How Adults Learn
by Zainal Abidin Rahman
The misunderstood trainer
“The trainer was lousy. He did not know the topic well
enough to conduct the training. He was there to form us
into groups and merely listened in to our presentations.
We did most of the discussions, ourselves. We learned
more from among ourselves than from the trainer.”
Sounds familiar? You bet. That was the reply given by
Ivy, a young and brainy executive, when I asked her how
her last training went. She had joined one of the
Government Ministries fresh from University with a
degree. After going through several years of education,
she thought she knew how a training course ought to be
Sorry Chum. No More Spoon-feeding. Starting From Now!
Ivy’s experience was one of disappointment. Brought up
on a strict diet of educational spoon-feeding, the many
learning points raised during the training were lost on
her. Instead, there was anger and resentment - misplaced
anger and resentment as it turned out.
Ivy’s comment is typical of many executives who do not
understand the real nature of adult training. Many
graduates fresh on their first job (and even some who
have been considerably longer in their jobs) expect that
the training that their employers send them to, to be no
different from the education that they had received at
schools and universities. To most of them, a training
course is essentially a session for the acquisition of
knowledge. (Wrong! They might as well pick up and read a
book. But then with that kind of educational focus will
they ever pick up a book? They might as well ask: Where
‘s the ten-year series of past questions and answers?).
They think as participants their role is to sit back,
grab the notes provided. Then, during the lecture, they
make even more copious hand-written notes of the magical
pronouncements from the mouth of the trainer. Moreover,
like university professors, the trainer is expected to
speak and lecture on the topic for the entire duration
of the training, which could last for 2 to 3 days, or
even longer. The trainer is the expert and the
participants are the sponges that soak up the new
knowledge. When asked to make comments or to raise
questions, they give an averted glazy look, practiced to
a fine art, just like in the old days during lectures
and tutorials. When asked to participate in a discussion
or a role-play they shrink in their seats and volunteer
each other up. They have gotten too stuck in passive
learning especially on educational topics that have
totally no relevance to real life.
Unfortunately, Adult Education Isn’t Like That. Time
To Wake Up. Participants Have To Move Their Bodies!
The misunderstanding on the role of the trainer and
adult education has stood in the way of effective
acquisition of new knowledge, skills and attitudes at
the workplace. Participants’ resentment directed at the
trainer may somewhat detract them from fully
appreciating the real value of the training. Like
avoiding the message because they don’t particularly
like the messenger.
This is of particular concern to Human Resource
Development specialists because of the potential loss in
the training investment. In the United States alone,
it’s estimated that more than US$60 billion is spent
annually on training in and by organisations,
particularly management training. Pfeffer and Sutton in
their book The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies
Turn Knowledge into Action came to the disturbing
conclusion that regardless of the quality of the
content, the delivery or the frequency of repetition
management education is often ineffective in changing
management practices. In one of their investigations,
they studied 120 units of a restaurant chain and found a
big gap between what the managers know to be successful
practices (things that ought to be done) and what they
actually do. Hence the title of their book: The
Knowing–Doing Gap. We know that knowing isn’t enough. It
is what we do with what we know – that’s what’s
So the million-dollar question is: How do we get people
to apply what they learnt at such management education
and training back to their office and shop floor? Part
of the answer must lies in how adults are motivated to
learn and how they relate what they have learnt to their
own individual experiences.
Once There Was Pedagogy
Believe it or not, mass and structured adult training -
as we know it now - was only started in the later part
of the nineteenth century, barely 100 years ago. Its
mode of operation was based on the only model of
instruction available: pedagogy (derived from the Greek
"pede" meaning "child" and "agogus" meaning "leader"
i.e. the art and science of teaching children). You
guessed it: Adults were taught as if they were children.
Training classes were organised along the lines and
concepts of the school. Instruction was essentially
didactic. This simply meant that the trainers were
regarded as the experts, the gurus, the masters,
brimming with wisdom and knowledge. And the participants
were just empty vessels into whom knowledge and wisdom
were to be poured into. You can just imagine class after
class in buildings where adults were seated in rows and
rows of tables and lectured to for long and boring
Then Came Andragogy (Education of Adults)
It didn’t take too long before people in the business of
training adults became dissatisfied with this approach.
Researchers such as Tough, Linderman, Penland and others
in learning, adults didn’t behave as grown-up children,
adults learn best when they were consulted and actively
involved in determining what, how, and when they
From these studies, came a new teaching model –
andragogy ("andro" meaning "adult") as an alternative to
pedagogy. These developments culminated in a landmark
article by Malcolm Knowles on Adult Learning. In the
article, he said that adults can be highly effective and
efficient learners if the following six specific
concerns are addressed. They are:
(1) Adults have a need to know why they should learn
With his responsibility in earning a living and raising
a family, many things cry for the attention of the
adult. Before embarking on any field of study, he will
want to know the answers to the following questions:
“What’s in it for me?”
“What do I really stand to lose if I don’t learn this
He needs to be convinced (definitely much more than a
child) that the time and effort learning the new skill
is worth sacrificing for.
(2)Adults have a deep need to be self-directing
Adults have a strong self-concept of wanting to be in
charge of their lives. He wants to make decisions that
will affect the quality of his life. He doesn't readily
accept the decision of others.
(3) Adults have more and varied experience than youth
Unlike a child, an adult has many years of experience.
An adult’s experiences make the person that he is. These
experiences have been valuable in making who he is and
he wants his experience to verify and validate the new
learnings. In other words, the more the new learnings
make sense of his experiences the more acceptable and
durable will the new learning be. It’s his way of making
sense of the world he lives in.
(4) Adults become ready to learn when they experience
in their life situation a need to know or be able to do
in order to perform more effectively and satisfyingly.
This is just another aspect of concern no. 1. It
contrasts sharply to the pedagogy model which assumes
that people are ready to learn when decided by some
authority figure (the teacher, the boss etc); that they
have to learn a topic or a subject simply because it is
deemed good for them.
On the other hand, adults learn best when they can see
how the skill will help them in their lives and in their
work and they voluntarily choose to learn. To be forced
to learn will only create resentment and resistance to
acquisition of the new skills.
(5) Adults enter into a learning experience with a
task-centred, (or problem-centred or life-centred)
orientation to learning.
When adults enter the training room they will be asking
questions such as:
“How will this new skill help me to solve my immediate
"How will it enhance the quality of my life?”
From these questions, it’s obvious that adults are
looking for the applicability and relevance of the
training to their problems, their tasks and ultimately
Children, in contrast, have a subject-centred
orientation to learning. Their foremost thought is
“I really want to learn this subject so that I will get
It’s all about grades isn’t it? Yes, we all know good
grades matters. To a child, applicability and relevance
of what they learn to their life is
a secondary issue. That can wait when they grow into
adulthood. We can almost hear their deep-seated
rationale: “We heard that 99% of people who studied
calculus in school never have the chance to apply it in
their lives. But who cares so long as we score an A in
(6) Adults are motivated to learn by both extrinsic
and intrinsic motivators
The pedagogy model assumes that children are motivated
to learn by extrinsic factors (good grades, parental
approval, a new toy, getting that diploma or degree).
Learning a subject just for the sheer of joy of it seems
a strange concept.
To be sure, adults are also motivated by extrinsic
factors (wage increase, recognition, promotion, etc).
But the most potent motivators are intrinsic
(self-esteem, growth, broader responsibilities, power,
Well, I Now Know The 6 Concerns In Adult Training. But
What’s The Practical Lesson?
There are many practical lessons that can be drawn from
these empirical studies by management, the Training Dept
and the individual participant himself. These
· how the Training Dept is to be structured;
· how training courses are designed;
· how participants are selected for a training;
· how to prepare participants who are going for a
· in undertaking a training needs analysis,
. in inculcating the spirit of learning in the
organization (now popularly subsume under the theme of
the learning organization).
These are topics for future articles. What I want to
drive at is this. Whether you’re a participant in a
future training or whether you’re the management that
will sponsor a training workshop or whether you’re in
charge of a Training Dept your primary concern is
essentially the same: how do you ensure the transfer of
learning from the training room to the workplace?
Fortunately, the situation is not as hopeless as it
seems. Pfeffer and Sutton in their book came to the
following conclusions “… one of the most important
insights from our research is that knowledge that is
actually implemented is much more likely to be acquired
from learning by doing than from learning from reading,
listening or even thinking.” This simply means that
during a training course, just make sure that the
participants are doing something; the closer the doing
relates to the learning the more effective is the
training. Not just sit back and try to absorb the
Are their studies new and earth shattering? Not by a
long shot. Confucius as long ago as 200 BC summed it up
all in his sayings:
What I hear, I forget
What I see, I remember
But what I do, I understand
To this, I would like to add the following:
What I contribute to the training, I own.
So the next time you are at a training workshop and the
trainer asks for volunteers to do a demo or a role play
or join a discussion group, don’t be surprised if your
hand unconsciously shoots up.
1. Knowles M, Adult Learning, p 168 to 179 in Training &
Development Handbook, Robert L Craig, editor.
2. Rylatt & Lohan, Creating Training Miracles, Prentice
Hall, Sydney, 1995.
3 The Knowing – Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn
Knowledge into Action. Jeffrey Pfeffer & Robert Sutton.
Harvard Business School Press. 1999.
Zainal is a
business trainer and coach specializing in
personal and organizational change. He has
worked with thousands of clients, individuals
and corporate, and brings with him expertise in
OD, HR, NLP, ericksonian hypnosis, Solutions
Focus, Appreciative Inquiry, The Enneagram,
energy psychology and various other effective
modalities that create change at the personal
and corporate levels. Contact:
For reprint permission, please email
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