Learning that engages and transforms reluctant learners

Published on May 6th, 2022

reluctant learners - empty school chairs

The most important factor in determining whether you learn effectively is whether you want to learn. If a learner does not want to learn, they will not learn. A bad teacher is not one who does not know their subject, it is one who cannot inspire their learners. And the point of learning is to change something – a new behavior or skill. If a learner does not engage, they will not change. 

Common mistakes

One of the mistakes that trainers make is that in a misguided attempt to inspire, they go too far and try to entertain. Learning will never entertain in the same way as the latest James Bond or Star Wars film (or theatre production, etc.). And the purpose of learning isn’t about entertainment – changing behaviors and developing new skills requires effort, concentration and focus. This can be a hard message to sell to people who you need to be inspired by new learning content. 

The first point to make is that the problem is very rarely the learners themselves. We should admit that there is a small number of people who for unknown reasons will never engage. However, rather than blaming learners for not engaging, we must understand why they do not engage and then alter our perception of content. 

The learning styles myth

It is also worth noting here that the learning styles theory has been debunked – there is no evidence to suggest that individuals learn better from one particular type of content or approach than any other. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that different learning topics suit different styles of content, but what we need is different formats so that there is variety. 

What’s in it for me? 

The first and most important golden rule of learning is that we must clearly demonstrate the value – what’s in it for me? Every learner is conducting a subconscious cost-benefit analysis over all your learning content. Why should I take out precious time from my day to spend on this? Difficult reluctant learners are often just very busy people who feel that they will gain more from having the time back. If they are mandated to attend your session and they resent the time, they will be tough and will infect the rest of the room – virtual or live. 

We must, therefore, build objectives, matched by content, which adds practical value: we must make something easier, remove a barrier, simplify a process or relationship – and we must show that upfront. Don’t rely on the content to speak for itself – be explicit and consult with the learners themselves. Ask them what would make life easier for them within the confines of the topic – get them to tell you what they need to get out of the day to make it worthwhile.  

And sometimes you need to be as direct as that – what would make this session or content worth the time you spend on it? It takes a brave facilitator to open with that, rather than a standard ice breaker – in fact, this cost-benefit equation is why learners don’t like icebreakers. They just don’t see the point. 

Practical application is king 

The second element of engaging reluctant learners is to rely on all the learners for the content.  

Recently, I had to call my internet provider to report a fault. The operator was extremely courteous and polite but had obviously got an active listening script in front of them. I was ‘active listened’, and it was a terrible experience. The operator repeated three or four times, ‘what I’m hearing you say is…’, ‘you’re saying that you are unhappy with…’ I was very tempted to reply with ‘what I’m hearing you say is that you’re hearing me say that I’m unhappy with the quality of my connection.’ 

This kind of situation happens when a theoretical model or principle is applied rigidly to every situation – because the learners have not been given the tools to mold the concept to reality. Models are an excellent way to conceptualize difficult concepts in a memorable way, but because they are by necessity simplified, they cannot cope with being exposed to the chaos of real life without a little interpretation.  

So, rather than spend time explaining the model and its theoretical underpinning, we can briefly introduce it, and then ask the learners whether it helps them understand what is going on in their contexts or how they could see using this in the future. This simple step bridges the reality gap between a rigid model and the real-world challenges learners face. 

Rather than trying to force a conversation into an active listening model, learners are equipped to think independently about how to apply and adapt the model to their needs, rather than the needs that the trainer has guessed at. This approach meets the first, golden rule as well – it gives the learner the value they need to justify the time spent. 

A marathon, not a sprint 

Finally, we must not rely on a one-off contact point to change the world – or at least learner behavior. It is much better to contract with the learners to have two or three shorter contact points, whether digital, virtual or face to face, than one long one. Covid has given us two big learning points: that we can learn things on Zoom; that we can’t learning things on Zoom if it takes more than an hour or so.  

Trainers who are trying to fit a day’s content into an online session are creating stress for themselves and doing a disservice to their learners. Blended learning has come into its own – it is no longer a fad or an upsell, it is firmly positioned as an extremely effective approach. But it must be a genuine blend. Not pre-work, but content that enhances the learning experience. When you blend a smoothie’s ingredients, you can no longer distinguish the individual fruit. When we blend learning content, it should be a single experience that builds on the surrounding content towards a common objective.  

Learning for reluctant learners 

The content must be high quality, consistent and look and feel good. The learner experience must lead to learning without distraction by clunky interfaces, typos or conflicting approaches. And it must be grounded in the learners’ reality.  

In fact, we could summarize all three points in that final sentence – learning must be grounded in the learners’ reality. It must reflect the pain that the learner experiences and provide a real cure. Too much training is a placebo – it makes you feel good for a while, because the trainer is excellent or the anecdotes are cleverly conceived, but in the end, it changes nothing.  

Transformational learning puts the content in second place, the facilitator in third place and champions the learners and their context.  


Matthew MacLachlan is a well published, leading expert in the field of cultural intelligence, global leadership and organisational development.

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