Meaningfulness: The First Priority of Interesting Learning Environments (Part 1)

It is unwise to try to scold boredom away by telling people they should be grateful they have a job or by saying, “We’re not here to entertain you.”

You don’t need to be an entertainer to be an excellent instructor, but you do need to be interesting. In my work with people from a wide range of ages and abilities, I’ve noticed that all interesting learning environments are characterized by four factors that you can implement yourself. These game-changing ingredients are:

  • Meaningfulness
  • Momentum
  • Participation
  • Reasonable Challenge

I will cover each of these ingredients in a separate article. When one of these ingredients is missing, boredom threatens. If two or more are missing, boredom dominates.

Boredom should be taken seriously because it is costly to business. It provides a thriving environment for absenteeism, low productivity, poor leadership, betrayal, theft, conflict, mischief, depression, suicidal thinking, low energy, poor attention, errors, and morale poisoning.

It is unwise to try to scold boredom away by telling people they should be grateful they have a job or by saying, “We’re not here to entertain you.” Instead, we can confidently design for interest, which I define as a desire to think. Meaningfulness is the first priority of an interesting learning environment. Here are some tips on ensuring meaningfulness from the attendee’s point of view:

1. Understand the individuality of meaning.

Content is meaningful to people when they can see it’s relevant to them. But they come to work for different reasons, which can affect how they feel about their jobs and training. Some find a great deal of meaning in jobs that allow them to support a family, to get away from a stressful home, to save for a vacation, to fill time, or for status or social enjoyment.

So you’re up against a variety of meanings, but you don’t have to worry about that, because you have the power to create learning environments in which attendees expect to have their time spent meaningfully.

2. Make the instruction useful.

Let’s say you’re going to teach employees how to use a fire extinguisher. I started understanding the importance of fire extinguishers after I saw my neighbor’s riding mower burst into flames while he was on it. I remembered that I had bought an extinguisher just in case. Here was my chance to see what it could do! I ran out and handed it to my neighbor, who quickly put out the fire.

Most people have not had to put out fires in their home or workplace. It can be hard to convince them that precautions are necessary. Legitimize your instruction by telling of instances when one of your departments or another business has had to use an extinguisher. Use photos to show what to expect after using an extinguisher. There will be a mess and probably some damage.

Explain how the instruction applies to extinguishers the attendees ought to have at home. Tell them how to select a proper extinguisher and where to buy one. Provide an instruction sheet that can be shared with roommates or family.

3. Honor their experience.

The better you know your attendees, the more meaningful you can make a training session. One way is to let individuals contribute their strengths. Sitting in front of you could be a chemistry major, a volunteer firefighter, or a former safety products salesperson who can explain how different kinds of extinguishers put out different kinds of fire and how to reduce potential harm by an extinguisher.

Ask other attendees to tell of times when they’ve seen extinguishers used and what they learned from it. By respecting several people’s experience in these ways, you build rapport with all your attendees and remove barriers that your personality or style might introduce. You increase the value of the instruction by making it real-life, believable, unmistakably meaningful.

4. Keep them comfortable.

People can handle almost anything when they’re comfortable and sense a good reason for being where they are.

Think from their perspective. If they might need a sweater in the training room, tell them well ahead of time. If they might need to bring lighter clothing on training days, say so. If they might get a little hungry or thirsty because the sessions are long or overlap with typical break times, tell them to come prepared with a quiet snack and drink, or provide for them.

Attendees also need to be socially comfortable—by their standards. Too many facilitators combine attendees in uncomfortable configurations. Certain people find classes meaningful simply if they’re with people they like. Others are turned off by inefficient groupings. For example, assigning groups to practice using an extinguisher could be a bad idea without a qualified trainer for each group. Party animals can always find a way to turn a poorly guided activity into a special event, while others will loathe the inefficiency and the undesired socializing that may be entirely unnecessary.

You Have the Power

One of the greatest things about building a reputation for spending other people’s time respectfully is that they will forgive you if you occasionally bore them. They know you’re on their side.

It is a great privilege to earn that kind of trust, and it is a terrific service to your organization, because people will show up more faithfully for training instead of finding reasons to avoid or resist it. Remember that boredom is a form of pain, and pain motivates escape. But interest draws us in. Designing for meaningfulness is a humanitarian act and a good business mindset.

Part 2 of this series will cover the ingredient of Momentum and will post January 20.

Max T. Russell has specialties in educational media and human learning and memory. His e-book, “How to Be an Interesting Teacher: Mastering the Four Factors of Interesting Learning Environments,” is on Amazon. You can contact him at