Teaching Adults: Part 1

Nov 11, 2021

Unfortunately, most of the people in our organizations lack the skill of critical thinking. But just imagine: if we can create thinkers out of all of the people in our entrepreneurial companies, the people will have an exponential effect on each other. Their efforts will be multiplied! The people will win and the company will win.

As you know, even before 2020, the world of work has been changing drastically. With every new wave of change comes the need for training. Training feels almost constant these days, but its prevalence in our companies helps us stay adaptive and proactive.

It’s important to note that not all thinkers learn the same way: adults learn differently than children do! When most of us think of teaching and learning, we have a picture in our mind of a classroom: a teacher at the front and students at desks looking to the teacher for wisdom. Some adult trainings are still run this way, applying the childhood approach to teaching. Training in the world of work needs to be focused on how adults learn.

Once upon a time, I found myself signing up for an MBA at the University of Phoenix, on a bit of a whim and on a high of ambition, my friends and family, justifiably, questioned my sanity. While pursuing my psychology degree at a traditional university years earlier, I had trudged along, obediently taking one course after another, I absolutely fell in love with my courses at University of Phoenix. During my very first class of my very first course, I was asked to give an opinion, think through a case study, ask provoking questions, and apply the first lessons to my business in the next week. Since classes were held on Mondays from 6-10 pm, I recall rarely being able to sleep on Monday nights because my brain was thinking and expanding and just wouldn’t turn off. The difference in these two experiences is that University of Phoenix was designed with adults in mind. Wouldn’t it be cool if all your training inspired people in your company so much that they couldn’t stop thinking? 

Let’s examine these Eight Elements of Adult Learning to see what we can apply to our training programs. 

1. Adults learn best with a little bit of structure and a lot of autonomy.

 

When the teacher has all the control over the learning environment and the student has very little, there tends to be a lot of memorization and repetition required for information to sink in. This type of learning will help us remember facts, formulas, and vocabulary words, but rarely does a deeper purpose sink in. Adults learn in the opposite way. They learn best when they have some control over the learning environment. For example, adults like to know the objectives of the training, but learn better with a flexible agenda, spending more time on certain topics when needed. One way to provide this autonomy is to have a menu of topics in the curriculum rather than listing them in a set order. Remove obstacles that would require adult learners to master one concept before moving to another when it doesn’t really make sense.

2. Adults learn best when they have a specific need to fulfill or real-world problem to solve.

 

Adults are busy and their brains are already full. In order for something new to be retained, it needs to make it through an efficiency filter in the brain that asks, “Is this relevant enough to give it my attention?” If there is not a need, it’s really hard to engage an adult learner and therefore, hard to make the training stick. Consider how interested you are when your boss says, “This Wednesday is required sales tax compliance training.” If you are like most people you’ll think, “Ugh . . . I have so much to do! This is a waste of my time!” and that’s where the learning is sabotaged. However, if you’ve just lost your potential to earn your annual bonus because of several mistakes you made when charging sales tax, you will most likely engage with and retain the knowledge you gain from the training. When adults have a current issue, they are very motivated to gain the knowledge to help them fix it. 

3. Adults learn best when they can apply the learning right away.

 

If the training is too far removed from the application of the training, the effectiveness of the training is poor. When the training takes place close to the application of the training, it also increases adults’ confidence in positive performance. If adults need to wait even a week, their confidence in their performance is lower. Leaders who invest in training get the activity started right away. 

4. Adults learn best by doing.

 

The best adult learning environments get the learners’ hands on the tools or concepts as soon as possible. Instead of the teacher talking for an hour before the learner does anything, the teacher gives a quick micro lesson and gets the learners working right away. Active learning, trial and error, and little successes are also important for keeping adults engaged. I recently started taking painting classes and in the first five minutes of my first lesson, I had paint on my brush and was placing it on the canvas. My instructor knew that the faster she got me actually painting, the more I’d be engaged with the concepts, which would lead to me understanding them better. Examples of this are: role playing, getting your hands on the tools, and working the formulas on your own. 

5. Adults learn best when there is plenty of opportunity for reflection and conversation.

 

Yes, adults learn better when we can get our hands on the project quickly, but we also need to reflect on what we are experiencing and how it’s being processed in our minds. This can come in the form of talking about it, writing about it, and thinking about it. Great instructors create a space for this reflection time. “Does anyone have any questions?” is a sentence that I consider a throw-away sentence—as in—trash! Q&A time that is built into learning programs and workshops is there to create space for reflection. Interspersing this Q&A throughout the lesson and upgrading it to “asking reflection-based questions” during the lesson is more effective than leaving it to the end.

6. Adults learn best when they can see what needs to be done.

 

If the teacher just explains concepts rather than showing the learners how to actually complete the task, disengagement and confusion often occur. If you are teaching a concept, stories, analogies and models can help adult learners see what needs to be done. Don’t just tell, show.

7. Adults learn best through collaboration with others.

 

Having conversations and considering other viewpoints helps us get to solutions faster. When designing your training programs, consider adding more group exercises and discussions. Adults love to learn from each other. As we mature, adults move from an “I-must-do-it-myself” mode to loving the insight, solutions and a-ha moments that collaboration brings. 

8. Adults learn best when they teach.

 

Yes! During the act of teaching someone how to do something, the teacher learns, too. Teaching a concept to another person is a great way for additional or deeper learning to occur. One way I see companies using this is to ask newer people in the company to take part in the orientation of the newest people in the company. This requires them to teach the company history, culture or processes close to when they just learned them.

 

Imagine how much more effective your training could be if it was designed around the way adults learn! When you teach adults and encourage them to continue learning, your company’s growth potential is unlimited!

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