“Why are we here?”…and other questions about adult learning

During the start of the year, corporate teams often approach ADR to plan their training program for the year. Our initial discussions are typically around the objectives, in terms of what the organization hopes to achieve after the learning has been applied.

This can sometimes leave learners asking “why are we here?”. They don’t understand why they have been extracted from a busy work schedule to attend an event they see as separate from their daily work.

Organizations organise training for a variety of reasons, most often:

  1. They are training to communicate something to people (a new process or policy).
  2. They want people to do things differently, and get improved outcomes as a result.
  3. They have a training budget that needs to be spent.

These reasons may all stem from good intentions, but the learner must be personally engaged in order to change their thinking, practices and behaviour.

The American adult education expert Malcolm Knowles explored the theory of effective adult learning in the late 20th century, and developed it further in the 2015 book “The Adult Learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development”. His concepts remain core to corporate functional training. They can be summarised as follows:

  • Learners must be able to understand their learning needs
    • “why do I need to learn this?”
  • Learners must be able to help design their learning to suit their own styles
    • “let me direct my own learning”
  • Learners must learn through experience
    • “I learn from sharing stories with people who had similar experiences”
  • Learners must be ready to learn
    • “this is suitable to my skill level”
  • Learners must see the relevance of the learning to their daily work
    • “this will help me do my job better”
  • Learners must be motivated to learn
    • “this is fun and will do good things for me”

Training managers can help learners to not only understand why they are attending training, but also be motivated to apply the learning for powerful results. For example:

  • Help students to identify their own learning needs, using a tool such as ADR’s Development Needs Analysis. It is useful to discuss the outcomes with a line manager, reviewing strengths and personal goals.
  • Foster a supportive learning environment. For example, in the training invitation, tell learners that training is a place for open ideas exchange, not a passive “lecture” environment.
  • Help the learners use their full capacity to benefit themselves, as well as the organization. To bring this to life, you could use post-course evaluations forms to ask learners how can they use the learning in the work place and beyond, for example through better influencing and mediation skills at home.

The field of learning and development has many options for learning types and content to excite and enthuse learners. But the key decision making criteria for the training manager should be how the learning inspires the adult learner to learn for their own growth and satisfaction.