What do adult learners really want?


A few weeks ago I was asked to speak to a group of school leaders. From the outset I was concerned that the brief from the client meant that I’d be doing a lot of talking. I flagged this with the client, indicating that rather than a workshop – given the amount of new content they wanted the delegates to be introduced to – it would be more akin to three 90 minute keynotes.

“No problem” came the reply.

As they say, the customer is always right. So I prepared at such.

At the lunch break after two of the keynote style sessions (with perhaps 5-10mins group work in total throughout the morning, a principal approached me, “Now, before I say anything, are you planning to do any group work this afternoon?” she asked.

My heart sank. My greatest fears had been realised. Even though I could tell that the group was really engaged in the morning, this principal was about to pull me up on the fact it had been all “chalk & talk” and she wasn’t happy with that. And if she wasn’t happy, perhaps I had misread the room entirely?

“Erm… I hadn’t planned to, but I could, I mean err… well, I was asked by the organiser to cover off on all this, and err… oh I don’t know… maybe I could, yeah… no… ahh, yep, we could definitely do some group work if you like…” I replied, navigating the conversation rather expertly I think you’ll agree.

“Oh, good grief no!” she said, “At last we’ve got someone treating us like professionals. If you make us get into groups and give us post-it notes I’m outta here.”

Now to be clear, this is the very first time I’ve ever heard anyone say they’d prefer to listen all day rather than work in groups to share their experiences and so forth. And even though the feedback from the principals and school leaders after the three keynotes was very positive, it’s fair to say I took this principal’s opinion as an anomaly and didn’t think too much more about it.

Until this weekend, when I read an article in the Sydney Morning Herald entitled Why Are Corporate Training Course Usually Awful? 

The article by Jim Bright asked the reader to consider:

  • Why are trainers obsessed with “group work”? I have invested my fee or time to hear the expert share their insights.

  • After each group has reported back, generally at excruciating length, the point of the exercise is revealed. Generally, the point was about as predictable as a sunrise, but considerably less illuminating. And so the pattern is set for a day of plasticine snake making and writing pretentious things on butcher’s paper.

  • I do not want to have to listen to the pontifications of Jones from accounts, whose expertise in the matter under discussion has hitherto mysteriously been concealed so well under their bushell it was reasonable to conclude that they have not got a clue what they are talking about.

  • This adult likes to be respected by a trainer who recognises that he would like to hear what they have to say more than he wants to hear how others react to what they say.

For me, this is particularly interesting, although I recognise that whether or not delegates want to participate in group will largely depend on two factors; the group themselves and the purpose of the session. For me I think I’ll still be gravitating towards group work and having the participants share their insights as that actually helps me to mould the workshops as they play out. Given I use a coaching approach in my sessions I appreciate the art of good questioning to elicit more relevant responses than perhaps Jones from accounts comes up with.

What do you think? To group or not to group? That is the question…

3 thoughts on “What do adult learners really want?

  1. aarondavis1 Reply

    Interesting post Dan. I have been left thinking by something that Maha Bali wrote recently, that you support agency, not give it (https://blog.mahabali.me/whyopen/on-agency-holding-multiple-views-at-once/). I believe in group work (or worse, self-determined learning), but have sadly met enough people who believe that the priority is ‘chalk-and-talk’. I recently wrote about a similar idea, wondering if it came down to a discussion of awesome or awful? (https://readwriterespond.com/2017/09/development-awesome-or-awful/) I think that what is overlooked in such situations is the preparation done beforehand, even for group work.

  2. Dr Christine Haynes (@canhaynes) Reply

    Is knowledge and understanding simply absorbed, or socially constructed? From a constructivist perspective, learners need to interact with ideas and people to construct understandings. Well developed collaborative activities allows opportunities to gain perspective, to build and apply new ideas, and to go deeper in a given context. Rather than simply sharing opinion, group work can be structured to tackle challenges and help people interact with and apply the session ideas. I do think how results of group work activities are shared needs to be mitigated to keep the session on track, but there are strategies to ensure all voices are heard. Yes you are the expert, bringing content, but the learners in the room bring the contexts. As an expert, you are designing learning experiences to bring the two together. Bringing people together into the same room needs to add value. Otherwise, why not just record the session and watch at one’s own pace?

    • bernm Reply

      Hi Christine
      I like what you say about a constructivist approach to learning. It aligns with my almost complete Phd. Just wondering if you have an article that you have written related to this that I could quote you from?

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