I often make the comment during workshops—especially when the class is for internal trainers or SMEs preparing to lead their own workshops—that I received the best train-the-trainer education working as a high school English teacher. No group of learners (of any age or occupation) was more brutally honest. Indeed, no group was more willing to tell me exactly what I was doing wrong than a classroom full of 15-year-olds. It was a humbling but great experience.
I know the learning and development (L&D) field makes a clear distinction between child learners and adult learners (pedagogy vs. andragogy), and I won’t go into my concerns about those distinctions here. I will say, though, that the lessons I learned in the high school classroom about what learners want and need from their instructors is absolutely relevant for adults. Here’s a breakdown.
Learners Don’t Want to Be There
High school English students don’t care about what you are teaching, and they have no problem letting you know that. Some might acknowledge the benefit of knowing how to write clearly. Some might like to read. Some of them might even like to write. But from their perspective, those activities aren’t what sitting in class every day was about; being in class every day is about the drudgery of secondary education.
I learned to respect this attitude as an honest, reasonable response to their circumstance. To do otherwise would be to assume that every student walked into my classroom ready, willing, and excited to learn—which would have been an absurd failure.
Business people are in a similar situation. Often, learners are reluctant because they question the need for training or the delivery mode. It’s important to remember that these learners are being forced to leave their regular jobs to participate in training. As L&D professionals, we must anticipate resistance and do all we can to be as efficient and relevant as possible.
Remember: Training is not a gift everyone wants. For many, training is another task that takes them away from what they consider their “real” work.
Be Careful When Asking for Interaction
I learned very quickly that the variety of teaching methods I had been taught to enhance learning —group activities, games, self-directed work, and so forth—were land mines. Sometimes students refused to take the exercise seriously; other times, the class exploded in fits of reckless disregard for whatever I was asking them to do. I learned that there are two reasons for their responses.
- “Why should I bother?” It is best to assume that asking students to participate directly in any way—from answering a question to participating in an activity—is an infringement on what they consider their right to sit silently at their desks. Active participation is work, and recognizing this perception is essential. There must always be a benefit for participation that is relevant for the learner.
- “Is this going to put me at risk in front of my peers?” For 15-year-old students, the biggest risk they face is embarrassment in front of peers. Think back to when you were that age. Most of your energy was probably channeled toward keeping up whatever appearance you chose to project. So avoid asking students to do anything in class that will set them apart, embarrass them, or make them look bad to others.
Are adult learners any different? As we age, do we somehow become more willing to make an effort in the classroom—and more willing to face embarrassment? I don’t think so. We’re just better at hiding our frustration and fear. Again, it comes down to relevance and efficiency for the learner. Will this activity, from an icebreaker to a table discussion, help them do their jobs? Will it be an efficient use of time? If not, throw it out.
Learners Expect You to Be In Charge and Do Your Job
Needless to say, the relationship between instructor and student is complicated. On one hand, sophomores want to be treated fairly and with respect. At 15, they are the center of their own universes, so it’s important to keep their perspective in mind. On the other hand, they want you to lead them. They know that you are the one in charge, and they want you to act like it. This doesn’t mean that the teacher should rule with an iron fist, of course. It means that students know that things will go a lot more smoothly for them if you take the reins.
This was one of the most difficult things I had to learn, because it involves an unspoken agreement. No 15-year-old student will ever say, “Please take charge. Please be the manager and leader this class needs.” But if they feel you have dropped the ball, they will let you know. Every day in every class, I learned that the first thing my students wanted me to do was be in control—despite the fact that they were always struggling for control themselves.
For L&D professionals this equates to communicating that you are not going to waste their time or make them work harder than they need to. When we apply this idea, learners are more likely to buy into training because they feel they can trust you.
I didn’t last very long in the high school classroom. Leaving, though, was not about the students or their attitudes. Working with them was the best part of the job. More importantly, what they taught me has served me well in the L&D field.
Editor’s note: This post is adapted from the The Orderly Conversation Blog.