It would be nice if participants arrived at the beginning of training with their minds open and receptive. Very few of them actually begin the learning event with the intention of deliberately tuning out the learning material, but too often this is what happens. They show up with their minds full of unfinished projects, issues, discussions, family, children, household projects, and emails and voicemails to return, or other things to do. It is a well-established fact that the mind can only hold one idea at a time (although the ideas can move through in rapid succession). Therefore, if learners are thinking about their jobs or their lives, they are not thinking about their training.
Multitasking in some organizations has become an expectation. However, human psychology and physiology just doesn’t support it. The best way to get the most out of any learning process is to focus.
Trainees need to begin their learning with a mind that is ready to accept new ideas, techniques, and skills. To do this, they need to clear their minds of the clutter and “dust” that lurks there. This technique, borrowed from Gestalt psychology, helps trainees begin the learning with a clear mind, which will increase their ability to absorb new information.
- Begin by introducing the training in the usual way. Just after the introduction, provide a piece of paper or ask them to pull one out of their materials.
- Introduce this activity by saying, “What were you thinking about when you arrived at or began this training?” (Pause) “Is there anything you can do about any of these items right now, while you are in training, without leaving the training—physically or mentally?” The answer should be a universal no. Explain that the mind cannot hold more than one idea at a time and for them to learn what they need in this training class, they need to clear their minds of other things.
- Ask them to write down what was on their mind when they arrived or began training: calls to return, quantity of emails in their inbox, projects they’re working on, people they need to see, kids, spouses, household issues, and so forth (provide a nice long list of examples). Pause while they write.
- Have them fold their paper into thirds, like a letter (or provide an envelope), and write on the outside: After Training. Then ask them to take their paper, their phone, laptop, and any other work materials they have brought with them and put them out of view on the floor, on a table at the back of the room, and so on. This is also a good opportunity to remind them to turn phones and pagers off or put them on vibrate.
- Ask them to close their eyes and imagine a vacuum sweeper—not a powerful one that sucks the breath away, but a gentle vacuum that works quietly. Imagine that this vacuum is sitting right next to their head, gently whirring. Now it’s sucking out their distracting thoughts, leaving a clean brain and mind. Ask them to visualize a clean white space, like a whiteboard with nothing on it. This is their mind at the present time. It will be filled with new skills and thoughts throughout the training.
- Ask them to open their eyes, pause, and begin the training.
- After breaks, invite participants to add to their lists, and let the vacuum refresh and clear their minds again.
This activity may not be as effective as it could be if the culture of the organization is such that people become upset when separated—even psychologically—from their work or their phone, participants are expecting calls or, worse, are expecting to do other work during the learning event, people experience “separation anxiety” when asked to put away their phones or laptops, or learners resist the vacuum visualization aspect of this activity, considering it too “touchy feely.”
- Omit step 5. The technique isn’t as effective this way, but doing so may reduce resistance.
- Have participants pause and think about everything that is on their mind, rather than write.
- Instead of a vacuum sweeper metaphor, use a box. Participants visualize putting what is on their mind into the box. (This can be a communal box for the entire group, or their own private box.)
- This metaphor may work better than the vacuum in an e-learning design.
- Provide an actual box or basket, ask participants to put their names on the papers (on which they have written what is on their mind). Pass the box around or circulate with it, having them put their papers into the box or basket. Return their papers to them at the end of the learning event.
Note: This article is excerpted Making Learning Stick by Barbara Carnes.