The vision: 5. Learning and development that is engaging

Transforming l&d


In the first post in this series, we expressed a vision for learning and development that is aligned, economical, scalable, flexible, engaging and, above all, powerful in terms of the results it achieves. In this post, we look at the argument for l&d to be engaging.

Learning interventions need to be engaging, because without learner engagement there’s very little chance that any meaningful learning will take place. Engaging interventions attract and maintain interest, they arouse the emotions, they are full of energy. Just like learning should be.

In Switch – How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath, the authors make a key distinction between what we think consciously and what our more primitive, emotional system will have us do. They liken the emotional system to an elephant and the intellect to the rider of the elephant. As you can imagine, when you’re trying hard to resist that bar of chocolate or force yourself up out of bed on a cold morning, the rider has a heck of a job keeping the elephant under control and can easily become exhausted in the process.

Engaging the learner is about getting the elephant on board. While the rider may be engaged by the long-term benefits of a learning activity or an intellectual curiosity, the elephant is much more interested in what’s in it for him right now. The prospect of a solution to a real, current problem will definitely do the job, because relevance will always drive out resistance. The elephant may also be motivated by a challenge – perhaps a game which involves some form of competition. Humour may also do the trick, or just plain novelty.

Being engaged can be likened to a state of flow, as described by the psychologist Mihaly Csiksczentmihalyi. He describes this state as follows:

Confronting tasks that we have a chance of completing
Clear goals
Immediate feedback
A deep, effortless involvement
A sense of control over one’s actions
A reduced concern for self
Hours pass by in minutes

You may find it a daunting challenge to design and deliver learning interventions that are capable of inducing such a state of mind, but in the right circumstances the motivation to learn can be very strong. As Daniel Pink describes in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, three factors stand out: the desire to direct our own lives; the urge to get better and better at something that matters; and the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves. Provide learning opportunities with a clear purpose, a direct relevance to real-world issues and a highly-flexible and learner-centred methodology and you’ll be more than half the way there.

Coming next: The vision: 6. Learning and development that is powerful

About Clive Shepherd

Clive Shepherd has written 244 post in this blog.

Clive is a consultant specialising in the application of technology to learning and business communications. He was previously Director of Training and Creative Services for a multinational corporation and co-founder of a major multimedia development company. For four years he was chair of the eLearning Network.

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