This Is Not Your Child’s Classroom: Adult Learning Principles for Employers

Adult Learning Principles for Employers

As a self-declared nerd, I admit to being fond of the “adults-who-go-back-to-school” film category. This includes movies such as Billy Madison, Never Been Kissed, 21 Jump Street, and so on.

I suspect that one of the reasons for the appeal of these films, at least for some of us, is the fantasy of having the opportunity to learn again once you know education’s value: being able to enjoy acquiring knowledge without the pressures and responsibilities of adult life.

Back to School: Address Challenges of Training Adults in the Workplace

If these movies suggest that adults wish for time and space to learn, that’s good news for the growing number of organizations that want to further employees’ skills through training programs.

Even after the age when most Canadians have completed their initial postsecondary program (25 years), the percentage of adults in training programs annually is between 30-40% (Statistics Canada).

However, adults are not the same as children (of course), and any training program should respect the special requirements of adult learners. Adults have busy schedules, are independent, and may resist training that feels irrelevant. If organizations cannot engage employees during training courses, knowledge retention will be low, as will the return on investment.

Use Principles of Adult Learning for Business Success

Researcher Malcolm Knowles outlined several principles for teaching adults. Business trainers and managers can leverage these principles to ensure that training initiatives secure maximum benefits.

Imagine these principles as six core questions that adult learners might ask.

Why are we doing this?

Adults need to know the reason for learning. If organizations cannot clearly explain the rationale behind a training program, trainees may not be motivated to learn.

StrategyStrategy: Managers can relate employee learning to business goals, as well as to employees’ individual goals. For example, “If our sales team learns to use our new CRM software, we’ll be able to close 20% more deals per quarter. This will increase every sales team member’s quarterly commission.”

What do I know about this already?

Children come to learning with little experience—they might learn about the importance of healthy eating, for example, without any experiential knowledge about the detriments of not eating well.

Adults bring to learning a wealth of experience, including both successes and errors, that provide a context for learning.

This experience is a deep resource for their learning and allows adults to comprehend concepts that previously would have been too difficult.

StrategyStrategy: Trainers can tap into this reservoir of knowledge by asking what learners already know about a topic, or by contextualizing new knowledge in relation to previous experiences: “You’ve all used Series 2 of this lathing machine. Series 3 is similar in function but has three additional speeds that require special programming.”

How can I take the lead?

While children’s learning tends to be directed by adults, adult learners want to identify their own educational goals and methods, and they want some say in evaluating learning outcomes.

StrategyStrategy: Businesses can ask staff members to articulate at the beginning of training programs what their goals are for training and how they will know if they have succeeded. As well, trainers should keep learning informal and conversational, rather than overly directive.

Trainers can also introduce a variety of ways for trainees to learn. For example, some employees may want to read about new strategies for conflict resolution, while others will want to immediately apply new strategies through role-playing.

How will this help me?

Adults are most interested in learning subjects that will help them do their jobs better. Learning therefore needs to be oriented to individual roles, since a manager, a production line worker, and a receptionist may have different learning goals.

StrategyStrategy: Trainers can divide training according to job function. For example, if implementing a new email tool, managers can hold a general training session for everyone, followed by breakout sessions for specific groups, based on how they will use it.

What problem will this solve?

A grade-four student learning geometry may not have an opportunity to use this knowledge right away, other than on a math test. An adult cartographer, on the other hand, may learn new principles of angle measurement and use them immediately on the job.

While children learn skills that they will later need to solve problems, adults will often encounter a problem first, and then work to find a solution.

StrategyStrategy: Training can be designed based on an assessment of training needs: What problems is the organization facing, how might training help, and how can this be communicated to trainees? As well, trainees should have ample and immediate opportunity to apply learning on the job.

Why am I doing this?

Children may be externally motivated to learn by a desire to please or by a fear of negative consequences. Adults, however, are more likely to be internally motivated: for successful learning to take place, adults must strongly want to develop a new skill or acquire particular knowledge.

StrategyStrategy: Managers with insight into individual employees’ motivations may help frame and design training courses to tap into these. Trainers can also motivate employees by getting personnel to articulate their own ideas about how training will help them.

Maximize Training Return with Employer Training Grants

The federal and provincial governments offer employer training grants for organizations that want to use government funding to offset training costs.

The Canada Job Grant provides over $194M annually in Canadian government funding to support employee upskilling in all provinces.

Through the Ontario arm of this program, the Canada-Ontario Job Grant, Ontario companies can reduce the cost of training employees by 50-83%.

Other programs include the FedDev Ontario Training Program, which provides up to $100K per applicant to help manufacturers in Ontario train personnel on new technology or processes, and the federal Apprenticeship Job Creation Tax Credit, which covers up to 10%, to a max of $2,000, of eligible salaries for apprentices.

To help recognize opportunities available for training grants, please download Mentor Works’ Canadian Business Funding Guide.

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