If you are a trainer, have you ever led a training session and half of your audience is just not paying attention? Or, you have to give a couple of people 75 percent of your attention in a hands-on training because they ask all the questions? Or the ones who never start something new in a computer-based training system, but click on every explanation icon to see what the field means?
If you’ve experienced any or all of these you’ve discovered the fact people just have different learning styles. Of course, there could be many reasons why people don’t pay attention.
As someone who has some experience in this regard, I want to share some tips and tricks I learned during the last course I’ve taken: General Fireman Instructor.
First stop: Education methods
During the intro, I already gave away the fact that I’m a fireman. It isn’t my main job, but I volunteer for my home community. I got the opportunity to start a new course for Instructors. After the course, I was able to teach other students and help them develop the skills and knowledge they need to be firemen. I got trained to be a trainer.
One of the key things we we’re drilled about by our teacher could be translated into something called education methods. Any instructor will tell you, you have to switch methods often to get everybody involved. (Remember the couple of persons staring out of the window during your theoretical presentation about the new functionality? You need to get them involved, too.)
The model underpinning it all was developed by David Kolb and Ron Fry who called it Experimental Learning. It consists of two major parts, each with four components.
The first part is their Experimental Learning Model:
A short story to explain the four elements: Imagine you’ve bought an aquarium and put in some really nice coral and fish. Every night you stare at your clownfish (Amphiprioninae and, yes, you named it Nemo) but, unfortunately, it dies. (Sorry, that is what we would call your concrete experience). So, you buy another and notice it is really not active, just hanging around and doing nothing. (According to the model, this is your observation.) You think he might be bored. So, you start reading in the fish bible and watch Finding Nemo (just for educational purposes, of course) and you realize it might have something to do with the fact you didn’t buy a sea anemone. (This is the stage known as formation of abstract concepts.) So, you buy an anemone, put it in your aquarium and find out your beloved Nemo is liking it and becoming really active. You even add a new buddy (The cycle is almost complete, now you’re experimenting!)
In the process of it all, you learned something. You’re ready to start all over again, because, after all, it’s necessary to know why the hermit crab stays in his shell.
Next stop: Learning preferences
Now that you’ve learned something about learning, what does this have to do with those people staring out of the window during your presentation? Well, it all has to do with the second main part: learning preferences.
Everybody has them, but they change over time, depending on the subject. It is not an exact science. For example, if you ask a few programmers how they like to learn a new programming language, some of them are hands-on learners who prefer to just say: “Give me the tool and I’ll try to get ‘Hello World’ out myself!” Others prefer going on a course where someone shows them exactly how to make use of the language.
Kolb and Fry plot the preferences on the Experimental Learning Model like this:
The “Give me tool and I’ll try for myself” is the Accommodator, who wants to experiment and get concrete experience. While the “Give me a course” person is the Assimilator, who wants to been told how to program.
Everyone has learning preferences, but they shift depending on many factors. I personally have never checked the manual of my smart phone—other than googling how soft/hard reset works—but I did scan my car’s manual to see if I’m missing a handy features that I wouldn’t know otherwise.
Last stop: Overcoming challenges
I hope by now you’re getting a feel for why some people like being told how things work and others doze away and become really active only when they can try for themselves what you’ve just told them in theory. They just have different learning preference.
If you can figure this simple model out, you can try to overcome it by changing the way you’re trying to teach. So, after some short background theory, drop them in pairs behind a screen and, after some experimenting, let them exchange what they’ve learned with others in the group. Then show some examples and teach by example and afterwards give them some exercises. That way you have best matched the things you wanted to teach to every learning preference so everybody becomes really active in some part of your lesson.
Be sure to experiment with different methods like demonstration, experimentation, discussion, etc. If you find some method is not working for the things you want to teach, don’t hesitate to change. The key in this part is to close your training by asking what the students liked and/or disliked about your training, then adapt those lessons into your next class.
After all, everybody can improve.