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Nicki Davey

Saltbox Training & Events


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Holistic learning: how to engage the heart in learning

How engaging learners’ emotions can aid learning transfer.

Following my previous articles Why learning should be a holistic experience, which looks at why we need to engage the body, mind, heart and spirit of learners in order to generate powerful learning, Engaging the body in learning, and Engaging the mind in learning, this fourth article in the series focuses on how to create learning experiences that emotionally engage learners in order to enable deep and memorable learning. Below, I’ll outline some practical ways to do this.

Neuroscientific research shows that emotions are essential to learning – they help learners to perceive an experience or information as meaningful so that the brain focuses on it, organises it, and remembers it. Emotions involve the heart and brain working together. The heart communicates directly with the limbic system or ‘emotional brain’ and actually sends more signals to the brain than the brain sends to the heart. These heart signals have a powerful effect on the way the brain processes emotions as well as the cognitive functions essential for learning such as attention, perception, memory, and problem solving.

Here are some practical tips for engaging the heart and generating positive emotions in training.

Encourage and enable emotional expression

  • Be an emotional role model – show your own emotions such as excitement, wonder, curiosity, and talk about how you feel.
  • Create activities where learners identify and explore their emotions and make it safe for them to experience and share these.
  • Use language that helps people connect with emotions such as ‘how do you feel?’ rather than ‘what do you think?’
  • Use stories to trigger an emotional state, either by telling stories or by asking learners to tell their own stories.
  • Generate surprise (e.g. through puzzles where the solution is completely different to what would be expected or tasks where actions lead to an unexpected result).
  • Create activities that really stretch and challenge learners so that they are excited when they succeed.
  • Use visualisation – ask people to close their eyes and visualise a situation where they felt a particular way (happy, excited etc) in relation to the topic.
  • Promote playfulness – give learners permission to play and make it fun.

Promote social interaction and mutual support

  • Introduce learners to each other before the training (by email, social media or by setting up an online classroom).
  • As people arrive, introduce them to each other and encourage them to find out things that they have in common.
  • Set small challenges for break and lunch times to encourage people to talk to each other rather than checking their phones/emails.
  • Mix up groups for each group activity so learners work with and get to know most of the other members of the group.
  • Use icebreaker activities that enable learners to get to know each other on a deeper, more meaningful level, such as asking them to bring a treasure (something that doesn’t have financial value but is important to them) and tell the story of their treasure and why it is important to them, or asking them to draw a road to represent their journey up to now and talk through their journey with the group.
  • Encourage the group to create shared, common goals for their learning overall or for specific activities.
  • Create non-competitive team games and activities that require good communication and collaboration to succeed.
  • Ask group members to review each other’s work and provide constructive feedback using gems (what worked well) and opportunities (what could be improved).
  • Use the 1-2-group process to help learners feel comfortable sharing/speaking in the group (individual time to consider responses, followed by sharing in pairs with a partner, then feeding back to the whole group.
  • Use simple trust games and activities.
  • Use peer-to-peer learning methods such as action learning sets and study circles.

Foster a love of learning

  • Give learners freedom to learn in their own way by letting them choose what they do and how they do it.
  • Help learners to connect their learning to personal goals, values or purpose creating a map or visual image to illustrate how they think their learning will help them to get to where they want to be.
  • Ask learners to identify and use real life examples from their own work/life as case studies or scenarios.
  • Give each learner a closed box or bag containing the materials they need for the course or for a specific activity. Ask them to guess what is in the bag and how they think the materials might be used.
  • Celebrate every bit of learning that takes place, whether it’s one of your learning objectives or not, embrace unplanned activities and turn unintentional experiences into learning opportunities.
  • Help learners to make a habit of asking themselves questions such as ‘why did this work?’ ‘what did I learn?’ or ‘how could I do this differently?’ throughout their lives, not just in the training room.

This is by no means an exhaustive list but hopefully these ideas will stimulate and inspire you to find your own ways of emotionally engaging learners. My final article in the series will look at how you can engage the spirit of learners.

For more insights on this topic, read The holistic learning handbook: a practical guide for teachers and trainers by Nicki Davey, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers in 2020.

4 Responses

  1. Hi Nicki
    Hi Nicki

    Great article. Really chimes with my own experiences of facilitating learning environments. I’d love to know more. Are there any books on this subject that you can recommend?


  2. Great article. One of the key
    Great article. One of the key principles I cover in my Creative Training Essentials course is the need to engage learners at an emotional level. This is vital for retention and inspiration. And, at the end of the day, the actions we take and the behaviours we adopt are driven not by knowledge alone, but by attitude and feelings.

  3. Hello Michelle – apologies
    Hello Michelle – apologies for the late reply – I’ve only just seen your comment. Our book “The Holistic Learning Handbook” will now be published in May 2020. If you go to my website and sign up for our mailing list we’ll let you know when it’s available to buy.

    Best wishes

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Nicki Davey


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