Adults learn differently. Adjust your training accordingly.

We're all teachers at one time or another, whether we get in front of a class or not. Every owner, service manager and senior technician has to be a trainer. And, oh boy, it's not an easy job!

Whose fault is it when techs are hard to train? Sure, they're inexperienced. They have a short attention span and are easily distracted. Can you do anything about that? Probably not. What you can do something about is how you teach them. Instead of wishing they were different, in fact, blaming them because they aren't different, how about starting from where they are? There's more than one way to teach.

Most of us have only one model for teaching - how we were taught as kids ourselves. Does anyone think that was particularly good? Did anyone love school? Why then would we perpetuate the old ways of teaching? It just hasn't occurred to us to do it any other way. We haven't allowed ourselves to think of alternatives. But since instructors and students all agree that the old-fashioned way doesn't work, why not try something else?

First, let me clarify what I think of as the old-fashioned way. That's when whoever is teaching tells the supposed learner what he's supposed to learn. It's expected that the learner hears the material once, remembers it perfectly, and uses it whenever the occasion comes up. If the learner doesn't get it the first time, the instructor tells him the same thing again, a lot louder. Perhaps the instructor throws or kicks something to make sure the information sinks in.

I propose that we approach training our techs by using established principles of intelligence and how adults learn. I think this may even be more important for an instructor to think about than the subject matter itself.

Types Of Intelligence

You may remember my January 2004 column "The Back Row Boys," where I listed seven types of intelligence that the experts have identified, and the fact that no one is great at all of them. Usually a person is remarkable in just one. We expect our techs to be great at hands-on fixing things. That means they probably aren't going to be good at words or abstract theories, or interpersonal relationships. That's OK!

It also means that we need to teach them in ways they can learn. If they're good at hands-on, that's also how they learn best. Giving them a device and letting them mess with it will work a lot better than lecturing them about it.

Let's look at how this might apply to teaching basic electricity. The reason we teach it is so the tech can wire a circuit. But we start the class with electron theory. We follow that with lots of math. Why do we do that? Only because it's the way we've been taught. Other that that, there's no good reason.

I propose that starting an electricity class for hands-on guys with theory and math is about as useful as starting a rocket science class by teaching how to crochet. It just doesn't apply to the skill to be learned. And, it requires a kind of thinking that the learner doesn't identify with.

Adults bring many things with them to the learning experience. Some are useful, some aren't, but there they are anyway. You can take advantage of what adults bring with them to make life easier on yourself as an instructor, and to make learning easier for the student. Here's what adults bring:

  • Lots of life experience, and a need to have that acknowledged.

  • Expectations.

  • Distraction of other things going on in their lives.

  • Possible bad experiences with traditional education and authority.

  • A tendency to take errors personally and a preference to avoid risk.

  • A need to keep their self-esteem intact.
Let's look more closely at the list. Even the 18-year-old kid - perhaps especially the kid - believes he has significant life experience. Regardless of how little you value his experience, it's there to work with you or against you. What does he know? Ask him! Even if what he knows isn't useful to you, he needs to have it acknowledged.

Expectations come in many forms. It doesn't matter if his are the same as yours-he has them. Finding out what the learner expects doesn't mean you're going to try to measure up. But it does let you now what you're working with.

Distractions are always going on. Adults are masters at looking like they're paying attention, when the mind is somewhere else entirely. This means that if you're doing all the talking, the trainee is very likely thinking about something else. Part of your training challenge is to keep the learner "engaged." Ask a question. Get his hands busy.

Adults have possibly had bad experiences with education and authority. That transfers directly to any teaching you do that looks too traditional. The trick is to change the learning experience. Asking the learner to guess an answer rather than telling him. Let him discover with his hands how something works.

Adults have a tendency to take errors personally and to avoid risk. If we don't know it already, it's a first-class opportunity to make a mistake. Who wants to be caught doing that?

Adults need to keep their self-esteem intact. Everyone has a strong sense of pride, even those we think don't deserve it. I'm not saying you should tip-toe around, trying to never offend. But if you can help preserve someone's positive sense of self, you're much more likely to teach him something. People shut down when they feel bad, and that means they're not learning anything.

Principles Of Adult Learning

I'm not convinced that adults learn all that differently than kids. But I do know that the way we were taught as kids (lecture, theory) doesn't work for most of us. According to experts who study learning, successful adult training must be based on the following ideas:

Hands-on and practical, not theoretical. That means that basic electricity should not start with electron theory. It would be a lot better to start with an ordinary actual device that has a simple circuit.

Straight-forward and how-to, relating to immediate need-to-know. Remember when you first learned to use a computer? Did you remember anything that you didn't take home and practice right away?

Tied to what they already know; information in conflict with what they "know" won't be learned. The tech "knows" that there's no purpose for paperwork. It's just a waste of time when he could be getting on to the next call. Until he "knows" that you use it to bill the call and replace inventory, he may never fill it out.

It can take three to seven exposures for a new idea to be learned. Repetitious advertising is a good illustration of the fact that it takes many exposures before an idea sticks. Often the instructor thinks, "I told him once, so now he knows."

Multiple learning media (e.g., hands-on, videos, drawings, play-acting) are preferable. The fact is that telling someone even many times often doesn't work: "I've told and told him, and he's just not getting it." Find ways of teaching that aren't just "telling 'em."

Peers learn well from each other. We often think that the expert is the best teacher, but that's not necessarily true.

Teaching someone else is a good way to learn. It's often said that there's no better way to learn something than to teach it. That's true because when you're teaching, the gaps in your knowledge become very clear. That doesn't mean it's comfortable!

Since teaching someone else is a good way to learn, let the learner also teach it. And while we're at it, you can get started now learning a new way to teach. Spread the word that the old "tell 'em" style isn't the way to teach technicians. Technicians don't need theory and lecture. They need hands-on learning.