We are all unique snowflakes... Insights into 'adult learning theory'

Version 3

    In my previous life I was a Technical Trainer for Thomson Reuters back in New Zealand, then a Training Manager for a group of advertising agencies in the UK. When I joined Google I was a part of the Google Learning and Development team before moving to the Google for work team 5 years ago. So I have always held a special place in my heart for all things related to training, learning and development and helping others to learn and grow. Today I wanted to share with you all some of the insights I’ve gained on the topic of adult learning as it is something that is relevant to all of us in our day to day work with helping people adopt and use new technology.


    Training is an essential component of change management, but alone it isn’t likely to inspire behaviour change. Just because someone teaches you a new skill, doesn’t mean that you will then start doing that thing (for example if someone teaches me how to drive a bus, it doesn’t mean that I’ll start driving busses every day). There are other factors that must be considered, such as ‘do I understand why this skill is useful?’ ‘Do I want this skill?’ ‘Do I have a way and reason to apply this new knowledge?’ ‘Do I have the ongoing support I need to become an expert with this skill?’.


    And this is why a complete change management approach rather than just training is needed to change behaviour.


    Having said that I do want to share with you some of the nuances I’ve learned about over the years when working in training and learning and development roles.


    Children and adults approach learning very differently. We could all benefit from approaching learning from a more child-like state! When children are exposed to something new - their typical reactions are curiosity, wonder, touching, licking, tasting and generally just getting involved with whatever that new thing might be. In contrast what happens with adults is that we try to associate this new thing with other things that we’ve experienced in the past. Does this remind me of a previous experience (good or bad)?, How did I do this thing in the past? Is this better or worse than the old way?. This back and forth, comparing old with new slows our learning down and means that we act with more caution. It is for this reason that many of the assets we’ve developed for users associate the old with the new (‘Switching from Outlook to Gmail, ‘Switching from Skype to Hangouts’ ‘Switching from Excel to Sheets’ etc)  Typically the caution we have is because we don’t want to look foolish as we use the new tools. Adults fear looking incompetent, which is something that children don’t bother about so much - and are all the better for!


    Below are some additional observations and tips that are specifically relevant to adult learners. These should be relevant regardless if we are involved in formal education or training activities, or simply helping someone out 1:1 to grasp a new skill or concept or tool.


    1. The learning environment is important. If possible, the physical location (for in person training) should be light and airy as it will help maintain energy levels. It is also important to consider the ‘psychological environment’. Do learners feel safe? I’d always recommend to set expectations and make agreements about the type of behaviour that is expected within the learning situation. For example making sure everyone agrees that ‘there is no such thing as a silly question’, and that it is a safe environment to share personal stories, experiences and opinions without being judged or having things shared outside the classroom.
    2. Adult learners are ‘self-directing’. They don’t want to be treated like children and told what to do. They want the trainer or facilitator of the course to treat them as a peer - not as a superior. The best way to approach teaching adults is more through facilitating discussion, encouraging input and asking for experiences to be shared. The collective knowledge in the room will likely be greater than that of the trainer - and that is totally fine! The trainer doesn’t need to know everything. More they need to be able to facilitate the conversation and learning in a way that the collective knowledge of the room is shared for everyone’s benefit.
    3. Keep it ‘real’. When we learn as adults we want to know how we can apply the new knowledge or skill in the real world. If we can’t see how there is a practical application of this new skill we’ll be unlikely to make an effort to fully engage in the learning experience. The trainer needs to focus on benefits, practical application and real life case studies, success stories and lessons learnt (we particularly love hearing stories about things that have failed or gone wrong and understanding what the lessons learnt from those experiences are)
    4. We all like to learn differently. People have different preferences for how they like to absorb new information and learn new skills. There are many theories on this - check out Honey + Mumford and Kolb for two of the most commonly referenced theories. To keep things super simple - one of the easiest ways to think about learning style preferences is the VAK model (visual, audio, kinesthetic - see below). The reality is the none of us fits neatly into any one single bucket - but the likelihood is that we will have a preference between preferring to primarily learn through action and doing (kinesthetic), listening and writing (audio) or watching and images (visual).

    VAK Adult Learning Styles


    What this means is that when we are trying to help people develop new skills either formally during a training session, or informally during a 1:1 conversation we should consider that the learning styles of our ‘students’ will be a combination of the above and might well be different from our own personal preference.


    Applying this to the world of Google Apps, this is why we suggest that customers offer multiple formats of training to their employees - including ‘self-paced’ learning where people can read documents, watch videos & try things out at their own pace. As well as having options for instructor-led training where there is live Q&A, discussions and in some instances hands on practical exercises and of course Google Guides for the peer-to-peer support.


    So how can we maximise the learning retention of the ‘students’ that we teach? Based on the commonly referred to research of Edgar Dale (see below) - the very best retention happens when ‘students’ teach others about what they have learnt. This means that they know enough about the new topic that they can articulate and explain it to others. When a ‘student’ gets to this point - it has been proven that they will retain 90% of the content. Contrast this with the amount of information that will be retained if someone simply attends a lecture - only 10%! This is why whenever you have the opportunity to you should put the students in the driving seat - have them discuss, practice and teach others during the class and even in 1:1 situations make sure that they are ‘driving’.


    Learning retention rates

    Lastly I wanted to share with you all this fun cheat sheet full of tips and advice about how to deal with the different ‘personalities’ that you will come across when delivering training - or even in a 1:1 situation:




    Tips for the trainer

    What not to do

    What they will get out of training

    The quarrelsome bulldog

    - moody

    - aggressive, confrontational

    - waits for weaknesses

    - thinks they know best

    - stay factual

    - acknowledge their input

    - make confrontations a group discussion

    - let the group contradict them

    - get emotional

    - ignore them

    - start 1-2-1 discussions

    - discussions inspire them

    - want to have more information

    - different points of view

    The positive horse

    - engaged, factual

    - on your side

    - nods a lot

    - use them in difficult situations

    - spread them throughout the room

    - assume they understand when they nod

    - use them too much

    - ask them leading / closed questions

    - a good feeling

    - not always all the facts

    - increased confidence

    - lunch with the trainer

    The smart monkey

    - knows a surprising amount about the topic

    - is factual and enthusiastic

    - contributes a lot to training

    - gets restless if things move slowly

    - is essentially a ‘talking’ positive

    - use their knowledge

    - select them for “unloved activities”

    - test their knowledge

    - give them more information during breaks

    - have 1-2-1 discussions

    - let them take over (acknowledge their knowledge, but keep the control)

    - ask them the ‘interaction’ questions

    - reinforce their knowledge

    - show off their knowledge

    - need the small extra details that not everyone knows

    The wide-mouthed frog

    - talks (often without substance)

    - paraphrases what was said

    - doesn’t top-line or summarise their points

    - don’t know when to stop

    - separate substance from their winding sentences

    - bring other people in immediately

    - look out for them at the start of class – when they introduce themselves, you can tell they’re frogs!

    - acknowledge their input

    - summarise what they’ve said

    - let them waste training time

    - avoid them totally

    - ask them questions directly

    - give them free reign

    - give them a focus

    - make them top-line (gimme a 3-line definition)

    The shy lamb

    - never talks, but nods

    - may write a lot of notes

    - keeps head down

    - avoids eye contact

    - encourage them to talk

    - ask easy questions

    - make a lot of their contributions (congratulate, link back: “As Tina said earlier...”)

    - build on previous statements to build esteem

    - forget about them

    - put them on the spot

    - group them with bulldogs, monkeys (Instead, group sheep to sheep or horses, hippos)

    - confidence through doing

    - need to ask questions (afterwards)




    Tips for the trainer

    What not to do

    What they get out of training

    The nay-saying hedgehog

    - in principle he’s against it

    - negative

    - frowning

    - group nay-sayers together

    - foster their pride with statements like “you’re an expert on…, the basic idea is yours,…”

    - give applicable examples

    - remain positive

    - pair them with horses and monkeys in group exercises

    - let them sit in front of you

    - disperse them in room

    - let them drag you or the group down

    - a different perspective

    - a chance to have their feelings heard / changed

    The thick-skinned hippo

    - thick-skinned

    - folded arms

    - no contributions

    - no facial expression

    - looks half-asleep

    - ask them informational questions related to their work

    - ask them questions related to their interests (find out in breaks)

    - leave them alone

    - group hippos together (lethargy is contagious!)

    - ask them half-open questions (must be fully-open)

    - an easy ride (unless you challenge them)

    The aloof giraffe

    - has a special status (manager or subject-matter-expert: SME)

    - is used to being listened to

    - may not actually want to contribute (for various reasons)

    - discuss their role in training before it starts (Do they want to be active, passive?)

    - highlight what they could get out of your training in terms of getting to know the group/their reportees

    - interact with them normally

    - tell the group before start (if person is known)

    - let them sit (stand) next to you

    - let them subtly take over

    - allow other trainees to feel like decoration

    - reality check

    - connections & feelings

    - the big picture of how all fits together

    The cunning fox

    - ends statements with questions (cross-examines)

    - doesn’t disclose own position

    - tries to shape agenda (especially in meetings)

    - make sure questions asked belong to the subject

    - take questions to the rest of the group if relevant

    - tell them if something is out of scope

    - let them take over the agenda

    - answer the irrelevant questions

    - pride

    - their questions answered


    Wow - that ended up being slightly longer than I anticipated! But I hope some useful snippets for some of you to consider both when you are in a position to design and deliver formal training sessions, but also that you can apply to everyday situations that require you to help peers or colleagues to grasp a new skill, tool or process.


    As always - feedback / comments very welcome!