In college, I used to thank professors profusely for instating a no-laptop rule in their lecture hall classes. Sure, it meant having to hand write my notes, but it also meant I wouldn’t get distracted by an email notification on my screen or the person in front of me streaming the midday baseball game on mute.
No possible distractions. That had to be the best way to get through a 75-minute lecture on the history of American journalism, right?
“Please don’t beat [distractions] back,” said Sarah Thompson, principal consultant at Xerox Learning Services, who works with clients and her organization’s corporate university. “Those distractions can be used to our advantage.”
Thompson said distractions allow breathing room for a learning brain. Shortening lessons into nuggets and allowing employees to have a distraction in between intervals gives them the chance to let the information soak in.
She offered two things learning leaders can do to make sure distractions come in just the right ways and at just the right time. The first is to parse learning into smaller nuggets so if learners get distracted by something unsponsored by the leader, then they won’t miss too much.
Second, shorten the amount of time spent on each activity. Encourage deep focus on a subject for a short amount of time before offering up a facilitator-created distraction to force learners into absorption mode.
Bonus for learning leaders: The distraction can be related to the subject matter. Thompson said CLOs can use these moments to send a quick quiz question or open-ended question that connects to the topic at hand. Better yet, let the activity be something social — a “turn to your neighbor and share …” kind of thing.
“When you learned to cook in the kitchen, it might be watching your mother and doing it together or more generations,” Thompson said. “Allow the opportunity to explore peer networks; then it supports the learning environment.”
The most important thing to recognize, however, is that distractions exist, no matter whether learning leaders use them to their advantage or not.
“When we learn to ride a bike or drive a car, we didn’t learn without distraction,” Thompson said. “Our brains are triggering something to say we can’t focus anymore, that there’s something else our brains are triggered to go do. We need to support that.”