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Carrying the cognitive load of learning 

Focused learning takes a lot of cognitive energy. Therefore, the way we go about learning has to be much more strategic and intentional. Learning Scientist Lauren Waldman offers practical suggestions on how learning leaders can navigate that moving forward. 
Lauren Waldman - Guest Contributor

Written by Lauren Waldman, founder of Learning Pirate, and a revolutionary in the discipline of organisational learning and development. With nearly 20 years of experience as a learning professional, complemented by qualifications in neuroscience, Lauren is driving the evolution of the way individuals and organisations learn, approach learning, and join forces with their brains! 

Imagine this: you’ve been locked up at home for most of the year, balancing your home, social and professional life in a way you never have before. While that’s happening, you’re also experiencing a vast array of emotions and feelings, constantly wondering what’s to come next in the world. On top of all that, you’ve had to maintain productivity for work but have found it increasingly hard to focus.  

But we don’t have to imagine this. This really did happen, with many still living in a variation of this existence across the globe.   

Now let’s add learning. Learning that may need to be done to onboard as a new employee, or to upskill as an existing one.   

Learning in order to adjust and adapt to new protocols, policies, procedures, health standards and cultures.   

Learning that is required for people to do their jobs on shop and factory floors, to maintain compliance, keep people safe, understand new products and services etc.  

Does anyone else feel their levels of overwhelm increasing as you read this? A slight tightness in the chest as the pile of things to do gets bigger?  

This is what employees, otherwise known as humans, are experiencing all over the world when it comes to balancing workload, maintaining productivity, and trying to keep up with necessary learning at the same time. 

So what do we do about this? 

At a recent event (Learning Futures, hosted by iVentiv) myself (appearing as a floating virtual head), along with Nick Ramsay and David Hastings of Go1, facilitated a session with learning leaders to have some pretty open discussions about learning under the conditions of heavier cognitive and emotional loads. 

Lauren appears as a floating head at iVentiv event


To bring this into context, let’s look at the brain and the science which helps us navigate all of this.  

First thing to know, the brain is expensive! And its currency is energy. Our brains are designed to process and send information through electrical signals (energy). As you may imagine, the more areas activated, the more energy is being transmitted. Not as much as you may think, but more than when you’re in the resting state. 

In the resting state, when you’re not actively participating in a task or being stimulated, like when you’re doing focused learning, the brain is consuming about 20% of the body’s energy. That’s a whole lot, considering its size and the amount of real estate it occupies in relation to your entire body. 

So how does knowing this help us as learning professionals - and everyday humans for that matter? 

 Having a baseline understanding of our own cognitive resources allows us to not only be more aware and understanding of the limitations of those around us, but enables us to help to protect them as well.  Allow me to explain. 

Focused learning takes a lot of cognitive energy. So making decisions on how to execute and roll out learning initiatives that still need to get done should take this into consideration.   

Asking yourself questions like:  

  • What else is going on in the organization that will need people’s cognitive energy?  
  • Are there big launches happening? 
  • Organizational changes?  
  • Are people navigating and adjusting to hybrid working conditions?  

These are just some of the things that are going to be taking up people’s cognitive and emotional energy.   

Slowing down, to take a greater look at the landscape of what’s going on across the organization, will help in making decisions on how much more you can add to someone’s plate without deteriorating their energy entirely. Don’t forget, people are also being consumed with managing their personal lives, which for many have now merged with their working lives.  

This doesn’t mean that learning has to stop, but it does mean that the way we go about it has to be much more strategic and intentional. So let me offer you some practical suggestions on how you can navigate that. 

Things you can take into consideration:  

Short-term training vs long-term learning: Do people need to know or be able to do something for a short period of time or do they need to learn something more permanently? It’s the difference between cramming for an exam the night before then forgetting everything a few days later vs taking the time to encode the learning into a long-term memory to transfer for future use. (The latter is going to take more time.) 

Environment: Where does the learning need to take place? And more importantly where does the transfer of that learning need to take place. When you ask yourself those questions you may find that the two don’t match up.     

If you’re learning something remotely that needs to be transferred into a specific environment, you’re going to want to consider the additional time and transfer activities that will be needed to do so. Just because I’m amazing at Mario Kart, doesn’t mean you should let me behind the wheel of a real car (yes, I know, an exaggerated example but it makes the point nicely doesn’t it?) 

And last in order, but certainly not in importance… 

Design of the learning itself: I realise that this consideration is completely blurred by my own professional bias, but it still stands as true. The beauty of understanding how the brain operates, even at a foundational level, is that you can be better informed on how to design to work with the operational system as opposed to against it. This allows us to manage the cognitive resources in more effective and efficient ways for our learners.  

Needless to say, there are several more things to share about this topic and many more things to consider, but allow me to save your cognitive energy for the next part of our journey.     

All great learning begins with awareness and if I’ve accomplished that then I’d say we’re well on our way to continuing the adventure. 

Take care of those brains, minds and bodies.  

YARR for now... (You Are Really Ready!) 


Keen to hear more insights from the webinar? Watch the full session.  

You may also like to read Lauren's article on how joining forces with our brains can help us to be more emotionally intelligent and empathetic in the workplace. 

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