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My crazy idea for how to improve continuing legal education

I have a crazy idea.

What if continuing legal education programs took advantage of what we now know about the human brain? Our education system wasn’t designed to make learning fun or easy; it was designed to make us obedient factory-workers. CLE programs were developed more recently, but they seem to have copied and pasted from the “obedient factory-worker model.”

So, say that we were going to re-imagine CLE programs to make them “brain-friendly.” How would we do that? Are there any good books that can help us make the shift? Yes, turns out there is an excellent book: Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, written by John Medina, a molecular biologist with a lifelong interest in how brain science might improve the way we teach our children and the way we work.

I recommend that you read the book from cover to cover, but for now I’m going to focus on three key “rules” that would help folks who put on CLE programs. It could also help the folks who create accreditation rules. For sure, it could help the people who attend CLE programs.

Rule #1: We don’t pay attention to boring things.

If you want people’s attention you have to earn it, and then you have to keep earning it. Most speakers act as though they’re entitled to the audience’s attention simply because they’re up on a riser behind a wooden podium. Engaging an audience takes some practice, but it helps to know what techniques work best and why.

  • Emotion – if you can engage an audience’s emotions you’ll have a much better chance of keeping their attention. Emotions can be triggered by personal things, but some of the universal triggers are: fear, sex, and familiar things. Emotions are more easily conveyed with pictures and interesting stories than with bullet points, but we’ll talk about that in a bit.
  • Meaning – an audience needs a framework for the new information, and they need to know how each piece of information fits into that framework. So, they will pay attention if they’re given a roadmap of what’s coming, and then continual signals of where you are in that map as you speak. Give them the gist of a topic first to show why it matters, and then you can offer some details. If you give too much detail without clearly explaining why it matters you’ll lose the audience fast.
  • Timing – the brain can only pay attention for about 10 minutes. So, ideally, CLE programs wouldn’t last more than 10 minutes at a time. Medina says that his 50 minute college lectures ran up against this problem. So, he improvised a workable solution: he breaks down his lectures into 10 minute modules. Each module addresses one core concept, which he explains the meaning of at the start of the module, and then summarizes when he’s done.
  • Bait the hook – to “buy” another 10 minutes of attention it’s important to create a tantalizing hook. Ideally, the hook should trigger emotions such as fear, laughter, happiness, nostalgia, intrigue or surprise. The hook can’t be random. So you can’t just work in any old joke or story (see the section on “Meaning” above). The hook has to be relevant to the next module you’re going to talk about.

Rule 2: Review information you want to remember

Comedian Father Guido Sarducci used to joke about creating a new type of college called The Five Minute University. The idea was: in five minutes he could teach what the average college graduate still remembers after five years after graduation.

Humor aside, it turns out that Father Sarducci was basically right. Medina cites studies that show that people forget 90% of what they learned in a class within 30 days. The retention time can be extended if the presentation was multi-sensory, with emphasis on visuals (see Rule 3 below).

The best way to ensure retention is with regularly spaced intervals of review. Here the onus is really on the student, but there are things that the presenter can do to help. Here are some embryonic ideas:

  • Create written materials that encourage review and make it easy to do. So, for example, an outline that tracks the speech, but with bullet points and short text.
  • Put the “written materials” online an provide hyperlinks from the bullet points that go to more extensive discussion to encourage exploration of the topic. Using online storage of “written materials” allows you to supplement the written materials after the event. (I use for this purpose; look at my social networking links, as an example of how I use it).
  • Send an email to attendees a week after the event with a link ot the online materials (if you use Eventbrite to schedule your CLE events this is easy to do).
  • Post the slideshow online too, and link to that (Slideshare is great for doing this, and I do it for my presentations)

There are probably a lot of things that we could experiment with here. The first hurdle is to get over the mindset that a CLE provider is only responsible for creating a single live presentation and then does nothing else to encourage further learning or investigation. Aren’t we supposed to be encouraging education? Or is it just about supplying credits?

Rule #3: Use more pictures than words

Bullet points are a staple of most slidedeck presentations. And most presentations contain no visuals whatsoever. Our brains struggle with these kinds of presentations, and get very little out of them.

The average powerpoint slide contains 40 words, says Medina. According to extensive research, this almost guarantees that the information won’t be paid attention to, understood, or remembered. Many lectures don’t feature slides at all, which is fine if the speaker can create vivid mental imagery with words (most can’t). Even so, a speech where there are images that compliment the spoken words is much more effective; it creates a retention factor of 65%, as opposed to 10% for words alone.

The best kind of visuals are animations, which need not be complex. Probably even a Ken Burns effect would suffice in many cases. Point is: use animations (or video) occasionally.

They say that a picture is worth 1,000 words, and that might literally be true when it comes to remembering. One study showed that people can remember 2,500 pictures with 90% accuracy days after exposure. A year later their accuracy is still above 60%. Pictures are a powerful tool for explaining things, and for fixing new information into memory.

I understand the daily challenge of the accreditation folks: getting speakers to give interesting seminars is harder than creating rules focused on audience compliance. Much harder. But instead of easy rules that do little good, why not propose some new ideas that significantly improve CLE? For example, formally decree that speakers follow the Guy Kawasaki 10/20/30 Rule of Powerpoint. Or, at least the ’30’ part of it.

Conclusion: A proposed approach to the 60 minute CLE program

  • Opening – (2 or 3 mins) – memorable opening in first 30 seconds, then explain the GIST of the lesson. Then provide the ROADMAP of presentation (e.g. list the modules and how they fit together)
  • Module 1 − (10 mins) – Remember to use MULTI-SENSORY stimulation (more VISUALS than words, ANIMATED wherever possible)
  • Use a relevant HOOK to set up next module
  • Modules 2 − (50 mins total) – Repeat formula above, with liberal repetition of “where we are.” Don’t need hooks for last two modules; people tend to stay tuned in based on the first ones, and the 10 minute cycle.
  • Wind down – (4 − 5 mins) -Briefly revisit the key ideas, and some key details
    Tell students where the visuals will be posted online for later review.
  • Q&A – (3 − 5 mins) – Answer questions with reference to materials discussed if possible to reinforce concepts

Attention: Louisiana lawyers who need CLE
Louisiana lawyers who want to attend a CLE program that incorporates most of these ideas should check out my CLE page, and also read this page of their FAQ’s (which explains why our CLE programs are truly different).

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