The Sticky Factor: Fun in Workplace Learning

by Pamela O’Neal
ATD – Heart of Central Illinois Chapter

You may be surprised at what a little humor and entertainment can do.

I’m a child of the ‘70s. I grew up on Schoolhouse Rock and Sesame Street. Who knew that they had educational messages built into them? Okay, not as a child at least.

An Early Impact
Let’s start with Schoolhouse Rock. I can still recall “Conjunction Junction” and “I’m Just a Bill.” I can actually still recite the preamble to the Constitution—and that is not because of my great love of history (sorry Marty Miller, my high school history teacher).

The show premiered in 1973 with a series of three-minute shorts that played between our Saturday morning cartoons. The original series ran through 1985, was revived in 1993 and ran again until 1999. In 2009, a direct-to-video series was also released. The topics covered included grammar, science, economics, history, math and civic issues. All were fun and engaging. All had that “sticky” factor we seriously desire in training. If I can recall several of the episodes word for word some 40 years later, what does that tell you? Something obviously stuck!

Likewise with Sesame Street—the children’s television show debuted in 1969 and continues to air today. What other programs that you know have run that long? It was the first time writers introduced an educational curriculum and goals to shape the content, and the first time the educational effects were studied.

“Sesame Street was built around a single, breakthrough insight: that if you can hold the attention of children, you can educate them,” writes Malcolm Gladwell. The show’s creators and researchers focused on cognitive goals (thinking) while addressing affective goals (emotions/feelings) indirectly. Cognitive goals can include recognition/recall, understanding, application, analysis, evaluation and creation—all things we must do daily as adults. Affective goals include attention span, motivation to learn, beliefs and attitudes.

What Sesame Street did so well was pair those two together: holding the attention span of children, entertaining them, and striving to increase their self-esteem and feelings of competence. They structured the show’s content to increase viewer attention and appeal, and wove in more sophisticated humor to attract older siblings and engage parental involvement. As of 2001, there were over 1,000 research studies regarding the impacts of the show. Sesame Street has consistently demonstrated a significant educational impact over the decades. Talk about some serious “sticky” power in education and learning!

Fun & Learning in the Workplace
So how about learning in today’s world? Is there science behind the need for fun in learning? Of course there is! Otherwise I couldn’t very effectively build my case, now could I?

  • R.L. Garner’s study, published in the Journal of College Teaching in 2012, found that students recall statistics more easily when the lecturer adds jokes about relevant topics.
  • Neurologist Judy Wills published findings of how fun increases levels of dopamine, endorphins and oxygen, which promote learning.

And what about fun in the workplace? Does it exist? Should it? Why yes, yes it should! Michael Tews, associate professor at Penn State University, published in The Journal of Vocational Behavior that employees are more likely to try new things if their work environment is fun. Among the highlights:

  • Fun activities were significantly related to overall informal learning.
  • Fun activities were significantly related to learning from others and non-interpersonal sources.

In “Workplace fun is fundamental for learning on the job,” an article published by Science Daily, Michael Tews (hey, there he is again) worked with John W. Michel from Loyola University and Raymond A. Noe from Ohio State to explore the topic of fun in the workplace. The article states that while fun is often looked at as a distraction by managers, it may improve a worker’s resiliency and optimism, leading to better attention with tasks. Of note in this research is that the fun activities themselves may not be responsible for instilling new lessons. However, it does create a better learning environment.

Many of you are of a generation that grew up with Schoolhouse Rock and Sesame Street. If you are much younger than me, I would bet that you have, at the very least, been exposed to one or both—and may know some of the lessons, or even have a favorite. My favorite Sesame Street character is Count von Count, by the way.

We grew up expecting to be entertained. So why should we sit placidly as we ingest boring, long, dry corporate training as part of our normal expectations? Fun doesn’t have to be difficult or dramatic—and it is quite easy to introduce, even in tiny, little increments.

Add a joke or two. Tell a humorous story. Introduce gamification (avatars, badging, levels, quests). Make a connection with the learners. Throw some seemingly random activity into the mix that builds learner relationships or interest. Tap into your inner Sesame Street or Schoolhouse Rock learner and bust out a rhyme to “3 is a Magic Number.” You’ll be surprised at what a little humor and entertainment does in your workplace education—and how easily you can make learning “stick.” iBi

Pamela O’Neal is president of the Association for Talent Development – Heart of Central Illinois Chapter. For more information, visit tdhci.org.

Subscribe to Peoria Magazines

Add new comment