Published on 2012/03/15

Time To Focus Learning On The Learner

Time To Focus Learning On The Learner
Sometimes to engage learners, you need to provide them with a number of tools they can choose between and use to reach the intended outcome. Photo by Ryan Hyde.

I like the following sayings, both of which relate to learning: The teacher arrives when the student is ready. (Zen saying) and “My own experience of trying to train and teach managers is that it is extremely difficult to teach grown-up people anything. It is, however, relatively easy to create conditions under which people will teach themselves.” Sir John Harvey Jones.

One of the reasons I like these sayings is that they provide me with a reminder to ensure that the learning events I facilitate need to be focused on the learner. In this article I want to share a few thoughts on this perspective of focusing on the learner.

This is definitely the way I approach learning events as I always seek to keep these as relevant to the learner as possible. This focus is reflected not just in how I deliver my training sessions but also in how I evaluate them. For example, if a learning event does not go to plan I initially question how I ran the learning event (which I believe is a common reaction amongst trainers). I’ll ask questions such as – Was it relevant to the learner? Did I offer diversity in the way I presented the material? Did I maximise the opportunities to engage the learners? Invariably, there is always something I could have improved that may have made the difference. By doing this evaluative activity I continue to build my training tool kit and grow as an educator.

One of the elements associated with facilitating learning events that I always strive to improve is that of ensuring I engage the participants (learners). These are a few strategies I use in working toward this goal:

Firstly I seek to create a safe space where participants feel its ok to give things a go, where they feel comfortable and relaxed enough to be involved, and feel a genuine invitation to engage. I do this by introducing and discussing the following principles:

  • In a learning environment there is no right and no wrong with the person – there just is. There might be correct and incorrect response but that is different to the person being right or wrong. I believe this principle is especially relevant to those elements of our training environment which can be subjective. For example, if I ask a question and receive an answer that I’m not expecting or that does not meet my desired criteria, I prefer to pause and then consider how best to look for the value in the response. And by doing this find a way forward that I believe is more productive and constructive then dismissing the response. I believe that if you are going to ask questions, then be prepared to respond to a range of answers some of which may be nowhere near what you were expecting – and then seek to make your response one that works best for the longer term learning outcome.
  • Encouraging participants to adopt the spirit of Kaizen – which is the philosophy and practice of taking little step, and encouraging trainees to act on their learning.
  • Seeking to make the learning constructive – building on what has come before and providing the scaffolding for what is to come.
  • Ensuring that the learning is enjoyable (which can include being fun).
  • Respecting the participants, the space and myself.

Some of the other elements to help encourage learners to engage include being a good listener, being adaptable and having a mix of learning strategies.

I believe a good listener needs to listen to all that is being presented and experienced – for example, I listen to such things as what is being demanded of me in a particular learning environment; to the needs of the participants; to my needs; to the needs of the learning space. This focus on listening is important and I believe significant if we are to encourage trainees to engage in training. By listening, we are demonstrating that we are prepared to engage and act as a model for what we expect in return.

Listening extends to being responsive to the environment and to being adaptable. I believe it can be extremely difficult and rare for a trainer to deliver the exact content they had planned – and if they did then where was the opportunity to involve and engage the learners? This does not mean we do not deliver key messages and learning outcomes, but that the content we had planned to use might need to ‘parked’ at times to make way for what the moment is providing. And more often than not by doing this you make the learning pathway more relevant to the learner, because it is being initiated by them. It is almost like watching a dance and trying to determine who is leading who – sometimes it might be the trainer and sometimes the learner.

To do this, trainers and facilitators (and to a degree learners) sometimes need to be able to let go of their initial itinerary and take the journey on a new path to the desired outcome. Facilitating such an experience can be challenging and hard —but I believe it is worth it as shows a greater respect for process and how process responds to situation.

Beyond listening I ensure there is diversity in what I do – I mix up the learning strategies I employ (or learning styles, learning preferences or other related term) so that there is a diverse mix of communication strategies. I have people working on their own, in small groups, creating stories, sharing stories, drawing and doodling. I even encourage them to laze about if they feel more comfortable and if it will assist their learning.

Sometimes learners might need to have a little chat between themselves whilst I’m still presenting and what I find in the majority of cases is that such chats were needed because participants were helping each other extend their learning of a particular principle of concept). Providing such chats do not disturb or disrupt the rest of the participants I’m all for them doing this.

Going back to my analogy of the tool kit I do the same with trainees and participants of learning events. I encourage them to build imaginary tool kits and to get to know the tools they use. I encourage them to try out the tools and if they do not work then place them back in the tool kit. I advocate that by keeping the tools and by learning how and when best to use them next time, by identifying perhaps another context in which the tool might be useful, then we build our repertoire of skills.

As trainers, teachers, educators it is up to us to be creative with how we use our tools and especially those that encourage our learners to engage in the learning events which we facilitate.

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Readers Comments

Charles Adams 2012/03/21 at 9:19 am

How do you balance the scales between inter-student learning and distracting private conversations?

I know it’s all well and good to have a “chill” atmosphere, but if you’re trying to impart critical knowledge while two or three individuals are engaged in, (admittedly) individual learning, wouldn’t it distract everyone else (and you, the instructor!)?

John P. 2012/03/23 at 7:32 pm

Hi Charles,

Totally agree that individual conversations can distract other people. However it rare that as ‘instructor’ these same conversations distract me as my focus remains on other people within the group.

If i see, hear or otherwise sense that other people are being distracted by these conversations I intervene and ‘bring focus’ back to a ‘single point’. That single point might be the people actually engaged in conversation or myself or sometimes i ‘inter-rupt the inter-ruptions’ by doing a short activity. It all depends. What i aim to do is balance the rights of individuals with the rights of the group – at the same time i enquiry as the nature of the conversation and whether it can be integrated into the wider group learning. If the conversations continue and are not related to the learning then i ask myself if i am failing in the way i am faciliating the learning and am the actual cause of distractions.

John P.

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