Adults Learn Differently Than Children

by Carolyn B. Thompson

Carolyn B. Thompson
Training Systems, Inc.
12 Landscape Lane
Camdenton MO 65020

Reprint Rights
1083 Words

Adults Learn Differently Than Children
by: Carolyn B. Thompson

There's a lot more to training than talking! An awful lot of us are training our staff, our co-workers, our customers these days without a clue of how to really help adults learn.

Studies show that we remember 80-90% of what we see and touch, and only 10-15% of what we there's one thing for sure people don't learn by us talking!

Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn. Involve me and I learn know who said it? Benjamin Franklin. When you think of involving people in the learning process, don’t you think of the 1990's stuff like outdoor experiences, interactive video, team building exercises? Involvement in the learning process is not a 1990's thing, it's an adult learning thing. Adults need to be involved in the learning process in order to be able to perform what they've learned. Most of us know this we remember 80-90% of what we see and touch and only 10-15% of what we hear it makes sense, but we don't put it into practice when we have to help a new co-worker or staff person learn their job or a new process. I believe there are two reasons for this; Number 1, most of us haven't been trained to train we don't have a BA or MA in HR, we don't read Training Magazine each month, we don't go to training on how to train we're simply the most experienced at a task and so we get to be the trainer. There are a handful of us trained to train but we too don't involve people in the learning process as much as we ought to because we have been just that - trained to train. No company on Earth cares if someone can train, or if the employees are trained, do they? We only care if the employee learned and can perform! Even if you've been trained to train you probably still find yourself involving learners in the learning process less than you should because we think of ourselves as the trainer but no one cares if you can train, they only care if the learner learns. Make a new mindset for yourself and you'll involve learners more often your job is not to train but to create learning, so think of yourself as a Creator of Learning and you'll involve people in the learning process more often because you'll always be focusing on whether they're learning, not whether you're training!

Now to be a great creator of learning you must understand one great truth about adults adults learn differently than children. This is because adults and young adults come to the learning with experiences. The older the person, the more experiences they come with. Those of you who snow ski know all about those 5 year olds that zoom past you while you’re carefully maneuvering the slope. Why are they able to ski so fast, so quickly? Because they have no experience of falling, and even if they did, it's only a foot and a half to the ground so it's no big deal. They have no experience of running into trees, like I have, they have no experience of another skier running into them, like I have. So adults come to the learning with these negative experiences which hold them back from learning the new process or new task. The cool thing is that adults also come to learning with positive experiences which, if you recognized them, you could capitalize on them and generalize the past experience to the new one!

Adults learn from experiences, it's a fact, and they are going to come to learn with those experiences already in place. So our job, if we want to help them learn quickly and learn it the first time, is to recognize the experience they've had, if it's negative find a way to wipe it out, and if it's positive, generalize it to the new task. For example, most of us, when we're helping someone learn something, spend the first few minutes telling them all the neat new things this piece of equipment or software will do or the reasons why they'll benefit from working in this new manner - new, new, new, new! And then we wonder why they're holding back, not trying very hard, asking 500 questions! What we should do is start by telling them all the things this new piece of equipment or new form does or how this new procedure is similar to old ones or ways they've done it before!

Adult Learning Theory says that in order for adults to learn they must be involved in a 5 step process, beginning with experiencing which can be remembering an experience or acting out the past experience (ie. “show me what you can do before we get started with the training”) and then trying the new one or for some reading about the new way to do it or watching another do it. They must then have the opportunity to publish tell about the experience, the old one and the new one. Next, they need time to process think about, talk about or evaluate what they've done, read or watched, and therefore what they've learned. Next, they must have the opportunity to generalize relate in writing or speaking how what they've done, read or seen applies to what they'll be doing on the job on their own once the training time is finished. The final step is for the learner to apply which for many of us is actually doing the task, for others it's planning what we're going to do including a date to start.

Adults must experience (which they'll do with or without your help), publish, process, generalize, and apply in order to learn. Your job, when you need to help someone learn, is to provide training that includes the ability for the learner to be involved in all 5 steps so the learning will be cemented! Each learner is slightly different, hence my mentioning that some learners will want to read, others to talk, others to watch someone else doing the job first. All of these are significantly more involving than the standard talking to them (lecture) or the “you show them, they try, you leave” type of training which is involving, but only works for some learners as some learn better from trying without you and others from reading.

Stop talking so much and start helping people learn!


Carolyn B. Thompson is the President of Training Systems, Inc., a customized training & HR consulting company that helps small and medium sized organizations enhance their ability to recruit, inspire, and retain quality employees and improve performance through training. Training Systems, Inc. also provides training design and delivery services to training companies and the training departments of large companies, and professional and trade organizations. Carolyn is an exciting, experienced, and inspirational trainer who leads people to learn, and a knowledgeable consultant in the employee recruitment, inspiration, and retention. Carolyn’s produced a two-tape audio tape set based on her radio show, Straight Talk for Employers; the worksheet, Ten Steps to Determining the Return on Your Training Investment; written & published the book, Creating Highly Interactive Training Quickly & Effectively, and written Interviewing Techniques for Managers and The Leadership Genius of George W. Bush. She’s written articles for prominent magazines, been interviewed for Chicago’s TV Channel 26, the ‘You’re Hired’ radio show, and written chapters in several books. Carolyn is also the editor of the monthly publication, Recruit, Inspire and Retain.

Training Systems, Inc. 1999


More articles