In this exclusive interview with Learnnovators, Stella Collins shares her insights on how learning really works in the human brain. She explains her views on the significance of having a better understanding of ‘brain science’ and mastering ways to bring that into learning design. Stella’s recommendation to give people the ‘skills of learning’ first before we ask them to self-direct their learning, is highly thought-provoking.

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Stella Collins is the co-founder and Chief Learning Officer at Stellar Labs and an evangelist for effective learning led by people and fuelled by neuroscience. She and her team build performance-focused solutions, including innovative, world class learning technology, by blending science, data and technology to deliver results plus ROI.  

Stella is an acknowledged expert on the practical application of science-based learning to business performance, having trained thousands of professionals in brain friendly principles in more than 25 years in business. She wrote Kogan Page’s sell-out book ‘Neuroscience for Learning and Development’ and her LinkedIn Learning Course has been followed by more than 30,000 people. She engages and inspires audiences at international conferences and is regularly invited as a guest on round table discussions, webinars, podcasts and blogs.  

Stella loves learning through experience plus has a BSc in Psychology, an MSc in Human Communication, is a Fellow of the Institute of Training and Occupational Learning, Founder of the Brain Friendly Learning Group and one of the Brain Ladies.

Stella says ‘Learning science isn’t a magic bullet but it’s the best compass we have to reach the stars.’

You can follow Stella on Twitter at @stellacollins, and download her Webinars Pocketbook (Top Tips to ensure your meeting, presentation or training session is a virtual winner) here.


Crystal Balling with Learnnovators is a thought-provoking interview series that attempts to gaze into the future of e-learning. It comprises stimulating discussions with industry experts and product evangelists on emerging trends in the learning landscape.

Join us on this exciting journey as we engage with thought leaders and learning innovators to see what the future of our industry looks like.


LEARNNOVATORS: We are great fans of you, Stella. Being ‘one of the Brain Ladies’, you are someone who knows a lot about how human brain really works. As an expert who specializes in applying neuroscience and psychology to learning and development, you have been trying to help the community better understand ‘brain science’ and ways to bring that into learning design. It’s an honor to have you here today to discuss the past, present, and future of workplace learning in three questions.

1. LEARNNOVATORS (THE PAST): According to Nick Shackleton Jones, “…in the entire history of humankind, the educational practice of memorizing facts from something one has read and then regurgitating them in a test, is a tiny fraction of our history. It’s a bizarre ritual. It’s been around less time than palmistry. Whatever it is and isn’t, it’s safe to say that human cognition – human learning – was not designed/evolved for this purpose.” How learning really happens in the brain (and also about remembering and forgetting) is indeed one of the key aspects that need to be understood the most, especially by us in ‘learning and development’. Unfortunately, we agree that it is the one that might be least understood so far. This could probably be the reason why many feel today that we have been wrong in our approach to workplace learning all along. In this context, it is intriguing to hear you say, “Cognitive psychology provides valuable evidence to back up what and how skilled trainers, teachers and educators previously taught through experience. Now neuroscience can provide more in-depth evidence of what’s actually happening in people’s brains.” As a practitioner who has been guiding many organizations on their learning and development journey, how do you look at the past where workplace learning strategies have been restricted to our limited understanding of the human brain and the rudimentary technologies? And, what are your experiences being part of this (past) journey?

STELLA COLLINS: Of course, in the past there have been examples of great teaching and learning, but they just tended to happen less in education and the workplace. I think sports and music have generally done things much better than the so-called academic subjects because of their focus on performance. It helps sports people to know some theory about running or jumping but you can only master a sports skill by actively doing it. Somehow business has got stuck in the idea of ‘knowledge = learning’ whereas it’s a tiny part of the journey to mastery.

I don’t think it was particularly due to a more limited view of the brain or the technology because both were cutting edge at the time, but it’s a misunderstanding about what we need to achieve – the goals of learning. Somehow, the goal became academicized and all about learning to pass a test or an exam; and not about learning to do the job that’s required. That’s why apprenticeships traditionally worked because you got started at the bottom rung and worked your way up by following the masters. It was structured but practical and the test was ‘does my carving look like it ought to?’ or ‘does the engine work like it should?’ rather than ‘can I answer all these questions correctly?’. There was too much focus on theory and not enough on practical application.

I started my career in IT and did some very practical courses that helped me code or analyse better. But the worst experience I had was  being sent on a 2 week Oracle database course. I had no idea why I was going, the course was highly theoretical and there was nothing for me to practice on when I got back from the course. So I know nothing about Oracle databases and it was a terrible waste of time and money. What I did realise was that there had to be a better way to do this kind of training so it was probably a trigger to set me off on the goal to find that better way.

2. LEARNNOVATORS (THE PRESENT): To quote Margie Meacham, “When we understand how the brain learns, we become better teachers, leaders, and training professionals. When we understand how to use AI to accelerate how the brain learns, we put the power of the human brain into the hands of every learner, creating a unique experience, one human brain at a time.” It is exciting to note that with recent brain research findings, we are evolving and moving closer to a better understanding of how human brain really works, and how it is adapting to our rapidly changing life styles transformed by emerging technology). We too believe that it is important for us in learning to become more passionate about neuroscience to understand how today’s exponential technologies are transforming learning so that we can design solutions that work better (more effective and efficient). In this context, we find this thought of yours very relevant: “In the past, a lot of people have had theories and models about how to teach. But Learning Designers need to think about how people learn.” As a practitioner who has been able to greatly influence the community on the need to bring the best of brain science into our learning and performance support solutions, and with vast experience guiding many organizations through the process, how do you look at this (present) scenario where our new understanding of how learning really works in the human brain is transforming workplace learning? And, what are your experiences being an active part of this (present) journey?

STELLA COLLINS: I’m fascinated by how our brains and bodies learn – we can’t have one without the other so I think it’s really important to think holistically about learning. You can have some of the best content in the world but if there are no breaks, opportunities to reflect, practice, get feedback and apply it in a real work context, then the content is of no value. We know from neuroscience for instance how we consolidate our memories whilst we sleep, so one of our responsibilities at work should be to encourage people to get enough sleep if we want them to learn. Plus specific types of exercise are beneficial for different types of learning so how can we ensure people get sufficient exercise to enable them to learn efficiently. Sitting at your desk all day, everyday is not getting you in the best state for learning and  yet we still see that as a norm for many office workers. And it’s got slightly worse after covid because of course many people don’t even travel to work now – me included – so it’s not much of a walk from the kitchen to the office space. The evidence about diet and your brain is a bit less robust but it makes sense that with a healthy body comes a healthy brain.

Going back to how do we help people learn one of the things that’s currently very popular is encouraging self-paced or self-directed learning. It sounds great – let’s just give people access to all the information and they’ll be able to learn from it. But most of us don’t really know how we learn and simply get distracted by the vast amounts of content that we need to sift through. Learning is an iterative process that requires motivation, ‘desirable difficulty’, effort, practice, support, feedback, reflection and repetition. So if we ask people to self-direct their learning we need to give them the skills of learning first – otherwise it’s the equivalent of throwing people into a swimming pool and expecting them to swim.

At Stellar Labs we’ve been designing training with an evidence-based learning process that aims to upskill people so they have the skills to perform in the workplace. And now we’re building technology that supports that process both for the learners, their managers (always vital for support, and for L&D). We won’t replace L&D but what we are doing is giving them the tools to support learning in the workplace rather than simply running training courses or curating content.

3. LEARNNOVATORS (THE FUTURE): According to Alex Kostikov, “(In future), a personal artificial intelligence system will replace a computer, smartphone, autopilot in a car, and much more. Any human skill and knowledge will become available for purchase or sale in a few minutes on the Internet. The painstaking and exhausting training we are accustomed to will gradually become unnecessary. Most disabilities will lose their limiting component.” We too remain eager and excited but wish to look at this future, of course with caution, where learning probably gets truly re-imagined (by leveraging Artificial Intelligence for augmenting our brain capacities). In this context, it is inspiring to hear you say “Whilst we have probably learned more in the past 20 years about the brain than in the whole time since life began, there is still a vast amount to explore. It’s like the bottom of the ocean; the more we know the more we realize there is to know.” As an evangelist who has been continuously inspiring the community on the future prospects of the convergence of neuroscience with Artificial Intelligence, how do you look at workplace learning in this (future) scenario where human brain may get converged with the artificial brain? And, what’s your vision for this future?

STELLA COLLINS: That’s a big question and I’m currently no expert on Artificial Intelligence though I am very excited that we’re building various AI algorithms into our Upskilling platform. It’s inevitable that we’ll use more and more AI and the good stuff will be the stuff that we don’t even notice – where it’s helping us and guiding us without it feeling artificial or scary. I was at a conference recently where Dr Itiel Dror pointed out that we’re getting more ‘stupid’ because of AI. That statement was really to draw attention rather than he genuinely thinks we’ll all become stupid but what he did describe was some evidence that our brains are getting slightly smaller. In the famous experiment with London taxi drivers they were shown to have a larger hippocampus in comparison to bus drivers because they had to learn all the London streets. When they retired their hippocampi returned to a more normal size. So as we rely on digital technology and AI to do some of our thinking for us we may well start to lose some brain capability. But we may develop capabilities in other areas because of enhanced technology so it’s another kind of evolution – I’m sure when the pencil was invented that changed our brains too. The future is exciting, and my belief is that, as humans, we will continue to grow and develop to adapt to the world around us, and workplace learning will have to keep up with the changes in society.

LEARNNOVATORS: Before we sign off, we thank you so much for your time today, Stella. We’ve had an amazing time reading your insights with many valuable takeaways. We’ll take these learnings to foster our commitment to practice and promote continuous learning and innovation at work. Thank you!

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