“At least it’s free pizza!”

The all-too common perception of training

Several years ago I was on my way to work and I overheard a conversation of two other gentlemen sitting behind me on the bus.  The conversation went something like this:

Man A: Hey man, it’s been a while.  How have you been?  Where are you headed? 

Man B: I’m on the way to a training.

Man A: Oh, sorry to hear that.

Man B: Yeah, well, they’re going to give us pizza.

They spoke for a few more minutes, then wrapped up their conversation this way:

Man B: Well, this is my stop.  Hope the day doesn’t drag too much.

Man A: Hey, at least it’s free pizza!

As a professional trainer, the conversation made me cringe.  As someone who’s sat through too many boring training sessions, classes, even church sermons, I understand completely where these guys were coming from. 

Core principles make a world of difference (if you stick to them)

John Wooden, the famed UCLA Bruins’ men’s basketball coach, used a coaching philosophy that revolved around three simple principles: conditioning, fundamentals and team spirit.  While these are fairly generic principles that many coaches will preach to their players, Wooden was able to get his players to buy-in to and adhere to these principles better than any other coach in history.  When players wouldn’t stick to them, Wooden did not hesitate to act.  Jerry Norman (who later became a key assistant coach during Wooden’s first national championship season) was kicked out of practice and told never to come back when Wooden felt his player was not practicing hard enough.

In an example of leading by example in the principle of team spirit, Wooden refused to participate in a national basketball tournament when the organizers didn’t want him to bring an African American player (who spent most of his time on the bench and wouldn’t have made much of a difference in the team’s performance).

His results speak for themselves.  No other coach has been able to win more than four NCAA men’s basketball championships in their career.  Wooden rode his principled, disciplined teams to seven consecutive championships and ten championships over twelve years. 

Principles of adult learning 

Malcolm Knowles is the John Wooden of adult learning.  If only there were more presenters, trainers and adult educators who could effectively practice and deliver on Knowles’ set of four simple adult principles:

  1. The content should be relevant to the learner (i.e. learners should be coming for the content, not just the pizza)
  2. Adult learners are autonomous and self-directing (i.e. learners should have an opportunity to ask questions and discuss amongst their colleagues and co-learners)
  3. Adult learners have experiences through which they have learned to see the world (i.e. a one-size-fits-all approach to presenting to a group isn’t effective)
  4. Adult learners seek to be able to solve problems and/or apply what they have learned immediately (i.e. learners should be able to do something differently or better than before they got off the bus in the morning)

Lecture is just easier

I’ve debated numerous colleagues on the idea that lecture is simply easier for both the presenter (it takes less preparation time) and the learner (there’s no need to get up and actually have to do anything during a presentation, the learners can just sit there and learn).  A case can be made that lecturers can indeed accomplish several of these adult learning principles (namely #1 and #4).  However, if teachers, presenters, trainers and facilitators want their message to stick, their presentations must integrate all four of these principles. 

Proof that adult learning principles work

In a study entitled Impact of an evidence-based medicine curriculum based on adult learning theory, researchers Michael L. Green and Peter Ellis offered empirical evidence that a curriculum based in adult learning theory produced better educational outcomes than other curricula.

The fact of the matter is that it may take less time to throw together a lecture with some Power Point slides.  But if learners are not able to retain what they’ve learned, then you’ll need to spend more time later on re-teaching the same thing.

If you’d like to evaluate your own presentation outline or lesson plan on the extent to which you’ve integrated adult learning principles, click here for a brief adult learning principle assessment cheat sheet.

4 thoughts on ““At least it’s free pizza!”

  1. When I last managed a department and was responsible for training my staff, I had them select their courses after declaring how much budget they had. The only rules, stay in budget, and you must take classes that both benefit the company’s intermediate goals and your current performance plan.

    They always seemed eager to go to training sessions in my department.

    • Thanks for the comments, Tim. Your point is right in line with the idea of adults as “self-directed” learners. My hunch is that the free pizza conversation was taking place over mandatory training (compliance? diversity? orientation?). In those instances, I have to say that the onus is on the facilitator to make the training engaging, worthwhile, memorable and useful.

      When your staff returned from the professional development courses that they chose, did you feel they actually applied what they learned on the job?

      • The training was usually selected based on some form of proposed growth they identified in their performance development documentation at the beginning of each year. Most times i saw them apply the newly acquired skills. On several occasions they came back disillusioned or disappointed with the material or institution they visited.

        I must also add that there was an expectation that as part of the company spending money on their development they would hold mini training vignettes for other company employees based on the material they were trained on. This kept their interest, regardless of the quality of the training provider.

      • “I must also add that there was an expectation that as part of the company spending money on their development they would hold mini training vignettes for other company employees based on the material they were trained on. This kept their interest, regardless of the quality of the training provider.”

        And therein is a larger point I haven’t yet made in these blog posts: in order for training to “stick” it’s much more than a function of the quality of the presenter. The trainee’s supervisor plays a HUGE role in whether anything is transferred to day-to-day practice.

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