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Adult Education and the Responsibility of Lead Instructors

Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. -Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie http://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/08/28/fish/

How do we learn?

I found the diagram below in an interesting blog at http://www.willatworklearning.com/2006/05/people_remember.html.

I started college in 1979 from the top portion of my high school class, good in math, science and Latin; an excellent reader; and a quick learner. After ten years of college, my first job was teaching at a technical college. I learned that most instructors teach and evaluate students in the way they are most comfortable. After ten years of college, I was most comfortable with lecture and exams. That doesn’t fly for most technical college students. Next I learned about learning styles as shown above in the four colors. Many of my students were kinesthetic, meaning that they would literally not learn until they did the hands-on work. Think of students studying auto mechanics. How do they learn? Not by reading the book! Other students didn’t learn until they had a chance to talk about the material; they were social. Some students were equal in all four areas of learning.

Next I learned about retention of learning. As shown in the diagram, it is generally regarded that we retain 10% of what we read and 90% if we immediately use the information we just learned. Of course every person varies with their personal percentage, but the numbers represent the population averages. Now I understand why reading assignments of material before a learning activity do very little on their own toward actually learning and retaining the information. The exception is people with photographic memories; my statement does not apply to them.

A third piece in learning is not pictured here. That is, we must be exposed to new information at least 21 times to learn. When a child learns their ABCs, they sing the song over and over and over. The bedroom has the letters as art. There are books. There are videos. There are CDs. Children are quick learners, so we need to give our adult selves a break on expecting to learn information. For example and in the PCQI workshop, PCQIs learn the definition and application of “corrections” compared to corrective actions. The PCQI participant reads the definition and term within the book, sees the term on the projection of the slides, hears the Lead Instructor say the term many times, and uses the term in discussion with their team. Will the participant retain the definition of the term? Maybe. There may not be enough exposures to the term for it to stick.

The design of the curriculum maximizes learning for a wide range of learners in the population given the time we have in the workshop. This is just a start.

Another really cool thing that is happening in our brain is myelination. We used to think our brain did not grow in adulthood. That is absolutely not true. As we learn new material, new cells are making connections to other cells. As that cell is used over and over with the new information, layers of myelin are added to stabilize and cement the new cell. Those of you in my generation, do you ever wonder why you can still sing, “876-5309?” Myelin! If you play an instrument and it has been years, you can sit down and it just happens. Riding a bike. Reciting lines in a play or football play call. Myelin!

I think it is pretty freaky awesome that there are hard-core researchers out there discovering how we learn and giving us cool diagrams like the one above. I distinctly remember when I learned about PowerPoint. It was about 1995, and PowerPoint was slowly added as a tool in adult education. Just think, all my learning before 2000 happened without PowerPoint.

Learning changed quickly due to electronics. Young adult brains are literally wired differently due to exposure to devices, compared to older adults. I attended a K-12 teacher conference around 2010. There were about 500 teachers in the room. The speaker showed a video in which a group of about six teenagers bounced a ball back-and-forth from person to person. We were instructed to follow the movement of the ball. Of course, I thought it was a lesson in team-building. At the end of the video, the speaker asked us to raise our hand if we saw the gorilla walk through the scene. Gorilla, what gorilla?!! How could I not see a gorilla? Looking around the room, all the teachers, fresh out of college, i.e. young, had their hands raised. What? The speaker played the video again, and yes, there was a large person in a gorilla suit casually walking through the scene. All the young brains wired on computers and electronics had seen all the action. In 2010, that was less than 10% of the audience. I would expect that number to increase annually.

As Lead Instructors, we have an obligation to not only present the material in the curriculum, but to facilitate adult learning. The workshop has been designed to teach the material with multiple exposures of information, to address different learning styles, and to maximize retention. Adult education goes beyond making sure our participants are comfortable in the room and enjoy snacks and beverages, which in my opinion are very important! It is critical to try to meet the needs of each learner. Following the design of the curriculum is a good start.

Dr. Kathy Knutson has food safety expertise in microbiology, hazard analysis, and risk assessment. As a recovering academic, she resides in Green Bay home-of-the-Packers, Wisconsin with her brilliant husband and two handsome sons. Learn more about her consulting services at https://www.linkedin.com/in/kathyknutsonphd.