Using What Adult Learners Bring to Training

A characteristic of the adult learner is that he or she brings a great deal of knowledge, skills and experience to the training room or classroom. As trainers and instructional designers it is imperative that we recognize this, honor it, and make good use of it, for the benefit of all the training participants. Here’s how I do that throughout the training day.

To begin our time together, I welcome and thank them for taking time out of their busy schedules to participate in our training. I suggest that our time together is an opportunity to share expertise with each other and ultimately, to refresh and be refreshed by participating in a Community of Practice, a community of professional practitioners. This helps set a tone of mutual respect and co-creation, taking me out of the role of lecturing subject matter expert and teacher-directed instruction and into the role of expert guide and learner-centered instruction.

Once acknowledged for their expertise, most adult learners want to know that I’ll be a credible source of information without being an insufferable know-it-all. An effective, training strategy I’ve used for laying the groundwork for both expertise and community, and to continue to build buy-in and engagement is to share a true story about myself related to the topic of the training. A funny-white-knuckled-I-struggled-first-before-figuring-it-out- topic-related story is generally better at piquing interest, building rapport and establishing professional credibility than an aren’t-I-wonderful-because-I-do-the-right-thing-all-the-time- topic-related story.

For a twist of added intrigue and engagement of the adult learner I’ll often tell my story but then stop at the climax, the part where I was in hot water but before a resolution was considered or implemented. I then ask if anyone else can relate to my predicament. It is here that I often see the first smiles and nods of agreement, the subtle switch in body language from “it is going to be a long day,” to “maybe it won’t be so bad after all.”

With that connection made, I’ll often invite participant input regarding what they would do in that situation, providing an opportunity for them to share what they know. This accomplishes several things. I am facilitating interaction and participation right from the start, honoring the expertise that resides in the room, modeling the authenticity and mutual respect I hope to foster, and providing participants with a variety of solutions to a common, but perplexing problem by hearing from several colleagues in their field, not just me.

Once we are past the above opening activities, to set the stage for new content, I first facilitate exercises that elicit what participants already know about our training topic. I do this for two reasons, one so that I have a general sense of where they are regarding their experience and knowledge with the topic, and second, elicitation of prior knowledge serves as a cognitive anchor for the new content to come. Here’s an example. Last week when training trainers on design and delivery skills I asked small mixed teams, “What do you already do when you design and deliver training that works really well? Work together as a team to brainstorm what you do, writing your ideas on sticky notes, one idea per note.” Participants responded by writing things they do, such as start with an attention gainer, invite people to say what they want to get from the training, or use stories and metaphors to illustrate content, as examples. This activity not only elicited their expertise in small mixed teams (allowing those with less experience to learn from those with more and for cross-pollination of ideas in general), it let me know what they knew, and it created the perfect placeholder for the new content, all while accessing and building on the knowledge the adult learners brought into the room with them.

I followed this activity with the new content which was Gagne’s lesson design template that aligned with and facilitated the cognitive steps adults go through to learn new material. After delivering this template in a step-by-step approach with examples for each step, I handed out large pieces of butcher paper with the steps of the design model printed on them. I then asked each team to place each of their sticky notes on the step of the design model that they felt that idea aligned with, noting that not all their ideas would find a home but that was OK, they shouldn’t force anything, and we would find another place for those ideas later.

At the end of the activity I asked them what they could affirm about their current practice as well as what growth opportunities they saw (represented by steps with no sticky notes attached). They were the directors of their own learning as they both evaluated their current practice and planned for where they could improve. My job was to orchestrate the process and provide just the right amount of new material to facilitate that self-directed and personalized learning journey.

There are many ways to access, elicit, honor, affirm, build upon and encourage the sharing of adult learner expertise and skills. Our job as trainers is not to know the most, but rather to create the environment and provide the activities that elicit the most from the unique mix of participants in any given training, for the benefit of all.