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Icebreaking Activity: How To Introduce Knowles’ Theory on Adult Education

No Train-the-Trainer class would be complete without mentioning Malcolm Knowles and his theory on how adults learn.  Unless your audience is full of true training geeks, not many people are going to dote on the theory part.  They want to connect the theory to their jobs, how it’s going to help them better reach their audiences, how it can be applied in real life.  And they want all of this to take effect tomorrow, whether or not they can regurgitate what Knowles had to say.

Before I ever dare introduce Knowles and his theory, I always ask my audience to take a walk down memory lane and think of their best learning experience.  It’s my icebreaker, my way to anchor abstract theory into my learners’ experiences.  Then I ask a few volunteers to share their best experiences and I connect elements of these learning experiences with various aspects of Knowles’ theory.

It’s a question I’ve asked scores of times.  I’m not sure when I last answered the question for myself. As I reflected on today’s post, I thought of my high school teacher Mr. Reddinger and my fourth grade teacher Mr. O’Laughlin and the college class when we had to go to the National Archives and take a look at actual Revolutionary War pension records.  But my best learning experience (perhaps “best” simply because it’s the most recent) might be those times when I’m at my desk, trying to figure out how to do an advanced operation on Excel or trying to figure out how to change the orientation of just one page in a 17-page Word document from portrait to landscape.

When I take a few minutes to Google my question, find an answer, test it out, realize I didn’t do it right the first time, go back and read the answer again, figure out what I was doing wrong, and when it all culminates in my having mastered a new skill, I feel like I can figure out how to do anything.  I want to learn how to accomplish other new tricks and master other little-used-but-really-helpful features of these Microsoft applications.

As I reflected on my own favorite learning experience, I wonder why so many other learning experiences (yes, even ones that I’ve designed) – from new hire orientation to conference workshops to 1-on-1 coaching between a supervisor and her direct report – don’t allow the learners more autonomy to experiment, play, fail, try it a different way, succeed and maybe even master a skill?

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