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Can You Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?

By Deb Calvert (1173 words)
Posted in Communication Skills on November 8, 2012

There are (4) comments permalink

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By Deb Calvert, President, People First Productivity Solutions

It’s been said that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks (I can say that because I’d qualify as an “old dog”). There would be a true statement if it were slightly modified to read, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks the same way that you’d teach a puppy.”


That’s because adults do not learn the same way that children do. Children are like sponges, soaking up knowledge from everything they see, hear and do.  As children, we didn’t have any barriers to learning. Everything was new and our primary focus in our work and play was to understand and make sense of the world around us. Over time, though, what we learned became – in and of itself – a barrier to new learning. Once we think we “get it” we stop trying to understand. And that’s only the short answer for why it’s more difficult to teach adults.


More difficult, but not impossible. 


Behavioral scientists have identified five primary ways that adults learn differently. Much of this research has been done over the past three decades, led by Malcolm Knowles and Stephen Brookfield.


The Five Primary Principles For Adult Learning Are:


1) Adults must self-direct their own learning.


2) Adults must have opportunities for critical reflection when learning something new.


3) Adults must be able to access their own experiences when learning something new. Additionally, adults will need new experiences in order for learning to “stick.”

4) Adults need a purpose for learning. There must be a goal or outcome, as most adults will not learn for the sake of learning.

5) Adults must learn to learn.


Effective managers, trainers, and coaches allow learners to have a voice in shaping the learning experience. Instead of telling a new employee what to work on, for example, a co-worker or manager should ask the new employee to self-select a focus area. Even If this is posed as a multiple choice question (“would you like to start on A, B or C?”), the buy-in to the learning experience will be much stronger as this adult learner is self-directing the learning.


Similarly, rather than telling an employee what went right and what went wrong on a recent project, an effective supervisor will ask questions to promote critical reflection. Rather than sharing your own experiences, when talking to adults who need to learn something, ask about others’ experiences for comparison. These techniques vastly improve learning retention, skill building, and on-the-job application. 


In order for training to be effective, it is imperative for the instructional design of a training program to cater to these learning needs of adults. Additionally, the benefits of the training should be communicated before, during and after training, with an emphasis on relevant outcomes. It is also helpful for trainers and coaches to understand the unique motivations of each participant.


If you are conducting meetings, leading training, supervising others, presenting work products or simply hoping to share what you know with others, you can also improve your effectiveness by understanding that adults have a preferred learning style. While children can learn from information presented in any manner (including those things we may not want them to learn!), adults form habits about the way they prefer to take in and process information.


Presenting information in a variety of ways can keep participants engaged by appealing to the six preferred learning styles or perceptual modalities of adults. What’s more, mixing up the style of delivery will ensure that everyone in a group is learning.


The Six Perceptual Modalities (Preferred Learning Styles) Of Adults Are:


1) Visual. Visual learners need to see simple, easy-to-process diagrams or the written word. PowerPoint presentations and flip chart graphics are very helpful to these learners.


2) Aural. Aural learners need to hear something so that it can be processed. They may prefer to read aloud if presented with written material. They enjoy lecture format learning.


3) Print. Print learners process information by writing it down. They take a lot of notes, notes that they may never look at again.


4) Tactile. Tactile learners need to do something in order to learn it. They are likely to avoid written instructions and dive right into a hands-on attempt to work it out. 


5) Interactive. Interactive learners need to discuss learning concepts. Breakout discussions and Q&A formats support this type of learning.


6) Kinesthetic. Kinesthetic learners learn through movement. Training exercises and role plays help. Giving people the flexibility to stand and move about the classroom also helps these learners.


At a minimum, it is useful for you to know your own preferred learning style. Your own preferences will influence your delivery method, and you should be aware that what you would consider to be effective won’t be equally effective with others. Knowing your style will help you consider mixing it up. It’s also a good practice, when feasible, to ask people what they prefer. Most adults can tell you exactly how they learn best, as well as what learning methods feel deadly dull to them.


If your workplace communication includes conveying your ideas to others, try to employ some of these techniques. Others will appreciate it!


Please join Deb's conversation in 'This Week's Discussion', located in our Workplace Communication Skills Community.


Written by Deb Calvert,

Workplace Communication Skills Expert for ManagingAmericans.com & President, People First Productivity Solutions.

Ask our Expert Panel a question in Workplace Communication Skills Ask an Expert Forum.


Here are some related articles you may be interested in:

Eight Communication Tips to Gain Respect at Work

Six ways to improve your communication skills.

Are Speaking Skills More Valued than Listening?

Communication Guidelines for New Graduates and Their Employers

Make It Easy to Have that Difficult Conversation

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Comments (4)

Tony Holowitz posted on: November 9, 2012

You mentioned "Old Dogs" and I thought you might get a kick out of my website: www.TeachAnOldDogNewTricks.com.

Tony Holowitz
Chief Old Dog

Edwin Ricarte posted on: November 13, 2012

Yes certainly,... in this case you don't need to convince the old dogs with principles or just do it later. It is convincing to show to the old dogs the results- meaning: speak with data, until the old dog saw its significance. its going to be a reverse engineering techniques. Later, you can translate the data into principles of the topics.

Keith Albright posted on: November 18, 2012

As one old dog to another, loved the article.

Ivy Baker posted on: January 8, 2021

I liked that you pointed out that you will want to consider how you interact with people. I never thought about how that can affect when you are a leader. It does seem like you should get some leadership training.

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