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A Workout with the Brain Trainer

A Workout with the Brain Trainer

Brian Thwaits is a learning whiz who first demonstrated his flair for performance as an award-winning educator. He’s now an engaging and entertaining ‘brain trainer’ who shows people how to enhance their thinking, communication, innovation, and change management skills. Below, Education Today spoke to Brian about how teachers, students — and everyone — can use their minds to the fullest:

QUICK: READ THESE 20 WORDS AND then flip the page of this magazine and write them down: truck, cat, lawnmower, moon, chain, skyscraper, hat, tree, stove, apples, table, rake, mirror, football, bracelet, helicopter, door, bathtub, bridge, ghost.

How did you do? If you remembered around seven, you’re average, says educational speaker Brian Thwaits. The word list comes from his book The Big Learn: Smart Ways to Use Your Brain, and the exercise has become a regular opening to his presentations on how we can all become better learners. To keep audiences from getting too depressed about their results, he redeems their mediocre showing with a second exercise, presenting a new set of words in a different way.

But as he describes in The Big Learn, rather than read a list, the second time he presents the words like this: “First, create a picture of a CAR in your mind’s eye — your car, a friend’s car, a car you’d love to own. Now you see a DOG in the driver’s seat. Visualize a dog driving the car. On closer inspection, you notice that the dog is holding a large BALLOON on a string. It’s a big, red balloon.”

The results are completely different. Not only do people remember many more (or all 20), but they also tend to perk up and pay more attention to the talk. “They were involved, and they felt smart,” says Thwaits. “They think, ‘I’m going to listen to this guy now because he just blew my mind!’”

The exercise not only works well for Thwaits’s presentations but models a top piece of advice for educators: engage students from the start. Finding ways to make learning active works at any age, says Thwaits. For students, it increases retention, motivation and even the effort that students will put into learning. Even for adults, tweaking the way that you interact with information can improve your ability to remember it. Like much of his advice, the tip about engagement is one that this teacher turned speaker credits to his time in the classroom.

From Classroom to Podium

Starting out as an elementary teacher in a proverbial two-room schoolhouse in interior British Columbia (and then in the more prosaic Rexdale neighbourhood of Toronto), Thwaits later became certified as a reading specialist and was hired by Mohawk College in Hamilton. In his 22 years at Mohawk, he set up the college’s Reading Centre, taught business writing courses and started to teach workshops in the private sector. The last path led to speaking engagements, which eventually became so plentiful that he left teaching. Today he is represented by an agency called Speakers’ Spotlight to do presentations and keynotes across Canada for sectors as diverse as agriculture, banking, health care, human resources and, yes, education.

If the classroom experience has inspired his speaking, his work as a speaker has also clarified which tactics work best for teachers. One of his favourites is presenting information visually. “No matter how dry their information is, they need to dress it up a little bit,” says Thwaits, noting that teachers today face more competition than ever for students’ interest. “Microsoft recently released a study that said a gold sh actually has a longer attention span than we do now. We used to be at 12 seconds. We’re down to 8 because of devices, they said,” says Thwaits. “If people aren’t interested, they’re not going to pay attention.”

He’s a fan of technology like whiteboards and projectors for visualization, but even coloured chalk does the trick. Thwaits recalls an exercise he used as a teacher where he’d work with students to visually map the chapter of a text using coloured chalk, underlining and boxes, linking chapter subheads and concepts until the board was full. “When I was done, it would look like a piece of art,” says Thwaits.

Learning to Learn

Thwaits also stresses the importance of teachers being taught how to teach, and students being taught how to learn. “In the world we live in now, knowing how to learn is probably the most important thing to be successful, because things are always changing,” he says. “I wish we spent middle school teaching kids just how to learn, how to mind map, how to study for a multiple-choice test compared with an essay test and all that stuff, so when they got to high school, they’d actually know what to do.”

He says that he saw the fallout of not knowing how to learn in his role as a reading specialist. Thankfully he also witnessed improvements. “The strugglers, a lot of whom I dealt with, a lot of times are much better students at postsecondary levels because they’ve learned how to bear down and study,” he says.

Talking Brains

Today, Thwaits’s talks focus on tips that help audiences strengthen their memory and tweak their approach to internalizing information (see below). He also delights in busting a few persistent myths about brains. The idea that we use only 10 percent of our brains? Untrue. Those ubiquitous “learning styles”? No need to pin yourself to one, as a student or as a teacher, says Thwaits. Even more damaging, he says, is the one about being either left-brained or right-brained. “Families will say about their kids, ‘My kid’s really creative. They can’t do math. They’re too right-brained.’ Well, that’s not healthy.”

Want to train yourself a better brain?

Thwaits’s top tips help audiences do just that:


When people seem like memory wizards, it’s often because they’re putting in more effort than you, says Thwaits. Do you focus your full attention when you’re being introduced and repeat the person’s name afterwards to make it stick? Do you take careful notes when reading a book or attending a lecture? If not, you may be allowing your brain to slack off.


From learning multiplication tables to perfecting presentations, practice is another proven way to improve your brain, says Thwaits. While the tactic has flaws — it’s boring and time-consuming — those can be mitigated by embracing shortcuts like mnemonics and limiting memorization to highlights.


Since the mind remembers pairs better than single items, Thwaits advocates a trick he calls the Rule of Ridiculous Association. Use unexpected juxtapositions to increase your chances of recall: for example, remember a new colleague as Tommy the Turtle (especially if he looks like one) rather than Tom with the moustache.


For information to stick, it needs to be meaningful, says Thwaits. To make friends with a boring report, make notes in the margins that force you to think through what you’re reading. And that’s notes, not highlighting — rewording someone’s writing will increase its meaning for you personally.


Need to give a presentation? The more visual, the more memorable, says Thwaits. With the increased availability of graphics tools, this is a no-brainer for the brain.


Break down information into chunks for better logic and easier retention. It’s a technique widely used in everything from agenda items to resumé sections. Thwaits urges audiences to refine chunking even further: for example, by using bullets and visuals in written correspondence.


When you find emotional ways to convey meaning, information that could be boring becomes interesting, says Thwaits. Bump up the colour in your vocabulary, embrace unusual metaphors and even try out storytelling techniques to hook listeners and leave them asking for more.

Brian Thwaits, Adapted from The Big Learn: Smart Ways to Use Your Brain/This article first appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association’s Education Today