Brainformative Blog

The Lunch and Learn Myth (aka) Cognitive Load Theory Part 1

The Sage on the Stage is giving a “training” during a Lunch and Learn.  You sit in the auditorium filled with other learners alternating between your low fat turkey sandwich and a bag of non GMO chips. You try to crunch quietly but it still sounds like thunder in your ears.

The lights hum, and people pop the tabs on their soda cans and cell phones trill and chairs scoot and pens click when a bullet point seems particularly poignant. However, these moving moments are few and far between because the Sage on the Stage is zipping through the slide deck like they want to beat the Baptists to the Sunday buffet.

The truth is corporate is trying to save money, so the sage is volunteering their lunch time to get the “training” done. Trainers have to eat too.  

The Sage on the Stage clicks to the last slide and offers the ubiquitous closing: “Questions?”

No one has any because their bellies are full and the blood has rushed from their brains. The learners are thinking “I need a walk or even better . . . a nap.”

So what did you learn in the Lunch and Learn?  

Be honest.

If you are generous person you might say you took away a few nuggets.

But if you are honest and therefore blunt, you would say, “Not a damned thing.”


Why didn’t you learn anything?  Organizations do Lunch and Learns all the time. It’s the best of all worlds. People get to eat  a “free” lunch and get some training and the business saves money.

Win, Win, Win, Right?

Lunch and Learns must be effective, Right?  

“Well John, don’t tell my boss this, but it is obvious that the distractions really kept people from learning.”

Gasp! Say it ain’t so?

I won’t tell your boss but you are correct. It is so. So let’s talk about why it is so.

Distractions do play a central role in learning but the root of “distractions” is Cognitive Load: the brain energy required to manage the sensory input and conceptual integration the brain undergoes every waking minute of every day.  There is a finite limit on this energy expenditure and the brain regulates the energy consumption with impunity. Max out cognitive load, and like the straw that broke the camel's back, the environment, the perceptual stimulus, the internal brain processes reach a threshold and the brain goes tilt, ends its focus and learning (among many brain functions) stops.

People don’t stop learning because they are jerks. Their brain regulates the energy consumption required to achieve a learning state. If the level of focus required to maintain the learning state is bigger than the available energy the brain says, nope, not today.  This is the essence of “distraction.”

So, applying critical analysis to the fabled Lunch and Learn phenomena we can understand why there is no such thing.

Here is today’s take away.

  • Teachers, stop doing Lunch and Learns. They are a fantastic waste of time, money and your reputation.
  • Learners, you live in a Knowledge Workers economy. Your brain is literally too expensive to waste. You have spent enormous amounts of time learning valuable skills and expert-habits-of-mind so that you can bill confiscatory rates to feed, cloth and house your family. When someone wastes your attention they are -- literally -- wasting the life blood of your life. Refuse to give your sanction to bad training. Eat your turkey sandwich and chips and don’t worry about how it sounds. If no one else takes learning seriously why should you?
  • Organizations, if you can’t create the budget to do real training in an environment that gives your learners even a chance to learn . . . well, you get what you deserve.  


PS. In the next installment we will dig deeper into Cognitive Load theory and why mastering its significance is essential to training.