Friday, June 24, 2011

The best way to teach adults - keep your mouth shut

Discussion group 2 - teenagers at HIVAIDS conference by
Discussion group 2 - teenagers at HIVAIDS conference,
a photo by on Flickr.

Let's just say for a moment that you have been charged with the responsibility to teach a group of adults about new methods for doing their work.  The new methods aren't tweaks - they are in essence creating a reinvention of the way in which you do business.  Where do you start?  The information in this post applies to you whether you're a trainer by function, or a leader who takes on the trainer role from time to time.  As a matter of fact, it's probably even more useful if you train intermittently, or if you are not completely confident in your platform skills.
The Old School Method
Back in the day the perceived best way to train employees was to put a "sage on the stage" and arm him or her with an outstanding and comprehensive curriculum of information to deliver.  The job of the participants involved first sitting down, being quiet and listening.  Second learner task was then to go forth and implement.  Unfortunately, with the Old School, implementation was often sketchy or even nonexistent.
Problems with the Old School Method
  1. Adults aren't used to sitting still, and if they are old enough (over 18???) they might tend to fall asleep if they are disengaged with the topic.  Or they will engage in sidebars, or text, or even leave the room.  Disengaged participants become vacationers or prisoners.
  2. Experienced workers typically know more about the subject than do the trainers or managers.  After all, they do their work every day, and the trainers and managers are at best one step removed from reality.  No insult intended - just fact of proximity.
  3. Listening is a passive way to receive information, and the least effective mode for the majority of people.
  4. Old School is trainer dependent, so if you don't have a good one the entire group of trainees will be impacted negatively, and your results will suffer.
The operative question:  Are you training because you think it's nice to do, or are you doing so because there is a changed result that you want to create?
New School - Accelerated Learning
David Meier wrote an essential book about a more effective methodology called Accelerated Learning (A.L.), one to use when the intention is participant engagement and application of concepts.  A.L. is based upon some major assumptions:
"A Positive Learning Environment.  People learn best in a positive physical, emotional, and social environment, one that is both relaxed and stimulating.  A sense of wholeness, safety, interest, and enjoyment is essential for optimizing human learning.
Total Learner Involvement.  People learn best when they are totally and actively involved and take full responsibility for their own learning.  Learning is not a spectator sport but a participatory one.  Knowledge is not something a learner passively absorbs, but something a learner actively creates.  Thus A.L. tends to be more activity-based rather tnan materials-based or presentations-based.
Collaboration Among Learners.  People generally learn best in an environment of collaboration.  All good learning tends to be social.  Whereas traditional learning emphasizes competition between isolated individuals, A.L. emphasizes collaboration between learners in a learning community.
Variety That Appeals to All Learning Styles.  People learn best when they have a rich variety of learning options that allows them to use all their senses and exercise their preferred learning style.  Rather than thinking of a learning program as a one-dish meal, A.L. thinks of it as a results-driven, learner-centered smorgasbord.
Contextual Learning.  People learn best in context.  Facts and skills learned in isolation are hard to absorb and quick to evaporate.  the best learning comes from doing the work itself in a continual process of "real-world" immersion, feedback, reflection, evaluation, and reimmersion."
In short, if you are using Old School methods for training your staff, you're wasting money, time, and results.  Interestingly, in the "What's in it for me as the trainer?" category, one of the benefits of using Accelerated Learning methodology is that it saves a TON of preparation time, materials costs, and pressure on the trainer.  The trainer's job is no longer to come up with the slickest materials or have the jazziest platform skills; rather, the trainer's job is now about creating a multisensory, engaging learning environment and about creating the "space" (in the form of activities) in which participants can collaboratively engage.


pdncoach said...


Outstanding synopsis and business case for how adults (and youth) learn best that contrasts how we really learn with how most of us are still being taught, both in business and in school. Hmmm...maybe we ought to avoid the terms of "teaching" and "training" altogether because of the baggage they carry. How about we all become "Assistant Learners"?

Again, this is a fantastic article - one of your very best!

Mark Sturgell, CBC

Lon Alderman said...


Great post! I have been a proponent of "experiential education" since the 1980s, so I resonate with your post.

As a pastor, I would love to make the message (pronounced, sermon) more of an "accelerated learning" opportunity.

Any suggestions?


amiyawilliams said...

Thanks for taking this opportunity to discuss this, I feel fervently about this and I like learning about this subject.Best Business School

Julie Poland, certified business coach said...

Thank you for your comments, everyone!

Lon, there has been a lot of discussion among my friends about "consumer" religion, where people go into a worship service and sit there passively while the worship leaders do their thing.

What if you did something that interruped the usual order, or the tempo, or the location of worship? What if a sermon included an opportunity to walk around the sanctuary, or to collaborate with pewmates on a question? You could circulate offering plates (or some other device) to give people an opportunity to submit problems or concerns, then pray and symbolically destroy them, along the lines of a mortgage burning ceremony. Or recruit participants to "dramatize" a scripture passage instead of reading it.

Just food for thought, but I like the way you're thinking!