Let’s Get Philosophical


The other day, I had a really good conversation with a friend and colleague. At one point, the topic turned to adult learning philosophy. We waxed philosophic for a few minutes, and then the conversation moved on to something else. But that conversation got me thinking about my own philosophy of learning.

Now, don’t you worry, my friends. I haven’t forgotten what I said on my About page:

“I write the way I talk. The way I facilitate. I like analogies and metaphors; I dislike pompous-sounding writers who make things more complicated than they need to be.”

That is true – more than ever – so don’t think I’m going to start spouting off jargon or theories from Bloom or Kolb or any of those other smarties, although I do give those folks plenty of credit and refer to them often. But for today, here is my common-sense, real-world, chat-over-a-cup-of-coffee view on adult learning:

1. Keep it real and relevant.

Adults are seeking learning opportunities that are based in practical, real-world experience. Save the textbook, hypothetical hullaballoo (umm, did I just say hullaballoo?) for the university. Adults need to know that they can apply what they’ve learned to their jobs. To their daily tasks and projects. They have chosen to spend their valuable time in training…well, some of them have chosen. Regardless of whether they made the choice to attend training or whether it was required for their job, they need to know that this is time well spent.

2. Keep it timely.

Adults need to know that the material they are learning is pertinent to what they are currently experiencing, not something that may or may not be helpful months down the road. Technical trainers, make sure that your participants will actually be using the skills they learn in training right away so they can transfer the classroom experience to the job. I could keep going about learning transfer and improved performance, but I’ll spare you today. Another post, perhaps!

3. Keep it engaging and inclusive.

I wrote a piece awhile back about similarities in teaching adults versus teaching children. While it was a little tongue-in-cheek, there was some truth to it. Check it out here if you’d like.

While there are some fundamental similarities, the truth is, adults simply learn differently than children do. Think back to when you were a kid…you sat at your desk, your teacher stood at the front of the room and presented a lot of content to you. She might have used a textbook, an overhead projector, a map, a chalkboard or a smelly, purple-ink ditto page as her vehicle, but the message was clear: “I am the adult. I am the expert. Your learning goes through me.”

And maybe that was fine when you were 8 years old, learning about long division or Magellan or possessive pronouns for the first time.

But, like I said, adults are different.

Adults bring a variety of experiences, baggage, bias, ideas, motives, likes, dislikes, opinions, fears and needs to each and every training session, regardless of how its delivered. It is our job to meet those needs by creating an inclusive, welcoming environment that allows participants to learn, be challenged and take something applicable and relevant back to the job.

We also need to be engaging. Most adults learn best in an interactive setting. It is critical that we leverage the techniques, tools, resources and industry know-how that we have accumulated to develop and deliver engaging learning experiences for our participants. Allow them to contribute. Encourage them to participate. Ask them to share their experiences.

And, for the love of all that is righteous, don’t read them a PowerPoint and think that they’ve “learned” something.

So, there you go. A few thoughts on my philosophy of adult learning. Maybe it’s similar to your own philosophy. Maybe you have a different viewpoint. Either way, I’d love to hear your thoughts! As always, feel free to comment, email or hit me up on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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10 thoughts on “Let’s Get Philosophical

  1. Mark L. Sheppard says:

    Bloom is always worth talking about, particularly when it comes to shaping learning objectives. Even if you just have a crib sheet, the taxonomy is still handy. Kolb, on the other hand, is best left undiscussed, unless you refer to the basic concepts of the experiential learning cycle in general terms. However, talk about “Learning Styles” should be suppressed. ;-)

    Your points are well made. The other things I would add are: make it brief (if you have to intervene with a formal learning solution), and make it ongoing. Event-based activities rapidly become “flavour of the month” when compared with ongoing blends of formal, informal and learning in the workflow. As Harold Jarche says, “The work is the learning and the learning is the work.”

    • Michelle says:

      Love, love, love your comment, Mark. You are right on point with Bloom – very good stuff! I do have to admit that I have a soft spot for the “What? So what? Now what?” concept, associated with the Experiential Learning Cycle. Maybe it’s elementary, but it’s something I’ve found to be a nice bridge from a training environment to the “real world”. :)

      To your additions, I have to give an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Brief, ongoing and blended are absolutely essential!!

      Thanks so much for sharing…have a great day!

  2. Timothy (Tim) Riecker says:

    Michelle I love this post. It summarizes the bulk of important items that teachers, educators, and presenters need to keep in mind. I’ve blogged a number of times (and have commented to colleagues countless times!) that it all boils down to some measure of a needs assessment. Everything we do, be it training, building a road, or managing a disaster all starts with identifying a need and building from it. By working from a needs assessment we begin with our focus in the right direction – on the audience. Throughout the entire instructional design process we should continually refer back to the needs assessment and ensure that we continue to be audience-focused. They are, after all, the whole reason we are there!

    • Michelle says:

      Hi Tim – I couldn’t have said it better myself. It is absolutely crucial to not only assess training needs, but to be able to articulate those needs to business stakeholders. As learning leaders, we should always strive to be trusted advisors and business partners! Thanks for your comment…enjoy your day!

  3. Rosa Gallardo says:

    Michelle, adults prefer case study rather than textbook. I agree with that. However, adults must have a written support that proves what they are learning has a foundation. I cannot say that adults learn different from children. Individuals in general have different learning styles. However, the brain processes information and adapts new experiences in a specific way. “The brain has a tremendous ability to organise and reorganise itself by forming new connections between brain cells mostly neurons throughout life including old age” (Abiola & Dhindsa, 2012, p. 71). Children differ from adults on the type of experiences that they have, especially job experiences. Both groups, children and adults, learn better in an interactive setting, and they engage in the learning process when the teaching is meaningful. Meaningfulness is obtained from metacognition (Ormrod, 2009). In addition, the “teaching process, the content for the students is often arranged from simple to complex as they progress to higher grades” (Abiola & Dhindsa, 2012, p.75). Trainers must use the appropriate teaching strategies to transfer meaningful information.

    Abiola, O. O., & Dhindsa, S. (2012). Improving classroom practices using our knowledge of how the brain works. International Journal of Environmental & Science Education
    Vol. 7, No. 1, January 2012, 71-81

    Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2009). An Introduction to Learning. Baltimore, MD: Author. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu/webapps/portal/frameset.jsp?

  4. Michelle says:

    Hi Rosa – Thanks so much for your comment! I totally agree with you – from a cognitive standpoint, there are fundamental processes that do not change throughout life. With adults, you’re correct – it really is important to cite sources and back up what is presented, particularly when delivering technical or academic content. As a consultant to businesses and professionals, I also see the necessity of providing real-life examples, tips and suggestions that aren’t necessarily found in a textbook. That is where the importance of leveraging the learners’ experiences comes in – as a facilitator (not necessarily a “teacher”), there is skill in introducing a topic, and guiding the learners to find the answers based on collaboration and experience-sharing. Again, thanks so much for sharing!

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