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“At least it’s free pizza!”

The all-too common perception of training

Several years ago I was on my way to work and I overheard a conversation of two other gentlemen sitting behind me on the bus.  The conversation went something like this:

Man A: Hey man, it’s been a while.  How have you been?  Where are you headed? 

Man B: I’m on the way to a training.

Man A: Oh, sorry to hear that.

Man B: Yeah, well, they’re going to give us pizza.

They spoke for a few more minutes, then wrapped up their conversation this way:

Man B: Well, this is my stop.  Hope the day doesn’t drag too much.

Man A: Hey, at least it’s free pizza!

As a professional trainer, the conversation made me cringe.  As someone who’s sat through too many boring training sessions, classes, even church sermons, I understand completely where these guys were coming from. 

Core principles make a world of difference (if you stick to them)

John Wooden, the famed UCLA Bruins’ men’s basketball coach, used a coaching philosophy that revolved around three simple principles: conditioning, fundamentals and team spirit.  While these are fairly generic principles that many coaches will preach to their players, Wooden was able to get his players to buy-in to and adhere to these principles better than any other coach in history.  When players wouldn’t stick to them, Wooden did not hesitate to act.  Jerry Norman (who later became a key assistant coach during Wooden’s first national championship season) was kicked out of practice and told never to come back when Wooden felt his player was not practicing hard enough.

In an example of leading by example in the principle of team spirit, Wooden refused to participate in a national basketball tournament when the organizers didn’t want him to bring an African American player (who spent most of his time on the bench and wouldn’t have made much of a difference in the team’s performance).

His results speak for themselves.  No other coach has been able to win more than four NCAA men’s basketball championships in their career.  Wooden rode his principled, disciplined teams to seven consecutive championships and ten championships over twelve years. 

Principles of adult learning 

Malcolm Knowles is the John Wooden of adult learning.  If only there were more presenters, trainers and adult educators who could effectively practice and deliver on Knowles’ set of four simple adult principles:

  1. The content should be relevant to the learner (i.e. learners should be coming for the content, not just the pizza)
  2. Adult learners are autonomous and self-directing (i.e. learners should have an opportunity to ask questions and discuss amongst their colleagues and co-learners)
  3. Adult learners have experiences through which they have learned to see the world (i.e. a one-size-fits-all approach to presenting to a group isn’t effective)
  4. Adult learners seek to be able to solve problems and/or apply what they have learned immediately (i.e. learners should be able to do something differently or better than before they got off the bus in the morning)

Lecture is just easier

I’ve debated numerous colleagues on the idea that lecture is simply easier for both the presenter (it takes less preparation time) and the learner (there’s no need to get up and actually have to do anything during a presentation, the learners can just sit there and learn).  A case can be made that lecturers can indeed accomplish several of these adult learning principles (namely #1 and #4).  However, if teachers, presenters, trainers and facilitators want their message to stick, their presentations must integrate all four of these principles. 

Proof that adult learning principles work

In a study entitled Impact of an evidence-based medicine curriculum based on adult learning theory, researchers Michael L. Green and Peter Ellis offered empirical evidence that a curriculum based in adult learning theory produced better educational outcomes than other curricula.

The fact of the matter is that it may take less time to throw together a lecture with some Power Point slides.  But if learners are not able to retain what they’ve learned, then you’ll need to spend more time later on re-teaching the same thing.

If you’d like to evaluate your own presentation outline or lesson plan on the extent to which you’ve integrated adult learning principles, click here for a brief adult learning principle assessment cheat sheet.

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