"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 in between, curiosity is stifled and people become passive listeners. "Our educational system takes the spirit and creativity and delight out of learning," Glanz believes. "You have to fit the mold the teacher created."
When teaching adults, "We need to get that spirit back again, to get people to question, to think about what they can do," she says. Glanz has a master's degree in adult education and she led a session on how adults learn at the annual Meeting Professionals International Professional Education Conference this year in Vancouver,
In how many meetings does that actually happen? Lecturers speak; maybe they show slides or a video. Attendees listen and watch. But are they learning? And if they are, can they apply what they're learning? If they're just sitting there, how can you tell? Although lectures certainly are appropriate at times, lectures alone just won't cut it. For learning to "take," for people to be able to go back to the workplace and apply what they've learned, they need to be active participants in their own training. That requires the active participation of the trainer and the planner.
Trainer Preparation Your agenda may say that the meeting begins at, say, 8 a.m. on Monday. But it should start long before that. For learning to take place, both the trainer and the participants need to prepare.
Meeting planners, with trainers, should plan sessions that will meet specific learning objectives. Just as you would do with a successful direct-mail piece, promotion, or meeting brochure, you need to identify the benefits. What's in it for the attendees? But planners and trainers can't create and meet specific learning objectives independently. "We're dismayed by organizations that merely name a topic and want us to design a program," says Jeffrey Cufaude, a founder and partner in like-minded people, of Indianapolis. "We ask them, 'At the end of the program, what do you want people to be thinking, feeling, and acting upon?'"
With the planner's cooperation and input, however, trainers can implement pre-meeting action plans like these:
* Obtain company information. "I ask the organization for as much information as it's willing to send," Glanz says. She requests, for example, newsletters, an annual report, and other nonconfidential internal materials. "I ask the decision-makers about the current issues and concerns, what they would like the outcomes to be, what hot-button issues I should stay away from. That forces them to think about it and helps me to prepare."
* Query participants. "I try to interview at least three people who'll be at the meeting," says Tom McDonald, Ph.D., president of Dr. Tom McDonald & Associates, of Escondido, Calif. "I ask them what issues they're facing and what they hope to get out of the meeting. The conversations are confidential," he stresses. Another technique McDonald uses is a fax-back survey--also confidential--of participants. "A few quick questions give me a very good picture of what the real issues are and I can shape the program to fit those needs. Rarely does a planner even suggest I do these things," McDonald says. "But they should."
Participant Preparation Surveying participants not only gives him vital information, McDonald says, it also "engages the participants beforehand and lets them know that this is really important."
Here are additional ways to prepare participants:
* Give them a preview. "Part of getting people to participate is to create an expectation in the promotional materials," Cufaude says. "We write in direct language: 'Come prepared to participate. Participation will look like this.'" Tell participants enough so that they know they'll 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 sometimes sends participants in his sessions a mock letter announcing that their organization is participating in a cloning experiment with the local hospital. "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," says Gross, president of Gross & Gross Associates in Great Neck, N.Y. People are asked to compile a list of the characteristics and bring it to the meeting. They arrive already involved and prepared to use the lists to create the clone. Every element of the meeting should facilitate learning. Teaching techniques are the critical issue, of course. But every detail--the way the schedule is structured, even the way the room is set up--makes a difference.
The Meeting Room Environment "Look and feel" is a term used in connection with the design elements of a. But the look and feel of a meeting room is also important, because it sets the stage for the meeting and prepares people for learning. Some suggestions from experienced trainers and facilitators:
* Make it Mozart. Studies have shown that listening to Mozart stimulates the brain and helps people learn. Gross uses Mozart as background music as people enter his sessions. "I tell people it's for them--that it prepares the mind to learn," he says.
* Deck the walls. Glanz covers the walls of the meeting room with anywhere from 50 to 100 brightly colored, laminated charts with quotations that relate to the topic, not unlike those you'd find in an elementary school. "That takes people out of the routine and away from their expectation that there will be a lecture," she says.
* Use imaginative seating arrangements. Seeing classroom-style and theater-style as the only options is "a failure of imagination," McDonald says. "The way you set up the room is powerful. You need an environment that's flexible." One of his favorite ways to set a room is in tightly packed rounds of six chairs--and no table. "People see that and say, 'Oh, no--I have to do something,'" McDonald says. Of course, the first thing they have to do is pull a chair out of the circle in order to sit down. But that gets everyone talking about the reason for the arrangement and the interaction is under way.
One organization made the mistake of putting McDonald in an amphitheater for a session on creativity. "I refused to do it," he says. "We just took chairs to the dining room and the lounge and the foyer and the lobby. That tight-knit group of people took charge of their own meeting."
* Fire off a quick shot. "We have things in the room to trigger the learning," Cufaude says. For example, there might be table tents with questions written on them, or sheets for each person to fill out that have questions like, "What brought you here today? What do you hope to learn?" Many people arrive early for a session, Cufaude points out, and completing such sheets "helps them fill their time in a meaningful way."
Teaching/Learning Techniques Adults think they know a lot--and they do. So it's important to use teaching techniques that draw from and build upon the participants' own experiences to make a connection between what they already know and what they're learning now.
"Each adult learner is different, so you need to offer multiple opportunities," Cufaude points out. "Most people haven't been in situations where they're entrusted with their own learning--they're used to being lectured. When they're given the opportunity to talk, they can be thrilled or they can be frightened: It's a fear of failure. Structure the flow so that you win them over in small chunks," he says. "Start with low risk, simple sharing, and move them up the ladder."
These activities can gradually encourage participation, release the knowledge that resides within the group, and lead to genuine learning.
* Stand up and share. To get people into the spirit of sharing ideas and information, try a stand-up exercise that Glanz uses. She asks people who meet certain criteria to respond by standing. For example, "Anyone who has a teen-ager, please stand up." "Anyone who's ever had the customer from hell." "Anyone who ever bungee jumped."
Bungee jumped How'd that get in there? It shows how adventuresome people are, Glanz explains. But the exercise as a whole enables people to learn new things about their coworkers and is a team-building experience.
* Talent tags. Cufaude often opens a conference by giving participants strips of paper to attach to their name badges in the same way that ribbons are attached to badges to identify speakers or special guests. 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've known for some time.
This technique could be customized. For example, in a session on solving technical problems, people could list their areas of expertise. If the topic is customer service, they might name the customer types they handle especially well.
* Vary the pace. The attention span of a group rarely exceeds 20 minutes, Gross says. "At 20-minute intervals, you need interpolations of activities of different kinds--not just buzz groups. People can get up and put things on a wall and the next time they can address a problem."
* Interactive speaking. This is McDonald's method of involving participants in the discussion, so that he is not merely a talking head. In fact, he does this even when he's a keynote. After discussing the 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. (This is why he demands a meeting room with flexible seating.) 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," McDonald explains. "I never have a canned speech--I'm guided by where they're going."
This approach would be especially effective in an information-packed session, because it would allow the trainer to take stock of the group's comprehension periodically to determine how much they've grasped and where they might be floundering.
* Simulated problem-solving. One way Gross uses simulation involves some role-playing and offers a good evaluation of what people have absorbed. After learning a problem-solving technique, people are told that one of their coworkers has left the company, and needs advice on how to deal with a similar problem. Participants then role-play the phone call in which they tell that person how to apply what they've just learned.
Reinforcing the Learning "How can trainers ensure that behavior will change? These activities can help:
* Rapid review. Have each participant select one point and talk about it for 30 seconds, Gross suggests.
* Capture the learning. Ask each person to write on a small slip of paper the one most significant thing he or she learned during the session, put the paper inside a balloon, blow up the balloon, and tie it. Each person then bounces his balloon in the air as high as possible. After 60 seconds, people can tap other's balloons as well as their own. Cufaude, who uses this technique, says that once people can tap all the balloons, the balloons rise higher. Then people pop the balloons and read the slips of paper aloud.
Participants learn more by sharing ideas, Cufaude says, but they also learn the importance of sharing and applying their learning on the job. "We tell them that when they go back to their organization, they can choose to keep the learning to themselves. But they should remember that when they collaborated, all the balloons rose higher."
* Build a bridge. Allow at least 15 minutes at the end of the session for people to focus on how they will apply what they've learned. McDonald provides forms for participants to fill out--action plans that they will implement in, say, the next three hours, three days, and three weeks. On the forms, they answer questions such as, "What will I do?" "What are the risks if I don't?" These are the kinds of questions they'd have to ask if they were going to implement the learning on the job. *
Why 'Adult' So much emphasis is put on the principles of adult learning--but why? What's different about the way adults learn? Why can't we teach them the same way we teach children?
"Children don't have much data. That's why they're always asking questions," says speaker and trainer Tom McDonald, Ph.D., president of Dr. Tom McDonald & Associates,Escondido, Calif. But adults have been collecting data for years and have created their own picture of the world. They want to be able to depend on what they've already learned. "That prevents them from having to reinvent the world. But it also prejudices them to do the same thing they did yesterday--it's an economy," says McDonald, whose doctorate is in psychology.
Because adults already know a lot, they're not as open to new ideas as children are, he says, and are even a little defensive. When lecturers drone on and on, resistant adults "have their arms folded in their minds.
"Planners ask us to help get people out of their customary ways of thinking," McDonald adds. The challenge is to "crank up their inquisitiveness."
And that requires using teaching techniques that are innovative and participatory.
Five Things Adult Learners Want To teach adult learners effectively, you must give them the five key things they want, says speaker and trainer Barbara Glanz, president of Barbara Glanz Communications in Western Springs, Ill. Following is the adult-learner wish list developed by Glanz, with her suggestions for ways to fulfill them.
Wish 1: To enjoy the learning
Fulfillment: Create a relaxed atmosphere by using humor, music, color, and treats or giveaways.
Wish 2: To be able to apply the knowledge to himself/herself
Fulfillment: Customize the examples used in training sessions, relate them to people's current life and work, and encourage people to share experiences.
Wish 3: To be able to describe the knowledge to someone else
Fulfillment: Use a variety of activities in order to reach different types of learners; use metaphors, charts, and acronyms to make the knowledge vivid, understandable, and memorable.
Wish 4: To feel confidence in the presenter .
Fulfillment: Know the subject matter well; be a facilitator, not a lecturer.
Wish 5: To be respected by the presenter
Fulfillment: Expose people to new ideas and encourage them to make choices.