Classroom Training: You’re Teaching Adults, Not Schoolchildren

Chapter 4 pg 95-99 Lead With Love  By: Gerry Czarnecki

At some point, a new associate will probably endure some type of formal classroom training. Although we have said OJT can be quite productive, it is also true that, at times, the nature of the training demands a more intense, disciplined, and controlled environment. A classroom gives the trainer substantial control over the subject matter shared. It provides for the use of professional teaching tools and techniques and allows the organization to be certain all associates are experiencing the same learning outcomes. This is particularly important when the subject matter is complex. Also, by controlling the environment a trainer can increase the efficiency of the learning experience by avoiding the inevitable distractions of getting the work out.

 Does your organization have a formal training program for new staff members? Has every staff member in your unit completed that program? If not, why not? If it is because you have failed to get them there because the workload keeps you from releasing them, you are not doing your job. No matter how effective your OJT has been, getting your associates trained in the formal process will be critical to their success.

 If you are doing the training, remember that these are adults in the classroom. Adult learners are more impatient with a classroom environment, more challenging of a teacher, more inflexible in their receptivity to new knowledge, and more eager for real-world applicability rather than conceptual background.

 Adults have the benefit, and the burden, of life experience. This is why they react the way they do in a classroom. Most have completed all of the formal education they intend to experience. They have added to that learning a set of life experiences that have shaped their frame of reference. For example, someone who has worked as a medical lab technician for ten years has learned a great deal about the technical characteristics of lab work, but many interactions over the years have shaped his view of people. He has learned how people react to the stress of a potentially serious illness, how they react when told good news about a loved one, how his peers react when they are stressed by an exceptionally long day of work, and on and on. Send him to a workshop on how to deal with terminal patients, and he will come to the class with real-life experiences that he will use to evaluate your lesson plan. Even if he is very interested in learning, he will have his own ideas about the subject. You are not dealing with an empty slate; this learner has life experiences to draw upon.

 Adult learners will challenge everything an instructor says, not to be recalcitrant, but rather because they have experiences that form the basis for their view of life and living. Every time a trainer provides an insight that goes against their life experiences or the conclusions they have drawn from those experiences, adult learners will feel compelled to challenge the trainer. If an adult has had significant experience, he can become stubborn about learning the concept or the data. When there is a direct contradiction between the lesson and his life experience, the learner is likely to choose the life experience.

 This is a critical concept. Adult learners benefit from experience, but they may also be influenced by events that created a mistaken conclusion. A trainer of adults must distinguish between a valid conclusion that results from experience and a conclusion that is flawed. If it is valid, the adult learner may actually contribute important knowledge  to the class. If it is flawed, the trainer must find a constructive way to help the associate “unlearn” the conclusion.

 Further, no new idea will be accepted as meaningful if it cannot be put to practical use. Tell a lab technician that people are afraid of the needles used to draw blood and you will see a big yawn. Tell the technician that the key to easing that anxiety can be learned from tricks magicians use and something different happens. The learner may challenge the applicability or value of the idea but is likely to listen with interest. Tell the technician that magicians are able to create illusions because they can direct the audience to a distracting event, which allows them to perform the trick, and the technician may now understand the concept. He may recognize that a meaningful distraction, such as shaking the person’s arm, could be the way to make a patient more relaxed for the insertion of the needle.

 The message here is not that adult learners are stubborn. Quite the contrary, some of the most dedicated learning anywhere happens in an adult classroom, where the learners are truly motivated to absorb the knowledge and skills required to achieve their dreams. These aspirations help stimulate even bigger leaps of growth, personal improvement, and development. Watching a motivated adult learner is a joy, and watching your own associates learn and develop can be a thrill for even the most experienced leader.

 Using practical applications of classroom learning is one of the great tools available to trainers working with adults. When in doubt, have adults do practical exercises and encourage them to bring real-life problems from their own jobs to the classroom. In other words, get them involved. Stay away from lectures and trainer-directed “show and

tell.” Have adult learners do the show and tell. Many times a class can be the better teacher than the trainer. Why let the years of experience in the room go to waste? Harness the experience as a way of helping the group learn. This kind of training requires careful planning and good control, but done well, it is a fantastic way for adults  to learn. Although most leaders are not formal trainers, the fact remains that a formal classroom-like setting can often be helpful in developing a work unit’s staff. If you are training in a classroom setting with your own work unit, practical exercises are a great way to facilitate learning and at the same time accomplish management tasks. As an example, assume you are trying to teach your staff how to set goals for their work responsibilities. In the closest conference room—after you have taken the time to describe the goal-setting process and explain why setting expectations is so critical to their success— break them up into groups of two or four. Then separate the groups and have all the individuals do goal-setting exercises for their own job. Once they have completed their goals, have each individual present the goals to the other group  members for critique. Without a doubt, the group’s critiques are likely to be more stringent, yet more acceptable, than your feedback.

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