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Public speaking: applying adult learning principles for more effective training

Did you know that adults have special needs as learners?

When we were children, we went to school and sat in class every day, and our teachers taught everyone the same way. It didn’t really matter if you were a visual learner, an auditory learner, or a kinesthetic learner. The teacher pretty much did what he felt most comfortable doing. Times have changed and teachers are now more aware of learning styles and other issues that affect children’s learning.

But the principles of adult learning are still quite new for most people. If you’re a speaker and you’re doing some kind of education or training with the groups you’re speaking to, this applies to you.

First, a little history. Malcolm Knowles is considered the “father of adult learning”, although the topic had been discussed and researched more than a century before.

Knowles’ assumptions were that adults:

1) move from dependency to self-direction;

2) draw on your pool of experience to learn;

3) are ready to learn when they take on new roles; Y

4) want to solve problems and apply new knowledge immediately.

In her book, “The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy,” Knowles challenges the view that adults cannot learn: “…the rapidly accelerating pace of change in our society has shown that this doctrine is no longer valid”. Facts learned in youth have become insufficient and in many cases actually false, and skills learned in youth have been rendered obsolete by new technologies.”

The term “andragogy” has come to mean self-directed learning for people of all ages, as opposed to the term “pedagogy” which defines teacher-directed learning. In practical terms, it means that when educating or training adults, process comes before content.

Knowles may not have invented these terms or concepts, but he was the first to bring them together into an organized theory. Additional theories of adult learning have also been developed since Knowles’ time. Here is an overview of adult learning principles that will greatly enhance your understanding of how and why adults learn. This will allow you to tailor your presentations and training more effectively to the groups you serve.

1. Adults are autonomous and self-directed

Adults want to decide for themselves what, when, how and why to learn. Speakers/instructors should allow adults to direct some of their own learning. Here are some ways to make this easier:

* Ask your participants what they already know about your topic and what they are interested in learning. Find out what their goals are for being there.

* Share your agenda and request information. This could lead to changing the order of your workshop to better serve the needs of the group. You may find that you spend more time on certain topics than you had planned and less on others. Be flexible.

* Act as a facilitator, guiding the group and encouraging them to come to their own conclusions, rather than force-feed information in a lecture format. Let them be responsible for their own learning.

* Research the needs of the group and the organization beforehand, so that you can provide a mix of information that meets their perceived and actual needs.

2. Adults have a lifetime of knowledge and experiences that inform their learning

Adult learners can be a valuable resource to you as an instructor/speaker. It is also important that they connect the learning with those previous life experiences. Here’s how to make the most of your audience’s experience and knowledge.

* Don’t assume your participants are “blank slates” and don’t know anything about your topic. Nothing is more insulting than a speaker who launches into a lecture without first ascertaining the needs and knowledge level of the audience. Research and ask first to find out what they already know.

* Where appropriate, ask your audience to share their experiences and create activities that call on them to use their experiences, for example in small group discussions.

* Prepare activities that involve options, so that the learning process can be better adapted to the individual levels of your participants.

3. Adults need relevance in learning

It is important for adults that they are learning something relevant and applicable to real life, be it personal or work related. Here’s how to make learning relevant to your audience.

* Identify learning objectives and ask participants to share their goals.

* Discuss and request to share real-world applications of your topic.

* Avoid giving a workshop or presentation that is too theoretical.

In the book “Teacher”, Sylvia Ashton-Warner discusses the relevance of her work as a teacher with Maori children. She remembers trying to teach them to read European textbooks with pictures and language that mean nothing to them. When she begins to work within her own language, culture and experiences to teach them to read, they flourish. Relevance is one of the main keys to learning for people of all ages.

4. Adults are motivated to learn by both external and internal factors

As children, many of us were motivated by nothing more than the rewards and punishments of our parents and teachers to learn.

As adults, we have many reasons to seek learning:

* is a requirement of a job

* we want to make new friends and connections

* for professional development and to advance our careers

* to relieve boredom

* because we are interested in a particular topic and want to learn for fun

* to create a better environment for our children and families

. . . And the list goes on.

As an instructor/speaker, it’s important to understand the many reasons attendees come to your seminar. They may not be there by choice, for example. Ask them why they have come and what they hope to gain from the experience.

Just as it is important to understand what motivates your participants to learn, it is also important to understand what the barriers to their learning might be:

* worry about finances

* time constraints

* babysitting problems

* relationship problems (one partner feels threatened by the advancement of the other)

* lack of confidence in the ability to learn (some people came to believe that they were not good at school, and they carry it with them forever)

* insecurity about intelligence

* concern for practicality and relevance

. . . And the list goes on!

Understanding the motivations and barriers your participants face can help you as an instructor identify the best way to serve them, increasing their motivation to learn.

5. Adult learners have sensitive egos.

Many of us, throughout life, have developed a fear of appearing stupid or incompetent. As children, we were encouraged to explore, ask questions, and learn about the world, but somewhere along the way, that was taken away from us. Many adults have mixed feelings about teachers, school, and structured learning.

Some people go to great lengths to hide their inability to read, for example, or their lack of understanding of their job duties.

An instructor/speaker must be aware of these issues and build trust by treating students with respect, sensitivity, and non-judgment.

* Allow participants to build confidence by practicing what they have learned in small groups before facing the large group

* Use positive reinforcement to encourage participants

* If sensitive topics are to be discussed, create a safe space by enforcing confidentiality and allowing participants to “walk in” if there is anything they don’t feel comfortable talking about.

* Provide low-risk activities before moving on to higher-risk or higher-trust activities

* Acknowledge participants’ prior knowledge and life experience and allow them to express opinions and share in class leadership.

A speaker who thinks he knows more than anyone else in the room is asking for trouble and creating an environment that discourages learning.

6. Adults are practical and problem-oriented, and want to apply what they have learned.

Probably the most important outcome for adult learners is being able to apply their learning to their work or personal life, right away. Help make this easier by doing the following:

* Use examples to help them see the connection between classroom theories and practical application

* Use problem-solving activities as part of learning.

* Create action items or task lists together with participants

* Help learners transfer learning into daily practice by offering follow-up coaching or mentoring

* Create an experiential learning environment that follows a experiential learning cycle

This has been just a brief description of the principles of adult learning. I hope you’ve found some of the advice in these articles helpful.

At its most basic level, adult learning tends to be self-directed and based on the individual needs and life experiences of the person. Follow these tips when working with adults and you’ll be well on your way to creating a truly effective learning experience.

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