Andragogy has given us research to think about what it means to be an adult learner, but in many ways adult learners are no different from some traditional students, even middle school and high school students. The key phrase is learner-centeredNow think about yourself as a learner. When you go into any training or professional development, what do you bring to the room as a learner? How do you assess the quality of the presenter or trainer? Do you tie your success and your attitude to the quality of that presenter?What adult learning theory and research tells us is that there are general characteristics or qualities of every adult learner. Adult learning theory is referring to that student who is going back to school by choice, not the classroom teacher or administrator who is going to a mandated professional development event. While many of these qualities are still applicable, the tenor or tone of the participants’ attitudes are likely to be different.
Given the reason for the participants’ presence in the room, motivation is a key factor in the success of any professional development experience. If they don’t want to be there, you will have to work that much harder to convince them you, your knowledge, and your experience are worth their time.If they don’t want to be there or if they don’t think you can introduce them to or teach them anything worth their time, you have a couple of choices and you have to make them in the early minutes of your assessment of that group.As you look at these elements, think about what you look for in that audience, think about how you read their body language. Think about their willingness to chat with you as you make your rounds visiting with people before the session starts and think about their tones and attitudes. Were they smiling? Did they seem irritated or distracted? Were they already trying to set up devices so they could check their email? Maybe work on something else? Or are they looking through the materials and does the whispering and chattering seem to be at least moderately enthusiastic?Perhaps the most critical element is relevance. Educators are already pressed for time. Whether they come to your event under duress or voluntarily, it has to be worth their time. They have to take something away that they believe they can use. Immediately.
When we dig a little deeper and think about educators as learners, we know the bar can be very high. Educators constantly assess the quality of the presenter/trainer against their own skills and abilities. Let’s look first at their career experience. Some of the folks in the room are coaches and mentors of other teachers; some are looking for a coach or mentor. Some will know they have good, even outstanding, administrative support for what they want to do and others will believe their administration is more trouble than its worth. This will color their thinking of the value of this event, especially if they learn something they want to try but believe their administrators will not support them. DO NOT GET INVOLVED IN COACHING THAT RELATIONSHIP.But also be aware of their self-awareness and their experience. Honor and respect their years in the classroom. Even that can make a small difference and small gestures, especially at the beginning of a session, can inform the rest of the day. It’s good to acknowledge those with experience, especially if you have folks from across a district or from more than one district.Your participants’ knowledge and professional beliefs can be a boon and a stumbling block. Be prepared for both. Give them activities that enable them to share their knowledge and their experience as well as their perspectives. Even the most reluctant may begin to recall their own love of learning. When you get the excuse that they’d tried something and it failed, you have another choice. Based on how you’ve gauged your audience, you might choose to ask them what they might have done differently so what they tried might have succeeded. Or ask them why they think it failed. Your challenge is to get them to open their minds as well as their eyes.No matter what, every educator comes with a repertoire of strategies and you want to make use of those. Not only will they be more engaged, but you may learn something you want to use later.In this capacity as presenter/trainer, you may remind them of what it means to be a coach or mentor to their colleagues and to their students. You may remind them what it means to be a lifelong learner. And may you remind them of that because you model that. Be the presenter, but also be the coach and mentor to your participants, and be a learner because you can learn something from all of the combined years of experience in that room.Finally, you will remind them or help them remember what it means to make a difference. Every teacher wants to make a difference. Sometimes those who are most resistant to professional development are that way because they are tired and just worn out from all of the nonsense that can go on in a school district or a building. And those who are there because they want to be can help inspire others with their enthusiasm. In the end, as you are helping them make a difference in their classrooms, you are making a difference.
Sometimes we see the big picture, but sometimes we have to focus.
As an adult learner, we all have a point of reference: what we know, what we know we don’t know, what we think we need to learn, what we want to learn. No point of reference in the room is the same.No matter what the learning situation—whether it’s product training or professional development, we all want relevance.Whether the materials, resources, or activities, whatever you offer to support the participants’ learning must be meaningful and purposeful and not just because they should support relevance. Whatever you offer to support participants’ learning helps them better understand how this learning experience fits with what they know and do, and helps them better understand how to make sense of this learning.Ideally, the learning is collaborative. Not just because it’s good to model collaboration strategies that work well and are effective, but because most of us like to learn with and from others.
In wanting to make sense of our learning, adults are no different from any other learners. We need to understand how it fits in our framework, works with our core beliefs, compares to what we have learned elsewhere whether from parents or colleagues or mentors. If we are having to unlearn, we need to understand why what we thought was true or right or good is no longer so.And even though there are many of us who love learning for the sake of learning, when I’m at a professional development event, it had better be relevant. Keep in mind that what you think is most relevant, might not be to your participants.
Do your homeworkHave an awareness of initiatives, plans, etc.Talk with the customer to be sure you know their expectationsPractice your presentation; always have more than you need because it’s better to have to cut something that have to figure out how to fill the timeKnow your role. You are a consultant. You are the objective outsider so can offer insight they might not otherwise see. You likely do not know any of the people so they have no baggage, no reputation. So, at the beginning, you are coach and facilitator to each participant to the same degree.The next few points work together. You have to manage the audience and have strategies that work for those who will try to confound you. Keep in mind that some of the whisperers are talking about what they’re learning and need to discuss it with there colleagues. If that seems to be happening a lot, be flexible and figure out how to get them talking more to the whole group or to allow them time to debrief with their colleagues.We could do a whole session on managing the audience, but what works for me might not work for anyone else. Still one of the best ways to manage the audience is be authoritative while still being respectful of experience and knowledge, but mostly through keeping them engaged. As is the case with any learners, the more involved they are with their learning—which helps them make sense of it—the more likely they are to be participative yet attentive participants.Finally, even if you cannot know the back story of every single person in the room, one the advantages of mingling before the session starts, of visiting with folks on breaks, and on having activities during which they get to share their thinking and experiences is that you get to know your participants on some level. Even if you cannot accommodate every single person in the room, the fact that you are aware of and empathetic to their realities will not be lost of them.
Leading adult professional development
Elaine J. Roberts, Ph.D.
By the end of this session, you will be able to:
• Describe the characteristics of the adult learner
• Explain how these characteristics are evidenced in
• Discuss at least one characteristics of successful
professional development for adults, specifically for
Begin with the adult learner in mind
• Andragogy: science of helping adults learn; learnercentered model
• You, as learner
– What are your expectations for any learning situation?
– When something is optional, what motivates you to sign up
for a conference, webinar, or other professional
– What do you hope might happen? Why?
Research says. . .
• Adult learner characteristics/qualities
Self-directed and goal-oriented
Often bring considerable experience and knowledge
Need learning to be practical and relevant
Often express a range of possible motives (social, external,
• Based on your own experience with successful
professional development, are any of these more
• Based on what we’ve already discussed, anything
Critical elements of adult learning
– Relevance and practical application
– Appropriate level of rigor
– Adult learner may have behaviors, skills, and knowledge
they need to unlearn, relearn, and/or learn
– Influences motivation and willingness to learn
– Experience and knowledge must be valued and respected
– Learn today, use tomorrow
Educators as learners
• Career experience
– Coaches, mentors, administrative support
– Track record
• Knowledge and professional beliefs
Every child can learn?
Tried that before; never tried that
Repertoire of strategies
Lifelong learner; coach/mentor
• Making a difference
Some of those PD qualities
– Learn today, use tomorrow
• Meaningful and purposeful
– Reinforces/builds on existing knowledge
– Explains what needs to be unlearned, relearned, or learned,
– Reinforces and builds on prior work, district/school vision
and mission, etc.
– Takes into consideration experience and content areas or
– Reinforces relevance
It’s not the program
nor the curriculum, it’s
Todd Whitaker, What Great
Teachers Do Differently
Being a leader of professional development
• Do your homework
– Know your audience
– Know your presentation
• Know your role
• Be authoritative but
• Manage the audience
– The whisperers
– The derailers
– The hostile participant
• Be flexible
• Keep them engaged!
• Be aware of their realities
Wrapping it up
• It’s not about you; it’s about the
learners—each of whom are
individuals with their own
perspectives and experiences
• No silver bullets and one size of
anything does NOT fit all
• It’s not about your performance
but about the participants and
their learning; it’s about being
Successful adult learning for educators provides
relevant, meaningful, and purposeful tools, skills,
knowledge, and resources that can help them make
a difference in their schools or in their classrooms.
Tell me and I forget.
Teach me and I remember.
Involve me and I learn.
What I hear, I forget.
What I see, I remember.
What I do, I understand.
Elaine J. Roberts, Ph.D.
January 30, 2014