Learning principles in design
Learning principles in design

One of my great passions in life is helping learners best to learn and I believe that a big part of this is applying adult learning principles to how training is designed. What difference do these make? Over many years I have learnt a lot about these through helping subject matter experts to develop training for what they think is important so that others start to think the same way too. I trust that what I write here helps many more to share some of my passion for these principles too!

Recently I was pleased to bring these benefits through designing training for the excellent charity, WaterAid. Their vision is to provide clean water for Everyone Everywhere (by) 2030. Since I lived in a village in the rainforest in Ghana for 2 years and experienced first-hand the struggles in obtaining clean water through the seasons, it was also a privilege from that perspective to assist as able in this way.

But water management was not what the training was about. Instead I worked with the Finance Director to design a financial management course for their non-financial senior managers. The objective was to train field leaders, many with backgrounds in water management rather than finance, to work with the finance team towards the shared vision. Effectively we were taking exceedingly important content that was not always exceedingly exciting to make it into something interactive and engaging and that could show that they were able to use what they were learning. This is what I believe adult learning principles can do when applied appropriately and that feedback so far showed we achieved.

So what principles made (and can make) a difference to learning? These are some of what I found worked at WaterAid, and over the years elsewhere.

Starting where your learners are at

The course began with participants needing to review results from previous years and forecasts for future years in order to reach the vision. They could have done this by viewing spreadsheets but that’s not where they were coming from, bearing in mind that many had water management experience. So we worked together to develop a picture of a river, to use to discuss results both past and projected. We created questions on how terms such as forecast, budget and rolling budget could be represented as boat journeys on the river, so testing their understanding. We linked the river to a reservoir to signify the year 2030 with its target of access to clean water.  This meant that the big objective was portrayed prominently throughout the course. If participants thought at some stage, “Why am I doing financial management as well as water management?”, then the picture reminded them that this too was part of working towards the vision.

River starts where participants were at
River starts where participants were at

Doing the training design backwards

Training starts where participants are at, but design of training is best done backwards. Starting with the WaterAid vision for 2030, we then thought where WaterAid needed to be in 3 years’ time in order to be on target for that. Training can contribute towards this in developing appropriate attitudes, skills and knowledge within senior manager participants, and those became our objectives for the course, both medium and short term. These were foremost in our minds when designing learning tasks for the course. Thus, as well as understanding a list of anti-fraud steps we asked them to think of comments that could be said to them in field situations that would make each step salient. This fitted with the objective that they show they know how to manage financial risk through use of internal controls.

Engaging all of your learners through all of your content

Learners differ in how they prefer to learn yet trainers tend to train as they themselves prefer, thus leaving some learners ‘cold’. We get a glimpse of learner preference when someone receives a techie gift. Some of us learn just by trying it out while others learn by studying the instructions first. For me, I must think of a reason why I need it before I invest time in learning how it works. Sometimes I end up passing on gifts unused to others but I probably shouldn’t put that in print! My role then was to integrate all these ways people have of learning into the training content so that everyone came “on board” at some stage. In educational terms, this ties with Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle.

My role was to improve the training for WaterAid. I was pleased not just that training was effective but that I could contribute towards their goal of clean water for everyone everywhere by 2030.

But I was pleased too as I thought of people like those in my former village in Ghana.

Presentation for work in Ghana
Presentation for work in Ghana

2 thoughts on “Why I believe in adult learning principles”

  1. Thanks for sharing this way of attracting and keeping attention and making learning relevant in a special situation!

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