The other evening I was catching up on my much-delayed viewing of the fourth season of the HBO cops-vs.-drug-kingpins series “The Wire.” It’s the season when Roland Pryzbylewski (Prez), the officer who has left the force to become a math teacher, is trying to navigate the educational bureaucracy and get his tough, volatile inner-city students to actually learn something in his classroom.
In one episode, Prez is aghast to find out that in the winter, the school purposely turns the temperature way up — to about 80 — to lull the kids into a state of somnolence and presumably good, if heat-stupefied, behavior. He correctly understands that they can’t learn much in conditions like this.
The episode made me think about the physical learning environment in the workplace. Sure, employee trainers pay a lot of attention to the content of their curriculum and the way they deliver it. But do we pay enough attention to the tangible surroundings in which we ask employees to absorb the learning we seek to impart?
4 key factors
Those surroundings can have a massively negative impact on learning if they’re not right. What are some of the key factors that can either make or mar the employee training environment?
1. Temperature. According to a number of research studies carried out in schools, and summarized in a 2004 report by physical facilities expert Glen Earthman, above-average temperatures in classrooms — between 74 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit — cause significant reductions in reading speed and comprehension. One of the studies prescribes classroom temperatures between 68 and 74 for optimum learning.
2. Noise. The studies also show that students’ learning is impaired when the classroom is noisy. One study cited by Earthman concludes that the maximum desirable noise level is 40 decibels. (Compare that with the averages of 90 dB+ for bars and nightclubs — or electric drills! — 85 dB for a subway train going at full speed, 70 dB for restaurants at their busy hours, and 60 dB for normal conversation.)
3. Lighting. Not only does inadequate lighting just plain make it hard to see, it can also literally put your trainees to sleep. According to a compilation of research done by the University of Georgia’s School Design and Planning Laboratory, dim lighting causes muscles to relax and blood pressure and respiration rates to drop, with the result that the student or trainee tends to nod off. The SDPL, citing the Illumination Engineering Society, says a minimum of 50 foot candles of light is needed at desks and 100 foot candles at a chalkboard or whiteboard that’s being used to deliver instruction for an entire room. (Compare those levels with the light of a sunny day, 10,000 fc; the light of a cloudy day, 1,000 fc; and the light inside a structure and near a window, anywhere from 100 to 5,000 fc depending on conditions.)
4. General upkeep. Several studies cited by Earthman show not only that students/trainees learn more effectively in facilities that have been well maintained, but also that the teachers/trainers perform more effectively. Apparently everybody feels the morale boost of learning in a clean, attractive environment.
A team effort
Now, within an organization, physical facilities may well not be under the control of the same person who’s responsible for training. This means that if you’re going to positively affect the training environment, you’ll have to liaise with others in Facilities Management, or Physical Plant, or whatever.
But if you’re trying to train people in rooms that have too much heat in winter or not enough air conditioning in summer, that are too close to noise sources like machines or traffic, that are inadequately lit, or that could use a cleaning and a coat of paint, it’s worth the trouble to address these issues. By doing so, you have a chance to give your training results an immediate boost.
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