"It's been said that we start school with a question mark and end it with a period," says Barbara Glanz, president of Barbara Glanz Communications, Western Springs, Ill. Somewhere between school and adulthood, most people's curiosity is stifled. They become passive listeners.
When teaching adults, the key is to revive that curious spirit, to get them to question and, ultimately, to take action.
The following adult learning techniques will help spark that childlike curiosity:
Before the Meeting * Query participants. "I try to interview at least three people who'll be at the meeting," says Tom McDonald, PhD, president of Dr. Tom McDonald & Associates, Escondido, Calif. "I ask them in confidence what issues they're facing and what they hope to get out of the meeting."
* Give them a preview. Tell participants enough about the meeting so that they know they will be involved and won't just be sitting through lectures. But don't tell too much: Don't spoil the surprises.
* Put them to work. Post articles and other meeting-related information on the company's Web site, McDonald suggests. Then, in the information packet sent to all participants, alert them to read the articles prior to the meeting. Or enclose articles or handouts in the meeting packet and stress that they should be read beforehand.
* Jump-start the participation. Ron Gross, president of Gross & Gross Associates in Great Neck, N.Y., sometimes sends participants a mock letter announcing that their organization is participating in a cloning experiment. "We'll tell them, for example, that we want to clone a successful sales manager, but first we have to know what the characteristics are." People are asked to compile a list of the characteristics and bring it to the meeting. They arrive involved and prepared to use the lists.
In the Meeting Room * Make it Mozart. Use Mozart as background music as people enter the room. Studies have shown that listening to Mozart stimulates the brain and helps people to learn.
* Deck the walls. Cover the walls of the meeting room with quotations that relate to the topic. "That takes people out of the routine and away from their expectation that there will be a lecture," says Glanz.
* Use imaginative seating arrangements. Avoid classroom-style and theater-style seating. Instead, for example, set a room in tightly packed rounds of six chairs--with no table.
* Fire off a quick shot. Add items to the room to trigger learning, such as table tents with questions written on them, or sheets for each person to fill out that have questions such as "What brought you here today? What do you hope to learn?"
Teaching Techniques * Talent tags. Jeffrey Cufaude, a founder and partner in Like-minded people, of Indianapolis, often opens a conference by giving participants strips of paper to attach to their name badges. On those strips, people write not their titles but their special talents. Then they are given 10 minutes to network, either searching for people with talents that would be useful in some project or discussing the just-revealed talents of people they have known for some time.
You can customize this technique for the group. For example, in a session on solving technical problems, ask people to list their areas of expertise. If the topic is customer service, ask them to name the customer types they handle especially well.
* Vary the pace. The attention span of a group rarely exceeds 20 minutes, so break up the learning with activities of different kinds. For example, let them get up and post questions on a wall; later, address those questions.
* Interactive speaking. McDonald has a method of involving participants in the discussion so that he is not merely a talking head. After discussing a topic for about 10 minutes, he asks the group to break into smaller groups of about six people and discuss whether they agree or disagree with him. He then asks each group to report on its main conclusion. Then he speaks for another 10 or 15 minutes and repeats the process. "People learn from their peers, and that's what I want to facilitate," he explains.
* Rapid review. At the end of the session, have each participant select one point and talk about it for 30 seconds. Or, for fun, ask each person to write on a small slip of paper the most significant thing he or she learned during the session, put the paper inside a balloon, and blow up the balloon. Then have people pop the balloons and read the strips aloud.
McDonald takes a more formal approach: He provides forms for participants to fill out--action plans that they will implement in, say, the next three hours, three days, and three weeks. The forms have questions such as, "What will I do?" "What are the risks if I don't?" After all, these are the kinds of questions participants would have to ask if they were going to implement the learning on the job.