What I’m Learning about Adult Learning

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What I’m Learning about Adult Learning

By Kathy Murphy

Ok, so most of us realize that adult learning is unlike our earlier experiences within the clutches of the traditional secondary classroom. Gone are the days of bra snapping and pubescent boys – and today my quest for life long learning comes at a large investment, both financially and time wise. Unless an effective adult_learning_Englishunderstanding of adult learning techniques are used in the creation of content and in delivery– chances of retention are as likely as my six year attempt to finish Tolstoy’s War and Peace – long and labored. Yes, the bar is pretty high!

After all, adult learning is supposed to be about relevancy, application, and take into account, the “so what” factor… or, why do I care about any of this? Unless HR is marching you into the new health and safety policy training, discerning adult learners want what I would describe as a fairly high “entertainment” factor in the classroom. It’s simply the age-old WIFM – or, what’s in it for me? And the WIFM will vary significantly depending on the learner’s motives, initiative level, and where within the career path one is positioned. I won’t attempt to scratch the surface of ALL the principles of adult learning, as – this is a blog so I’ll be brief. I’ll just say that engaging adult learners is an area of expertise of which instructors, teachers and facilitators would be wise to master. For more from one of the architect’s of andragogy (adult learning), Malcolm Knowles, see: http://elearningindustry.com/the-adult-learning-theory-andragogy-of-malcolm-knowles .

Some say the most powerful way to engage adults is by drawing on their previous experience. Let us be heard! Seriously, adult learners do well when applying their experience to a concept or problem, if only to better understand it through their own lens. Adults want to use their experience and see it valued as part of the learning environment. In a classroom setting, high levels of engagement are especially critical for adult learners. Creating dialogue and interaction keeps the momentum clipping along, and interest levels peaked. But what happens when Dominant Debbie, the wide eyed and long-winded participant, takes up the majority of the air-time? We’ve all been there – cue the rolling eyes. That one person who can’t wait to weigh in on his or her perspective – each and every time the question is posed. Here’s where a good facilitator will draw on the opinions of many, while keeping the conversation fluid, and ensuring all participants – event the Dominant Debbie’s – feel respected, engaged and positive about their experience.

There are many tips for engagement or hooks, such as posing specific questions on the topic at hand. Ideally the right type of provocative question should facilitate a discussion if you’ve provided a safe, open and sharing environment within the classroom. Try this: “If you are clean when you get out of the shower, then why do towels get dirty?” OK – we can do better than that!

But, as a facilitator, you need to ensure an environment where people are comfortable speaking up, and if they are not participating in the conversation, you are drawing on a wide perspective. Not everyone will want to contribute, and that’s fine too. And, as always, there are statistics:

“There is a 500% average increase in retention when visuals are used in a presentation (Decker Blog http://bit.ly/oRm860)”

Hmm…guess I’ll keep my power point decks close at hand….less words and more images maybe?

Most would agree that the principles of adult learning claim we remember bite sized bits of information, especially when presented in a fun, different, entertaining, and colorful way. No pressure instructors!

We need to be making sure the experience is all things: engaging, entertaining, creates dialogue, is interactive but safe. These efforts should provide for the “stickiness” needed to make the learning environment and the experience effective. Also, shifting from the “right answer” to the “right question” while not shutting down people’s views if different from the status quo. Creating a meaningful dialogue with input from a variety of perspectives will ensure a body of knowledge and experience is shared, as adults will come to their own conclusions as to what’s right or wrong for them. Instead of hammering a point home, it’s about that transfer of knowledge and sharing of insights. Plus, a lively discussion and contrasting perspectives is a great way to wake up the group. But as they say – just keep the gloves on!

So – making it stick? Most of us are familiar with the “use it or loose it” maxim. Otherwise, it’s said that we forget over 80% of what we learn, if not applied within a 30 day period. I can just see my money sprouting wings….bye-bye. Yes, I want a good ROI on my professional development. Maybe your motives are to be a better employee, leader, teacher, and or team member. Or, maybe it accelerates your position or pads your pocket – but the results and measures of adult learning are a conversation for another time.

And luckily, I’ve actually learned a few more things – thanks to some very effective adult educators at OISE (the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education). I’d like to share more, but, as my former boss used to say – “The mind can absorb what the seat can endure”. So I’ll leave you with a question from someone or something, called Philoso-raptor: “If the pen is mightier than the sword, then why do actions speak louder then words?” HA!

Comments are most welcome – cheers!


About the Author:

20 years as a change leader and senior manager, creating excellent customer experiences while building strong, engaged, committed teams. Extensive expertise in small business start up, hospitality management services, strategic planning, and communications/media relations.

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