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 conducted.

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 important.

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 hours.

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 discovered that:

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 learned.

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 something

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 particular skill?”

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 problems?”

"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 their lives.

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 good grades.”

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 the subject?”

(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, achievements).

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 applications include:

· 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 training;

· 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 learning.

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:

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