Why Expecting Learners to Pay Attention Is a Tall Order: Creating an Environment That Helps People Focus (Part 1)

An ordered workshop with tools hanging on the wall

Imagine yourself sitting in a workshop in a crowded, overheated, loud and chaotic space. You’ve just come from a frustrating, drag-on meeting that made you late and caused you to skip lunch. The presenter begins their power point and talks energetically about their topic. You’re interested but your brain just isn’t cooperating with your desire to learn. Your environment, stress and hunger are putting too much pressure on your ability to focus.

The brain has a limited capacity to hold attention. Too many consultants, facilitators and coaches overestimate how much of a person’s attention they can hold simply because they’re talking. Because our brains are limited in how much information they can process at once, attention is directed towards whatever the brain senses is most pressing. All too often, a learner’s attention is being directed toward anything but the ideas you are trying to convey.

Creating an environment conducive to learning is just as important as whatever it is you are trying to get across. Yet few people work with these pre-learning factors to help their clients learn. There’s so much vying for a person’s attention before you even open your mouth. Reducing, acknowledging and working with whatever is standing in the way of learning will have an amazing impact on your ability to get your message across.

Before You Can Get Their Attention, They’ve Got to Get Past These Distractions

Learner distractions happen from environment, bodily sensation, biases, memories, worldview, perceptive filters and emotions


Physical Environment

They may be struggling to adjust to the environment and be focused on things like the temperature, seating and table arrangements, noise inside and outside the room, lighting, what’s going within people’s line of sight outside the room (through the window, through open doors), and distractions from notifications on their phones.

Bodily Experience

They may be struggling to adjust to their own body’s demands and be focused on things like the feel of the chair, physical proximity to others, the clothes they are wearing (too tight, itchy, too warm), hunger level, lack of sleep, or that they need to go to the bathroom.

Emotional State

They may bring powerful emotions into the space. For example, they may be going through a break up, have had an argument with someone before coming into the room, or someone they love may be sick or have recently passed away. Or maybe they feel elated because they just got a promotion or are in love. Or perhaps, depression and anxiety are interfering with their ability to take in information.

Unconscious Biases and Memories of Classrooms, Being a Student, Being in Learning Situations

In another post, I went through the learning cycle and what happens in the brain when it’s fed new data. A classroom or learning situation is a concrete experience that will trigger reflective observation automatically surfacing many memories and associations. Some they may be aware of and others may happen under their radar. Simply being in a learning situation will cause their brain to bring up their entire history as a student. They may begin feeling dread, fear, curiosity, guardedness, excitement or whatever else their mind tells them they should feel in such an environment.

Unconscious Biases and Memories of Teachers, People Who Look Like You, Groups and Peers

Similarly, every relationship they’ve had with people who have your skin colour, gender, ethnicity, accent, body movements, etc. will come up often unconsciously. Their past with people in positions of authority like teachers, bosses and parents, or experts will guide them in how to behave with you. If you’re leading a group, then their memories of other learners and their past experiences in groups will also tell them how they should be in this situation.

Worldview, Perceptual Filters and Understanding of the World and the Topic

And because what we know is based on our past experiences, the way they take in and process information is shaped by their worldview and current understanding of the topic at hand. In some cases, they won’t be able to take in information that poses a threat to their current understanding of the world at all as their perceptual filters blind them to it entirely. This is not a conscious process at all – it’s a protective part of human psychology that keeps us from whatever is deemed a threat.

Reaching Distracted People Is an Art!

Going through this list should make us appreciate what a good teacher or guide actually does! They manage to navigate all of this and still reach people. That’s a beautiful art.

Luckily, we are not helpless in terms of helping people come through all this distraction. There’s a lot we can do to set up environments that guide people toward focus and a better ability to learn. Developing this skill will greatly enhance the impact you can have on people. In part 2, we’ll look at how you can do just that but for now, I’d like to leave you with this:

Distraction is such a common part of our lives these days, it seems more the norm than the exception. The next time you are trying to focus but find yourself being pulled in many directions, tune into what’s going on for you. Don’t try to stop it, just notice how it unfolds.

  • What’s going on around you?
  • What’s going on inside of you?
  • What do you notice your mind doing?
  • Where is your attention going?

Now experiment with changing your environment and addressing your internal states to see if you can increase your ability to focus.  

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