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Stop Training Your Staff Like Children

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Whether you know it or not the approaches you may be using to lead or coach your team is how you train children and it’s not your fault.

When we approach anything we usually do it by referencing our own experiences and how we were taught. For most of us, we spent 12 to 13 years in school from kindergarten through high school. We were taught to memorize, recall, explain, and test what we learned. This approach is called pedagogy, the art and science of how children learn, and in this environment, the teacher is the source of all knowledge. 

Learning at the college level took on a deeper approach to knowledge building by applying what you learned in K-12 through the application of that knowledge, analysis of concepts, and the synthesis or the creation of new alternative solutions to outcomes. This is where the student begins to own their knowledge.

Do adults learn the same way we did as children? Yes, no, and not really. There is a more effective way to train, coach, or facilitate learning because adults learn differently and that process of learning is known as andragogy, the art, and science of how adults learn which was pioneered by Malcolm Knowles.

Treat your staff like adults

I hear eyes rolling, I get it, some days you may feel like you’re running a daycare center. However, Malcolm Knowles worked from the idea that adults learn differently. Children go to school as blank slates. Knowledge is given to them and then taught how that knowledge applies to them and life. They learn the same way from their parents and a lot of that learning is through observations. Same as our staff at the office.

Adults show up with quite a bit of prior knowledge, skills, and experiences, and are very proud of that acquired knowledge, their slates are already full. The negativity to feedback is the result of someone questioning or challenging what they already know. Sometimes we take feedback as a personal attack on our brief systems or prior knowledge. How dare someone question or suggest I do something differently than how I’ve been doing it for years?  

Six adult learning assumptions

I learned these six assumptions years ago during my graduate studies in adult learning. What I didn’t realize at the time was how important these six assumptions were until I started to apply this concept to my teams as a coach leader and learning facilitator. 

Here are the six adult learning assumptions according to Malcolm Knowles:

1. Self-concept. Adult learners have a self-concept. Adults will see themselves in a way that supports their knowledge, skills, and experiences. Meaning they are autonomous, independent, and self-directed. When giving feedback that contradicts their self-concept you challenge what they believe to be true for themselves. 

Think about this when you receive feedback on your skills or abilities, do you feel your beliefs, skills, or experiences are being challenged or questioned and how do you react to that?

2. Learning from Experience. Experience is a deep source of learning. Our personal experiences will drive how we react to situations even years later in our lives. Some experiences are so deeply ingrained it is difficult to change how we feel or react. You could give the same feedback to two different people and get two different responses. 

We hold tightly onto our personal experiences for many reasons. As a leader coach, facilitator, and learning strategist I honor everyone’s personal experiences because it forms part of their self-concept and is a great source of personal learning. I will use my personal experiences in my training and the outcome of that experience to illustrate a point either good or bad.

When working with people I always tell them, I respect their individual experiences and I’m not going to challenge those experiences, I’m going to look at ways we can build onto those experiences or skills. This is a great approach when coaching or giving feedback. 

3. Readiness to Learn. Adults tend to gravitate towards learning things that matter to them. This is why I work with adults’ prior knowledge and link that knowledge to what they are currently doing increasing the value of their current knowledge. Especially as it applies to their current job, role, or new opportunities. 

For instance, when working with someone to further enhance a skill I ask them how they currently are doing or approaching something. No matter what their response is I always say that’s a good way to approach it because that approach is part of their self-concept, it is what they know and own. Then I say to them, I’m going to challenge you (not their experience) to take this skill to the next level. I want you to take how you are currently doing (whatever it is) and apply this idea (your idea or thought) to it and let’s see if the outcome is different…. What are your thoughts? This is respecting what they know and challenging them to think differently without putting them on the defense.  

4. Orientation to learning. The orientation of adult learning is for immediate application. The learning orientation of adults is more effective when the learning experience is task-oriented, life-focused, and or a problem-centric challenge. If the coaching or feedback is directed at making something easier, faster, more efficient, or with less chance of failure the learning becomes more valuable to the learner. Which in turn should increase their readiness to learn.

5. Internally Motivated. Adults are more motivated by internal personal factors rather than external factors. Internal motivation is centered around things that can be earned not necessarily bought. Like a new skill that will support their desire to have a leadership position in the future. Respect for what they know from their team or manager. The feeling of autonomy or empowerment for their job or role. Trusted with a stretch assignment or project which allows them to improve their skill, experience, or knowledge. Find out what they deeply care about in their job, position on the team, or as a leader.

6. Need to Know. Adult learners need to know the value of what they are learning and know the why behind the need to learn something. If you can link the why to as many of the first five assumptions as you can, you can motivate or influence staff to step up or improve.  

Here is the disclaimer, does this work for everyone? No, you can lead anyone to training but you can’t make them learn. There is a difference between can’t and won’t. People who can’t are usually restricted by a barrier. It could be their fear of learning something new, their ability to learn something, or their own belief in themselves. You help remove the barrier and there’s a good chance they will learn.

For those who won’t, well, there’s nothing you can do about it. If they don’t want to learn, you can’t make them. Unless, and I’ve seen this happen, you can link the learning to internal motivation. It’s the WIFM, what’s in it for me? If you can do that, you have a chance. 

I have had people tell me that they don’t want to learn something because they see no value in learning it. So I asked them if I could show you where the value is for you, would you be willing to give it a try? With this approach, I’m empowering them to own their decision to try or not try something, whatever decision they make, falls directly on them which can challenge their self-concept of who they are or how they see themselves. They could still say no, or they just might come back later after they thought about it and agreed to try it.

Side note

There are learning and training situations that call for learning approaches that need to be memorized, recalled, explained, and tested like customer service or positions that are highly regulated by internal and external agencies for example. In my experience, I would always have someone ask me why we have to learn to do something this way? I would refer to number 6, the need to know, and explain why it is important to learn to do something a specific way.

Exercise | Deliberate practice

This one is hard to practice because there are multiple moving parts, six of them. Whether you are coaching, doing one-on-one discussions, performance reviews, or setting annual performance and learning goals or objectives you can use these six learning assumptions as a framework to help yourself and your staff to be set up for success. 

When you are doing annual reviews using a nine-box or a three-squared approach or another evaluation model, you can use these assumptions to evaluate the effectiveness of the staff’s performance. If you have an underperforming staff member you can look at where they are struggling and determine if you can link the performance to any of the six assumptions to help improve their performance. 

You have a high-performing staff member, is their performance linked to any of the assumptions? Have they been able to be self-directed and choose objectives where they find value in improving or expanding their skills?     

In your journal, write down these six assumptions and refer to them when you are coaching, evaluating, developing performance objectives, or giving feedback. Try to link one or more of these six assumptions to every outcome you would like to see staff develop or improve.  

  1. Self-concept. Adult learners have a self-concept. Adults will see themselves in a way that supports their knowledge, skills, and experiences. Empower your staff to be successful. 
  2. Learning from Experience. Experience is a deep source of learning. Can you provide a learning opportunity or develop a performance objective to help deepen their experience? 
  3. Readiness to Learn. Adults tend to gravitate towards learning things that matter to them. Help them see how it matters to them.
  4. Orientation to learning. The orientation of adult learning is for immediate application. How does the learning apply directly to what they are already doing? Will it benefit them in some way? 
  5. Internally Motivated. Adults are more motivated by internal personal factors rather than external factors. What do they deeply care about?
  6. Need to Know. Adult learners need to know the value of what they are learning and know the why behind the need to learn something.

Go ahead and try it on yourself first to get a feel for it. Look at your performance objectives, can you link any of the six assumptions to your objectives? The next time you are tasked with something you don’t find any value in, link it to one or more of the assumptions… I dare you to see what happens.

Training development 

As part of my advanced degree in instructional technology, I was challenged to develop three strategies that I would keep in mind when developing, reviewing, or revising training. These three strategies are nothing new. They are a combination of existing learning strategies combined with the six adult learning assumptions.

1. Behavioral-focused strategy – This involves developing assignments, deliberate practice, and projects that assist the learner in developing or improving skills supporting self-efficacy and personal development using their on-the-job experiences as the base of learning. 

Develop assignments that don’t require extra work outside of the staff’s regular office hours if possible. The best research environment is their own team or department. Develop practices in real-time that they can apply and observe outcomes during their daily work.

2.  Intrinsic motivation strategy – This approach helps the learner link the learning to their needs either professionally or personally. This helps to encourage learners to take ownership of their learning. 

 If you use the ADDIE, Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate method or any other design method, you need a good understanding of who your audience is. This falls under the analysis phase of development. If you are going to link the learning to the audience’s needs, it helps to understand what motivates your audience. 

You usually get two types of learners, the voluntold, those who were told to go to training, and volunteered, and those who want to go to training. If you use some form of intrinsic motivation you can turn a lot of your voluntold people into active learners and improve the learning for those who want to learn.

3. Constructive thought pattern strategy – This strategy focuses on worthwhile challenges from the learner’s perspective involving patterns of thought, dialogue, and application of ideas and concepts as they apply to the learner’s real-world challenges. 

Link the learning to the WIFM, what’s in it for me, in other words, why is this training important? Your challenge as a curriculum developer is to make that happen.

Space for learning to happen 

When I talk about patterns of thought, dialogue, and application of ideas and concepts this requires space for conversations during the training or learning event. If you have a two-hour training, PLEASE DON’T create two hours of content for a two-hour training. Create one and a half hours of content and at least 30 minutes for dialogue throughout the training.  

If you are creating a one-hour training focus the learning on one of two objectives, present the objectives, and leave space for dialogue. An effective approach to adult learning is the ability to learn within a social environment. Sharing ideas and concerns works better when adults realize others are experiencing the same challenges. Learning does not happen in isolation or silos, so give them space to talk.  

If you work for an organization that sees learning and development as a liability or is only concerned with the number of staff who have been trained… leave. Training and the development of staff is an asset for any organization. Learning and development ensure healthy growth and continual improvement for the organization.  

Adults learn better when their skills, education, experience, and knowledge are taken into consideration and valued. The learning can be more valuable when done in real-time in an environment that is safe and allows for healthy dialogue.

Your personal leader library

If you don’t have a leadership or personal library, start one. It is easy to forget about something when it is on your computer and you turn it off. However, there is something about a hard copy book staring at you every day as a reminder of what you are learning or would like to change about yourself.

If you are serious about adult learning and training I recommend The Adult Learner by Malcolm S. Knowles, Elwood F. Holton III, et al. 

Don’t wait for tomorrow, tomorrow never comes. What you have is today and this is the best time to begin anything.

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