells us are good for conveying and retaining information. For example, in Unstoppable, he immidiately sets up an analogy comparing renting versus buying a home to different attitudes about our home planet, Earth.
Earth is not just our home, it is also our house. It’s our residence, and we are the owners. We are not renters passing through. We are not tenants who can complain to the landlord and eventually move on to live somewhere else. We live here—on this 7,900-mile-wide (13,000-km) ball of rock, water, and air—and we are responsible for its upkeep. Right now, we are doing a pretty bad job as caretakers. We don’t seem to be paying anywhere near enough attention to the deteriorating conditions of our home.
– Bill Nye, Unstoppable
Notice the colorful visuals. Houses, renters, landlords, ball of rock water and air. Research tells us that the visual processing in the brain is the strongest of the senses, so tapping into that improves learning (see John Medina’s Brain Rule #10). That includes vivid descriptions and analogies. Not only that, but he continually builds off of this analogy throughout the book as a way of exploring our relationship with the planet in more depth. Chip and Dan Heath call this concept a “genartive analogy” in their brain-science book Made to Stick.
Another sign of Nye’s brain-friendly approach to education is a set of guidelines he created when he was doing his science show back in the 90’s.
Bill Nye’s Rules and Training From the BACK of the Room
These guidelines seem very aligned with Sharon Bowman’s principles from her brain-based training approach, Training From the BACK of the Room.
“The science being explored provides the drama. For example, there is no time spent looking for someone’s stolen lab coat.”
Sharon emphasizes beginning training sessions with what she calls “Connections”, in contrast to ice breakers. The goal is to, “help learners make connections to the topic, the learning outcomes, and each other in relevant, content-related ways.”
“Host interacts with guests, kids, other scientists, and celebrities, as peers.”
In Training From the BACK of the Room (or TBR), the trainer acknowledges the learners as experts at what the material means to them. That is, while the trainer may be a theoretical expert, no one knows how to apply that information to the learners’ situations better than the learners themselves. So learners want, “to participate actively, contribute to their own learning and to be treated as independent, capable people.” (Sharon Bowman and Harold Stolovitch).
“Show takes place as much as possible in the field. The world is the laboratory.”
TBR also emphasizes concrete practice, getting learners engaged with hands-on experiences with the material as much as possible. If you’re training people how to ride a bike, don’t give a lecture about the physics of bike riding… let people hop on and try!
Not to mention Bill Nye the Science Guy’s objective. As TBR recommends, it is a very concrete and measurable (albeit ambitious!) outcome. If you haven’t checked out Sharon Bowman’s training methodology, it’s an incredibly effective approach, and it’s very simple to start applying it to your own training.