As I write, there are 8 days left until the start of Adult Learners’ Week – a good thing, I think we’d all agree. As keen supporters of We Are What We Do, we’ve always been all in favour of it, whether it be Teach your Granny to Text or Write to someone who inspired you. All of which made me think …

There is plenty of evidence in the literature of learning and development about Adult Learning Theory. For wiki enthuasiasts, there’s a good online primer, or you can read more specifically about Malcolm Knowles’ work. As practitioners in professional and personal development in the workplace, all of our work is actually with ‘adult learners’ – we draw an ethical line at dealing with organisation who use child labour, especially in senior management or leadership roles. But one point struck me particularly:

Adult learners bring a great deal of experience to the learning environment. Educators can use this as a resource.”

Indeed, it struck me so clearly, I thought about my mother-in-law.

Undoubtedly an adult, she spent much of her life as Matron (and Headmaster’s wife) in preparatory schools. While not a teacher per se, she has clearly gained great experience in getting what is needed out of young boys – and of grown men of 48. This may or may not be proof of the “10,000 hours” theory that’s popping up in the work of Malcolm Gladwell (see our online review), Daniel Levitin and here, there and everywhere on people’s blogs, but if practice at least helps to make perfect, Stella has cracked it.

What made me think of her was one thing she needed. Having also perfected flower-arranging, cake-making, committee organising and much more, Stella needed to understand video recorder programming. Even a stalwart of the WI – an organisation whose work in educating adults, transforming behaviours and lives is too easily forgotten – cannot watch Neighbours, feed the dog and be in the Village Hall organising the Brailes Show simultaneously.

Looking back at my first attempt to unravel the mysteries of the Sky box and the VCR, I can see that she was also teaching me how to teach her. Looking at some of the principles of training design for adult learners:

  • Adults learn best when the subject is of immediate use.

I think “Dinner will be ready in 40 minutes, and I want to record Lewis so we can watch it with our coffee. How do I do that?” is a fairly clear example, and certainly indicated a strong motivation for learning.

  • Adults learn through doing.

My partner is strong on documentation. But hand-written, step-by-step notes on recording Neighbours hadn’t delivered the necessary performance improvements. Stella’s diagnosis was accurate and concise: “Show me and then let me have a go.” (Adult learners don’t like to be patronised, by the way.)

  • Adults have the need to know why they are learning something.

The hardest element. From my own experience, not necessarily my mother in law’s failing either. Why you need to switch from TV to Sky Box to set it to record was relatively easy to grasp; I had a stab at explaining why Sky numbers its channels the way it does, but stumbled mostly because I couldn’t see why they needed to make it so seemingly random either. But once I’d taken the learner’s advice and adopted the “Show me and then let me have a go” technique, Stella was prompt with the “And why do I have to do that again?” questions that underline the adult learning principle. (We also agreed that televisions are now like husbands: if they’re in the wrong mode, you can’t get anything out of them.)

  •  Adults are problem-solvers.

See above. [See also WI meetings, church coffee mornings, Neighbours, anything with Keira Knightley in it.] The unpredictability of unforeseen events – Sky box hanging, poor reception, major deaths or world events dislodging schedules – has derailed the process a few times, but we have extended the learning experience by providing telephone coaching and face-to-face refresher courses. And setting the VCR to record something takes far less time that watching it, so we’ve barely nibbled at the 10,000 hours just yet.

It strikes me that my mother-in-law has also grasped the reward and recognition process – sons-in-law will perform household tasks in return for roast dinners, long walks in the country with the dog, and a nice g&t. Some of them also need to learn how to make me pastry (wish me luck) … )

Would that all our trainees were so rewarding.

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