Teaching Adults (Yes, It's Different)

Just as we employ best-practice bodies of knowledge such as ITIL, to a lesser extent there are theoretical frameworks around adult learning.
Posted August 10, 2009

Rob England

In our last article (IT Teachers Suck) we criticized IT teaching. Now we should be more constructive and look at teaching adults. There is no substitute for subject knowledge and experience to ensure an instructor is relaxed, capable of dealing with anything that comes up, and delivering real substance. But it is not enough. Equally important is an understanding of how adults learn.

Just as we employ best-practice bodies of knowledge such as ITIL or Agile in our IT jobs, to a lesser extent there are theoretical frameworks around adult learning. One leading example is Knowles Six Assumptions of Andragogy (yes, adult learning has its share of jargon too).

The assumptions are:

Need to know: Adults need to know why they need to know before they will learn something. They need a reason to learn – they must buy in.

Self concept: Adults have a concept of themselves as self-directing and so need to have control of their learning. You can’t treat them like children.

Experience: Adults bring a large amount of life experience to their learning. It is a valuable resource and once which we should value and use. They can teach as well as learn.

Readiness: Adults want to learn how to carry out tasks that relate to their stage of development and their social roles. It needs to be applicable to them.

Orientation: Adults tend to have a practical focus. They are task or problem-centred rather than subject-centred. Adults may want to learn how to improve their organisation’s security but not so much the theory and principles of IT security.

Motivation: Adults are intrinsically motivated. That means that they are driven to learning by forces from within themselves rather than by external factors generated by other people. Ordering someone to do a course is not helpful. You can lead a horse to water...

These are sound principles against which to test what you do when teaching. Knowles No. 5 tells us you don’t want to hear that – you want more practical advice on how to train better. Sorry, but first we must cover some more theory, then we’ll get down to practical advice in the next article in this series.

If you want to achieve more than telling, if you want your training to be retained and used, then you must set up conditions for effective learning. Seven factors:

1. Get the trainees to feel a need to learn (see Knowles #1). Show the value, what’s in it for them, how it aligns with trends or company direction, why it is important.

2. Make sure the environment is comfortable. That includes a comfortable mood of trust and respect, as well as physical comfort. Sometimes a little edginess keeps people alert, but in general it is destructive. And we all know what happens to concentration on a hard chair in a room too hot or cold or stuffy.

3. Ensure your goals are their own goals. If you are here, or have been sent here, for different reasons than they are attending, then that disconnect is going to get in the way.

4. Get them to take a share of responsibility, to show some commitment to the training. You work towards delivering the training as a team.

5. Create active participation. Discussion, workshops, exercises: anything to get trainees out of a passive disengaged mode.

6. Relate it to their experience, and draw on that experience. This increases relevance, participation and buy-in.

7. Give them a sense of progress toward their own goals. Show how it contributes to their career direction or projects they own.

If we are not trained as adult educators, then often the only mode of teaching or role for the teacher is the one we saw in school; the all-knowing authoritarian lecturer. It is important that you understand that you can adopt a number of roles during training, and in fact it is more effective if you shift roles as appropriate through the course of the training. These roles include:

Lecturer/instructor, the classic mode we so often adopt

Subject Matter Expert, also in the typical IT trainer’s comfort zone

Training Planner and Director


Resourcer: provider of materials, research and ideas

Role Model: an aspirational figure (better check this one with others first, it is not measured in your own mind)

Coach: helping them learn for themselves, bringing out their best

Co-learner: it comes as a surprise to most IT people to understand that just because you are not a subject matter expert doesn’t stop you teaching – you can all learn together

This is not a complete list but hopefully it shows how you can take on a wide range of roles when training, even within the one course. A good way to improve your teaching is to learn acting skills. Do an amateur acting course. No matter how bad you are as an actor, it will improve your teaching, especially around roles and styles.

Enough about how we teach. Let us consider what we teach. Another well-known framework for education is Bloom’s Taxonomy (…of Educational Objectives). It gets quoted and used widely but not always correctly. Bloom himself called it “one of the most widely cited yet least read books in American education.” In our industry it has been cited as a principle behind the ITIL certification scheme. I couldn’t possibly comment on how closely that scheme does in fact follow the Taxonomy.

Bloom’s divides teaching into the three domains of Cognitive, Affective and Psychomotor, which roughly correspond to a widely-used set of domains called Knowledge, Values and Skills. (Bloom - or more precisely Bloom’s committee - looked at psychomotor skills as a domain but many prefer a broader interpretation of skills as something you do rather than something you know. The committee got all touchy-feely about the Affective domain which goes down badly in IT: we don’t want to get in touch with our inner feelings. The nearest we will venture is into abstract fields like values and ethics).

We teach one (or more) of only three things: Knowledge, Skills or Values. All training is delivering one or more of these. Generally in IT we teach Knowledge. We sometimes teach Skills such as negotiation or listening or time management, or occasionally Values such as ethics, but most often it is technology and process and how they work. How to configure Windows Vista is Knowledge, but staying sane while trying to do it is a Skill.

Understand which one(s) you are teaching, and modify style and content and approach accordingly. Teaching Knowledge requires more presentation of information with some application of it, whereas Skills require less telling and much more doing. Values require persuasion and the ability to influence beliefs.

Bloom’s Taxonomy breaks the Cognitive (knowledge) domain into six levels which is another bit often quoted but we won’t go into it here. It is well described on Wikipedia.

Content is not just a list of facts to be told (and teaching is not just a whole lot of telling, though you would think so to sit through some “Death by PowerPoint” training courses). It is made up of Topic, Objectives, Sequence, Methods (of teaching), Materials (what to say), Projects (what to do), Assessment (how will we check that the training worked), Tests (if needed as part of assessment), and Grading (how will we compare the trainees to each other, if at all). When you create a training course you should create all of these categories of content.

Enough theory now. In the next article we will look at the techniques for what most people think of as teaching: going into the classroom and doing it.

Tags: education, IT education, IT skills, IT professionals

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